Martini And More

Mithilesh Vazalwar On Being A Q-Grade Coffee Roaster and First Indian Aeropress Champion

For Mithilesh Vazalwar, it was more than just the caffeine in coffee that kept him awake at nights! Mithilesh took his love for coffee and decided to transform it into a profession. He is now a Coffee Q-Grader, one among the only 25 in India, and a Coffee Roaster, Cupper and Trainer. He is also the First Indian Aeropress Champion and the first to represent India at the World Aeropress Championship (W.A.C.), Seoul, South Korea. Here is his journey from tasting coffees at various places during his badminton championships to brewing his own cuppa, and being a master at it.

Highlights of the episode

  • Understanding that coffee is all science, art and gut.
  • Taking the Coffee Q-Grading Exam is no child’s play! All 22 exams need to be passed within 6 days, with maximum 3 attempts allowed for each exam.
  • Opportunities in the field are going to skyrocket as the demand for good Brewers, Baristas, Roasters & Cuppers increases.

Quotes and Takeaways

  • On challenges that he faced in his career: “There were a lot of them right from understanding what to take up next in the career, to figuring out the science and art behind coffee roasting, brewing, cupping and Q-grading, to people not understanding the fact that it is not just a “button Pusher” activity or it is not a hobby but a serious profession.”
  • be liberal and open towards learning new things… Also, whatever passion you have, it will find a way to work out, if you are dedicated.” 

What inspired you to begin your journey as a Coffee Roaster? Was it a natural fluency that came with life, or was it an effect of deliberate planning?

I always had an interest in coffee. My first memory of coffee was from a 5th floor school corridor, where there was a coffee room for the teachers. We as kids were not allowed on that floor since there was a chemistry lab that was only for the seniors. Despite this, me and my friend used to sneak in there to have a whiff of coffee!

I am also a National Level Badminton player. On every tour, I used to have coffee from as many places as I could! But of course, those were instant ones and not specialties.

Surely back then, I did not know about a career in coffee. However, when I went to Australia a few years back for my Chartered Accountancy tie ups, I ended up rediscovering my passion for coffee. I did a short course in Coffee-making there, and was captivated by the discussions with Roastery owners, Brewers, Baristas & Roasters. I came back and decided to put my CA (final and firm) on hold and jumped right onto making a career in coffee. Since then, coffee for me has been all about science, art & gut.

Can you tell us about your work experience as a Coffee Roaster so far? 

After I came back from Australia, I worked with a company called Blue Tokai, which I joined when they were roasting from a small room. Eventually, I became the Head Roaster, Trainer and Quality Control with them.  However, I quit in order to pursue more education in coffee, and since then it has been an “Actual Coffee Education” journey.

I went on to work with the 2016 World Coffee Roasting Champion Alexandru in Chiang Mai  and he has been a great mentor since then. From there, I headed to Melbourne for three months and cleared my SCA Classes in Barista, Sensory and also the Q- Grading Exam. I was even invited by Anne Cooper (Australian Roasting Championship Judge) for her workshop on Professional Coffee Roasting at Proud Mary Coffee Roasters. It was humbling to know that she invited me on noticing my interest and talent.

How was your experience at the Coffee Quality Institute?

CQI (Coffee Quality Management) is a universally recognized body. The CQI conducts the Coffee Q-Grading Exams (Q-Quality) all over the world in a set standard format. The exam is extremely intense and needs huge amount of homework and years of practice. The exam consists of 22 tests over 6 days, and you become a Q-Grader only if you clear all the 22 tests. You get just 3 attempts to pass the tests. If you don’t clear all 22, in these 3 chances, you have to give the whole of 22 again. The percentage of people passing the Q is just around 15-20%. Taking the tests in Australia was a difficult choice, since the country, city, conditions, and climate, everything was new for me. Also, I was taking the exam with people who have been in the industry for 10-15 years. It was definitely challenging but there was so much to learn!

The Exam consists of ‘Coffee Cupping‘, where you have to taste, analyse, score, and find defects of over 250 Coffees from around the world. Another test was ‘Coffee Triangulation‘ of over 200 varieties of brewed coffee, where amongst the set of three cups, one will be an odd one out. But the difference is so minute that almost everybody fails this test in the first attempt. Another test included identifying various acids such as Phosphoric, Malic, Acetic and Citric in coffee. ‘Le Nez Kit’ was another one, where we had to identify 36 aromas in veils.

Also, the tests are conducted under red lights, similar to a photo developing room, so that no visual clues are given out. The experience was incredible! At the end of the 6th day, you are tired, worn out and exhausted. Usually, people go for the Q (as we call it), after being in the industry for 6-8 years, but the day I had entered the profession, I began practicing for it. Despite long hours, I used to practice ‘Coffee Cupping’ at 6 in the morning. Hence, I was sure about my preparation and gave it a shot in less than 3 years of being in the industry. It was a dream come true!

Are there any specific challenges which you had to confront to pursue this career? 

There were a lot of them- right from understanding what to take up next in the career, to figuring out the science and art behind coffee roasting, brewing, cupping and Q-grading, to people not understanding the fact that it is not just a “button Pusher” activity or it is not a hobby but a serious profession. You need to spend long hours behind the hot machine and calculate the parameters every 15 seconds. So, it can be really tiring. 

Apart from being strong willed, family support was also really helpful for me. A few friends and random people striking a conversation and appreciating what I do has also been really encouraging. I have received much love via Instagram and Facebook, all the messages being genuine and so supportive.

Also, I believe that challenges are quite motivating if you are determined and dedicated, and make things happen rather than wait for them to happen themselves.

Do you think the Indian market is understanding the value of such a career option? Can you tell us about the opportunities present in the country?

We are just scratching the surface of Specialty Coffee. However, I can see a gradual shift and value in this field. The number of Cafes & new Roasters approaching me for consultation shows that the approach is changing. In the coming years, we will definitely see more roasters and cafes coming up.

Opportunities are going to be massive as well, since the industry will need good Brewers, Baristas, Roasters & Cuppers.

Congratulations on winning the First Indian Aeropress Championship. Tell us all about it! Also, how does it feel representing India at the World Championships in Seoul?

I had decided to start competing in the Championships from 2018, but I guess God had different plans for me. This was my first participation ever in Coffee Championships. There are several serious championships in the field, like Roasting, Cupping, Barista, Brewers Cup, Aeropress etc. These may sound amusing, but they are quite competitive.

So, the rounds were in Delhi, Bangalore and Bombay. I was, in fact, not going to be at the Bombay qualifying rounds back in July, since I had a meeting lined up. However, I somehow made it and qualified for the Finals. At Bangalore, during the Finals, the competition kept getting intense with every round. Nevertheless, I was glad to know in the quarterfinals, semi-finals as well as the finals, the cup that I brewed was liked by all the judges unanimously. After winning, I went blank for a minute and my entire journey flashed before my eyes within a second. I realized that my hard work paid off. It was an ecstatic moment!

What are your current projects and future goals? Where do you see yourself in the coming years?

I’ve begun my own venture, which is called “Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters”. It began in October last year and our hard work paid off really well. We went viral by word of mouth and my followers on Instagram and Facebook started bombarding us with the orders. Even Cafes from Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, and Goa have approached us and want us to be their roasters. So much so that our expected estimate of stock getting over in June this year  got exhausted in January! So we had to re-order the coffee from our farmers. #goodproblem. We will also be starting our website from April- corridorseven.coffee.

Also, I was honored to have been invited at the Indian International Coffee Festival in Bangalore as a Keynote Speaker this January. Thereafter, in February, my Ted Talk in Pune was a dream come true by all means! In the next few weeks, we plan to come up with our flagship Laband Cafe in my hometown, and by the mid of next year, we will be heading to other cities as well. I plan to invite cafe, restaurant and hotel owners to choose the coffee that they want for their cafe.

Goals

  1. Pioneering coffee education in India
  2. Introducing people to Specialty Coffee
  3. Winning World Championships
  4. Continuing mentoring people interested in coffee and providing them with some freshly roasted Quality coffee

What is your message for our readers? 

Firstly, do not Google. There is abundant scope of some weird information cropping up. Coffee, if you see, is science and art. It is also not just the latte art I talk about, but the art of farming, sourcing, cupping, and roasting!

Secondly, you can be humbled within a minute, so remain grounded.

Thirdly, be liberal and open towards learning new things. I believe that doing a course right away might not be sufficient to provide you with all the vision. The best way would be to learn under someone and find a mentor.

Also, whatever passion you have, it will find a way to work out, if you are dedicated.

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