Speaking of Tradition: A Starbucks Latte or a Kumbakonam Degree Coffee?

South Indian filter coffee served in traditional style in a davara tumbler.

I just learned today that drinking a cup of Starbucks is associated with higher status. Then, I must be at the bottom of the rung because I will choose to drink a cup of Kumbakonam degree coffee at Murugan Idli Shop in Chennai’s T. Nagar every morning, noon and night and stop at Starbucks only to use its restroom.

Starbucks is planning a Grande entry into India and the company is planning 2,000 stores by the end of 2014.  My reaction to this news is colder than day old coffee.  But what disturbs me the most is to see references, in several articles that I read, to how drinking a cup of this beverage is a sign that one has arrived. Here is a quote from a story in Seattle Times.

“Starbucks is what’s called an “aspirational brand,” Zackfia said. “It’s probably less what you’re selling than what the brand represents, which is a certain level of status. It’s the first luxury item most people can afford.”

The first thing that strikes me is that Starbucks wants to set up shop in the land that whips up some of the best “filter” coffee in the world. North Indians are mostly chai drinkers but the South of India is famous for its potent decoction coffee. The town of Kumbakonam in Tanjore district makes the most famous cup, served always in a stainless steel cup and base, called tumbler and davara, respectively. South Indians don’t do china or melamine or paper. Coffee has to sipped from a tumbler. It must sear your throat. The steam from the tumbler must shoot through your nostrils into the hippocampus where it will fire neurons like no double-shot, extra-hot cappuccino at Starbucks will. Still, it isn’t as if the traditional Kumbakonam coffee fans have prevented the simmer of cafe style shops around them. India’s well-known gourmet coffee chain, Cafe Coffee Day, serves dreadful variations of this godly beverage. From my experience, time and again, several spoonfuls of sugar have not made this medicine go down.

I asked Alon Halevy, author of The Infinite Emotions of Coffee, what he thought about outfits like Starbucks steamrolling into countries that not only produce their own coffee and tea but already have elaborate and established rituals of coffee and tea drinking.

Halevy can see the point about prestige. “In many countries Starbucks ends up being a status symbol.  People go there not because of the coffee, but because they want to be seen there and it’s a cool place to meet. They also like walking around town holding a Starbucks cup because it means they have been there and can afford the higher prices. I have no idea whether this will fly in india,” he says.

Halevy reminds me that Starbucks has also gone into countries and then retreated, as in Israel, for example.  “But typically it’s good for the coffee industry because the local guys often do even better after Starbucks joins. This happened in Japan.”
What bothers me though–and a lot of Indian-Americans agree with this–is that with the “Walmartization” of India, it’s not just the mom-and-pop shops that will bend and buckle to the forces of globalization.  Skills, customs and age-old traditions like this will vanish over time as western forces draw away skilled labor with promises of better salaries for clerical jobs that require zero skill. This has already happened in every corner of India with the arrival of multi-national corporations. A hundred miles away from Chennai, in the town of Kanchipuram, children of weavers prefer to serve coffee and tea to big bosses in air-conditioned offices rather than stay at home and ply the trade that their ancestors have handed down to them over a thousand years.
Why must India serve coffee and tea the Starbucks way? Why can’t it serve it  own beverages in its tried and tested way? Like I asked here earlier, why can’t we be allowed to nurture the old ways if they way worked really well for us?  Is genericization of all cultures what we ultimately want?

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12 Responses to Speaking of Tradition: A Starbucks Latte or a Kumbakonam Degree Coffee?

  1. Rameysh January 31, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    I completely agree with you Kalpana- it is beyond me as to why Indians, especially south of the Vindhyas would embrace Starbucks over the “degree kapi”- except I also suspect that Starbucks would do well in urban India due to the “brand prestige” that it could bestow on the college going and upsward bound technology professionals crowd who would “hang out” in the comfortable Starbucks lounges while speaking and surfing on the latest model of their I-Phone ! The same obsession with foreign brand names that Indian consumers have shown for clothes and electronics is what Starbucks is perhaps leveraging to its benefit here.
    As always, enjoyed reading your delectable blog post !

  2. Kalpana Mohan January 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm #


    If ever I shed my mortal coils, I promise to post a blog from heaven because I know I’ll definitely have one reader:-)

    There’s so much that’s wrong with all this. What I saw in Kanchipuram shocked me. I’ve to finish writing up all that. The number of companies on the highway from Madras to Vellore wreaking havoc on local lives/old ways of life.

  3. Rameysh January 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    LOL ! i am just one of the many legions of your readers !

    On the old trades disappearing- one cannot blame them- they have to compete for the same goods and services that higher paid workers at high tech industries are seeking – prices rise- and teh weaver is forced to abandon his trade to even be a watchman in an IT firm which probably pays him higher wages

  4. shalini January 31, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    My first experience with starbucks – I was a grad student, counting my pennies…and come crunch time, I would get really tired after hours on the computer. I love coffee and really couldn’t afford regular cups from the starbucks that was opposite my department…so I used to just walk past it to get the strong coffee whiff that perked me up considerably :).

    Taste-wise – I love any coffee as long as it’s not a dark roast. While I don’t like the price tag that comes with these coffees, I do like the ambiance it sells.

    • Kalpana January 31, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      Wow. To think my kid dines there daily unmindful of the pennies:-)

  5. Sujatha Ramprasad February 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Ah… You touched a Madrasi nerve! How many times have I ordered “double-shot”, “no-foam”, “extra-hot” latte at Starbucks, desperately hoping, that these key-words would magically morph the drink into something that would please my South-Indian sensibilities. But, without fail, the luke warm drink that appears in the paper cup sourly disappoints. Why would any one want the wannabe over the real thing? It is tough to imagine Starbucks succeeding in Tamil-Nadu, where coffee is religion.

    A lethal cup, made with boiled milk and fresh dicotion, burns your tongue and jolts you into living. Yeah, life is worth living, when a fresh cup of filter coffee awaits you!

    • Kalpana February 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      Sujatha, God bless you. We need more such degree coffee goondas. When Starbucks finally arrives in India, we’ll stand there, foaming and frothing at the mouth, not to worry:-)

  6. Venkat February 20, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I have been in the US for over a year and can never get used to the taste of Starbucks. I have noticed that American Coffee sucks anyways (Sorry for stereotyping) . I would go for a Madras filter coffee anyday.
    But with respect to Kanchipuram and the weavers, does it not make economic sense for a human to be working somewhere, where he/she earns more ? I do not want to blame the weavers but this market seems to appreciate less of this art. But I do acknowledge your point of losing skilled talent to higher paying jobs.

  7. Subha Chandran February 28, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    I still drink my coffee everyday in tumbler dawaraa only. Nobody to beat Madras Filter coffee. Starbucks! You will NEVER BE “HOT” in our Pettai.

    • Kalpana February 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      Subha, Filter is it for me too but it doesn’t agree with me if I have it daily. Thanks for posting!

  8. Ram Ganapathi February 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Wow, I think you nailed it super-precisely – KDC is the “bomb”, as my son would say 😉 A few years ago, my wife’s niece took me to the KDC shop near St. Mary’s Road in Chennai after dinner. A word of warning to the uninitiated – don’t go there if you plan to get any sleep in the next several hours ;-). It was fabulous, fabulous coffee most certainly – but in my rapturous post-prandial caffeine-high state, I’d completely forgotten about my 6AM Shatabdi reservation to B’lore the next morning 😉

    • Kalpana February 28, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      Thank you, Ram, so glad you agree:-) Wish I could get it here, nothing really matches…

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