It had been about 15 minutes since we were talking. I was doing my best to absorb what he was saying but an undisputedly impossible thought kept nagging me.
Have I met this person before? Couldn’t be. I shrugged off the thought and attempted to follow the conversation.
Our first interaction was over a video call, last month. He was sitting at his roastery and café – Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters, in Nagpur and I was on set in Delhi, for a long day of filming.
I have to admit, it is challenging to write about someone you’ve never met and spent some time knowing, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.
Mithilesh Vazalwar is an introvert; the kind who knows how to make you feel at home in an instant, if you’re speaking with him one-to-one. He doesn’t weigh his words too much, which encourages you to be yourself. In an hour’s worth of talk, I asked him about his journey towards making India’s best cup of coffee; and shared a dozen musings about the beverage, which he patiently acknowledged.
Back in the day, Mithilesh was a national level badminton player, ranked second pan India. Wherever he travelled for tournaments, he would drink coffee to keep himself revved up through consecutive badminton matches. He couldn’t pursue the sport further due to a spate of injuries and surgeries, but the gustatory distinctiveness of coffee from different regions stayed with him.
How, then, did a court champion become a coffee champion?
His innate propensity to study the complexities of coffee persuaded him to prepare for the Q Grader certification from Melbourne. Today he is amongst the top few Q Graders of India. He put his coffee competencies to further test by contesting for the National Aeropress Championship 2017 and the National Barista Championship 2022 – both of which he won.
Since this was only a warm-up conversation, I spared him further inconvenient inquisitions. For instance, how was I to describe Mithilesh Vazalwar’s coffee making skills in this story? And although it felt like this wasn’t the first time I had spoken to him, I didn’t personally know much about him as a barista.
In our subsequent conversations, Vazalwar seemed to be a little more at ease, sharing whatever came to mind. This version of him – over voice notes – wasn’t speaking for the sake of the story anymore. He divulged, unreservedly, about all that has led him to the World Barista Championship (which is happening in Melbourne, at the end of September 2022!), always with a side note of not wanting to glorify his struggles.
I delved into his approach towards the coffee championship and he attributed his sagacity to badminton.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, you’ve got to do it gracefully. Once, when I was playing a very important match, there was a line judge who said that the shuttle had dropped inside, but it had actually dropped outside. I would have gotten the point, but I just told the umpire that I know it is outside, and I returned the shuttle. That day I lost the match by one point. After two months, I got to know that the person who had won, was backing out because he had to undergo a surgery. Although I was not happy about him not being well, I had been given an opportunity to go ahead because of a good deed.”
When he envisaged starting Corridor Seven, it was with the vision to open the world to the experience of good quality specialty Indian coffee. The brand aims to support coffee farmers by sourcing directly from them and adopting a no-negotiation approach. This enables them to establish quality and traceability for customers and ethical, fair trade practices that benefit the producers. Farmers who pick coffee cherries for Corridor Seven, wear wristbands of the same shade of the red cherries they pick for them, as a recall of the café’s quality standards.
Mithilesh has now spent years honing the art of brewing, cupping and getting people acquainted with the decocted drink. Through his detailed YouTube videos, he wishes to share his knowledge about the many idiosyncrasies of the berry, bean and beverage with those keen to learn.
“There are 800+ coffee flavours naturally present in a coffee bean, and it depends on how you roast it and brew it, which brings these flavours out. There’s a way to introduce people to coffee and then take them to the next level, so that they can enjoy the process and taste and not be repulsed by it.”
What motivates this relentless drive to embrace the unseen, unglamorous aspects of pursuing this line of work? I ask him.
“I’ve got to give a lot to my mom who started her own business at the age of 45 and my dad who relentlessly fought for his property for 30 years while building his CA practice alongside. Determination, maintaining a single focus and achieving it comes to me very naturally.” He sounds cautiously earnest while saying this. The introvert in him apprehensive of sounding boastful.
Today, he leads a team of 80 people who are building Corridor Seven with him and he accredits his team with upholding values that the brand embodies.
“Conversation over transaction, always. Know your coffee. Eyes on the customer, be there for them, make sure they have a great time. And, give back to the society, to your community. The fundraisers that we organize for the unfortunately abandoned dogs in our community, they mean a lot to me.”
Through the past month that I spent learning more about Mithilesh, there was something familiar about him, that I couldn’t quite place. Then it struck me. About seven years ago, when I started writing more, I would visit Blue Tokai’s first café, which was near my house, whenever I could find some time to sit alone and write. A young man, who was the Head Coffee Roaster at the time there, would always share a kind word when I ordered my coffee. Some days when I was curious, I would ask him a question about brewing and he tolerantly helped me learn more about my favourite beverage. The coffee he brewed made me loyal to the café and it fuelled me for hours, to write story after story. It is the only café I have spent so much time at, just because the coffee was truly special. I realised Mithilesh reminded me a lot of him; and then I realised Mithilesh was him. I’m yet to visit him at Corridor Seven. But I now know that I could tell you a thing or two about the coffee making skills of India’s best barista, who has clearly outdone himself over the years.
Translations and detailed descriptions are provided to give a better understanding of the story to people from different cultural backgrounds across the globe.