We're bowled over, and you will be too, after reading the depth of intentionality and thoughtfulness contained within this cafe and bakery in Mumbai, India. Subko is one of the most ambitious new cafes in the world right now—and as life emerges from lockdown, and India grapples with the long tail of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we've got Subko big on our radar as a new must-visit coffee bar experience.
As told to Sprudge by Hassan Haider.
For those who aren’t familiar, will you tell us about your company?
A Specialty Coffee Roastery. A Craft Bakehouse.
Subko is committed to an ideal: to help reimagine, re-design, and re-invent an unlikely origin—the Indian Subcontinent—as a legitimate contributor to the global specialty coffee and craft baking movements.
Subko roasts small batches of meticulously sourced specialty Arabica (and as of 2021, specialty Robusta) coffee of different coffee fruit varieties, sourcing from across various coffee estates and smallholder plantations in India—currently including specialty grade Arabicas from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Meghalaya in the North-East. Soon, Subko hopes to source specialty from Asia from beyond India: Nepal, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia are on its radar. Its name is a play on words after all, SUBKO: “from the subcontinent, for all.”
Subko’s craft bakehouse produces all its breads and viennoiserie from scratch. It commits to a distinctly rustic philosophy on breads, specializing in sourdough, and viennoiserie, specializing in experimental croissants and puff pastry renditions. Its bakehouse is headed by the esteemed Chicagoan Daniel Trulson, co-founder of the famed Indian bakery Bread & Chocolate in Tamil Nadu.
Only raw materials enter Subko’s roastery: all of the coffee and bakehouse products are crafted from scratch, in house. From crop to cup, bean to bar, and farm to table. We conduct direct trade and aim to source SCA 85+ Coffee Beans as frequently as possible from Asian origins, with a focus on the Indian Subcontinent. The Bakehouse utilizes hyper traceable ingredients. Nothing outsourced.
Subko has embarked upon a design-first approach to building its identity. It wishes to help contemporize the traditional, pledging allegiance to where it was born and challenging notions of what the Indian Subcontinent’s indigenous design language is. The result is a distinctly typography-focused visual identity, with its unique “tri-script” logo—always displayed in Sanskrit, Latin, and Persian scripts to reflect the diversity of the region and its three broadly representative cultural components through language. Subko’s hand-sketched, intricate illustrations of Arabica coffee and croissant aim to highlight its commitment to hand-crafted detail in its products. Ultimately we aim to help re-imagine what an aesthetic from the Indian subcontinent can mean—both in a local and global context—within the food and beverage industry and beyond.
Can you tell us a bit about the new space?
Subko’s first specialty coffee roastery and bakehouse—launched on the 15th of March 2020, three days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone into lockdown.
The space was designed through a months-long restoration and conversion of a 1925-built Goan bungalow nestled in a quiet by-lane of Mumbai’s Bandra West neighborhood. It was decided that everything would have to be poured into ensuring this would be the site for the roastery, the bakehouse, and the experiential cafe all under one roof.
Retaining much of its original structure and detailing, it features five separate experience zone areas: a quiet reading room, a community table and work-friendly plug-in zone, bench seating at its specially designed manual brewing trolley “Bloom Bar,” its roastery where coffees are roasted fresh and packaged in front of you, an urban alleyway-esque garden, notwithstanding of course, its bakehouse kitchen tucked into the back.
Our overarching goal from an aesthetic perspective inside the space was to create a novel aesthetic that at once took the best from the bohemian (“hipster”) minimalism that is prevalent in specialty coffee majors worldwide, and re-engineer it to incorporate classic homages to the Indian subcontinent as motifs: copper, cane, teak wood, tube lighting re-imagined, local plant species, and a two-tone color scheme of “Kerala” green and distressed cream reminiscent of old school tea and coffee houses on roadsides across India.
In addition to utilizing our tri-script logo, always displayed in Devanagari, Latin, and Nastaliq, and representing our coffee farm origins by their native scripts as well, we have utilized a wide set of pantone color shades that will be associated with certain bean origins, a system of “edges” on our product labels that are jagged as a subtle homage to the old-school tickets of Indian railways and cinemas halls, and a map monogram with the additional byline “from the subcontinent” showcasing our regional and diversity-embracing identity.
What’s your approach to coffee?
Subko strives to identify truly SCA 85+ quality specialty coffee origins from Asia.
Subko’s team includes an in-house Arabica Q Grader, considered the globe’s most competitive sensory analysis certification for coffee quality, to help guide its growing team to elevate quality through sourcing and roasting wise. Subko roasts small batches of meticulously sourced specialty Arabica (and as of 2021, specialty Robusta) coffee of different coffee fruit varieties, sourcing from across various coffee estates and smallholder plantations in India—currently including specialty grade Arabicas from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Meghalaya in the North-East. Soon, Subko hopes to source specialty from Asia from beyond India: Nepal, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia are on its radar. It’s name is a play on words after all, SUBKO: “from the subcontinent, for all.”
We’ve had the privilege of roasting several experimental and progressive specialty processes in the past year since we launched. Several of these were actually harvested and processed this way for the first time ever in the country.
A few of these include:
Black Honey Ivory Honey (15-30% Mucilage), Saccharic Washed, Barrel Washed, Carbonic Maceration, Single Malt Whiskey Barrel Aged Honey + Washed, Salt Fermentation, Organic Washed, Aqua (Hydro) Naturals.
Harvest 2021 (Expected Additions):
Craft Gin Aged Honeys, Yeast Macerated Naturals, Yeast Honeys, Biodynamic Demeter + Organic Certified Naturals, Saccharic Naturals, Specialty Robusta: Barrel Aged + Yeast Naturals
Any machines, coffees, special equipment lined up?
We're actively looking at new La Marzocco espresso equipment, and are constantly on the lookout for specialty pour-over innovations (currently big fans of the Kalita line and Origami) and utilize the complex yet highly effective Victoria Arduino Mythos II grinder in our flagship roastery cafe.
How is your project considering sustainability?
Subko’s philosophy includes a distinct commitment to sustainability from day one. This includes its commitment to source coffees from biodiversity friendly, wildlife-protection certified farms and shade-grown farms that don’t deforest, as well as organic, organic certified, and demeter certified plantations.
As of 1 May 2020, its packaged and retail products are 100% “single use plastic” free. Its retail coffee boxes utilize a mixture of 100% recyclable kraft paper exterior boxes—upon which its design identity was built—and an interior lining holding its whole beans or grounds that is made of an innovative version of pure polyethylene without fillers. It’s 100% guaranteed to biodegrade in a landfill in as little as six to 24 months, with no micro-plastic traces left behind as is the case with more easily procured materials used by other coffee roasters currently in the Indian market.
What’s your hopeful target opening date/month?
By March 15, 2020, Rahul and his partner Daniel Trulson, who heads Subko’s Craft Bakehouse, planned a soft launch for Subko to introduce the space to Bombay, and after opening its doors for 72 hours, the COVID-19 outbreak lockdown forced the roastery and bakehouse to close its doors.
During the lockdown period, Subko spent the first month completely inoperable. Despite being a brand new venture which virtually no one had visited, they took their chances and designed what they call their “social distancing store” to aim to cater to the Bandra and wider Bombay community with a limited stock of coffee-oriented products throughout the lockdown.
After struggling to obtain essential service passes for the fraction of team members that still remain in Bombay, Subko managed to get two of their team members, Shubham and Regina, back into the roastery at the end of April in addition to liaising with its cafe operations manager Neha remotely, as she remained stuck in Goa. After a COIVD-19 related death next door, they decided to close doors once again for the 14 day area quarantine period out of respect for their neighborhood and as a safety precaution for staff, neighbors, and customers alike. They re-launched once again as of 8 June, and haven’t stopped again since.
Are you working with craftspeople, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention?
Subko is honored to have worked with the immaculate interior and furniture design studio, Stand Design for the restoration of our 1925 build Goa style bungalow that now houses our coffee roastery, cafe, and bakehouse all in one. We're privileged to have had Aniruddh Mehta—who goes by his studio and designer moniker The Big Fat Minimalist—join our small but scrappy design team to create the unique visual identity that is Subko. As mentioned above, Subko’s complex identity incorporated several homages to the subcontinent, housed within a simultaneously vintage yet contemporary set of parameters.
We look forward to being featured and bringing to light the Indian contribution to specialty coffee worldwide!