For coffee king VG Siddhartha Hegde, Café Coffee Day was just one of his ventures. Creating a love for bitters in a tea-loving nation was where his heart truly lay. At the sprawling coffee plantations of the Serai Chikmagalur, he managed this mission with ease. We take you back to his legacy. By Payal Dhar and Bayar Jain
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A tea lover going on a coffee retreat sounds like an oxymoron at best, the opening bars of a tired joke at worst. Coffee is no laughing matter in Chikmagalur, though. They take the beverage very seriously in these parts, nowhere more so than at The Serai. For starters, the resort is run by the Coffee Day group, a fact you are reminded of almost diffidently as you turn in at the gates. The bigger surprise is when you find yourself plunging into the heart of a coffee plantation.
India’s coffee capital, Chikmagalur, is located on the foothills of the Western Ghats, in Karnataka’s Malnad region. This is a lush and abundantly rain-fed belt, ideal for growing coffee. Not to belabour the point, but The Serai Chikmagalur is, in their own words, ‘inspired by coffee’, tucked into a 70-acre estate that grows spices and fruits as well. On arrival, you are welcomed with the local bellada coffee—filter coffee brewed with jaggery, taken black. The proper South Indian way to drink the beverage, according to locals of the place, is without milk. Whether this is your preferred drink or not, you are bound to leave town with at least two kinds of coffee and a filter to brew it in!
For any tea lover, a grudging respect for coffee kindles on the estate walk through the plantation, a complimentary add-on if you’re a guest here. The plantation’s local guide Mohan insists on carrying a long-stemmed umbrella as a walking stick. He even narrates how, in the 17th century, Baba Budan, a local Sufi saint, sneaked in seven coffee beans from Yemen on his way back from the Haj, and planted them in these regions, thus introducing coffee to India. One legend has it that he smuggled the beans in his walking stick.
Monsoon has the region in a vice-like grip, and when there isn’t rain, there’s slush underfoot and moisture dripping from trees to contend with. But as Mohan starts to point out the differences between arabica and robusta—the two main types of coffee grown here—and the grading process that segregates the beans according to quality, one’s interest is piqued. Most coffee plantations, he tells, grow a variety of cash crops too, like pepper and other spices, fruits, and more. Towering rosewoods, teaks, and silver oaks provide shade for the coffee plants. India is said to produce some of the finest shade-grown coffee in the world, most of it concentrated in the Karnataka–Tamil Nadu–Kerala belt. Apart from shading the coffee bushes, wood from these trees is used to make furniture for The Serai resorts and Café Coffee Day outlets around India.
Even if it’s not flowering or picking season, one needs to be content with the green berries on bushes. During the walk, Mohan talks of the various grades of coffee, the exact proportions of arabica to robusta (a closely held secret), and how much chicory is recommended (never more than 20 per cent). A visit to Coffee Day’s curing and roasting units follows next.
The coffee estate that The Serai Chikmagalur is set in, is on the edge of the town, but there is no evidence of a seven-acre resort within even when you roll in through the gates. The driveway is long enough to give pause, and when you step into the lobby, you’re still flummoxed by the continuing wilderness. When the penny drops, the explanation is ridiculously simple. The resort is built along the slope of the rolling hillside, the lobby situated at the highest point of the built-up area. The open-air reception area looks down upon a courtyard with a lawn and infinity pool, and out on to the verdant coffee estate, the town of Chikmagalur, and the forests and valleys beyond.
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The weather stays agreeable here all year round, but the monsoon adds a fresh coat of brilliance to the landscape, to the rolling hills, lush forests, sprawling plantations, peaks and valleys, and waterfalls. In the blink of an eye, a fine drizzle can turn into a downpour. The resort has raincoats and gumboots handy, there are umbrellas in wooden baskets outside the villas and common areas, and bicycles are available to borrow, so nothing stops you from getting out and about once you have set your mind to it.
But then, staying in is a very tempting alternative. Accommodation is provided in 29 villas, each with its own private pool or outdoor Jacuzzi. The basic villa—basic being a relative term—comes in double or twin options, whereas a terrace villa is a duplex accommodation where you enter from an upper level and walk down into a living space that opens out into the pool and sit-out. At the top of the range is the presidential suite, a generous two-bedroom space with a private dining hall, and both, Jacuzzi and pool.
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Coffee influences even The Serai’s wellness centre, Oma Spa. Here, relax into oblivion with a signature 90-minute massage, where two pairs of hands work a hot oil brewed with select coffee beans onto your skin. It is sure to leave you mellow enough to brave a coffee martini at the Blue Sky Lounge later the same evening.