Inspired by Richard Bach’s book, the name Curious Life Coffee aptly tells the story of its founder, Neeraj Sheoran’s quest to find what matters most in life. Though unplanned, his journey from an army officer to a coffee roaster has led him to making a living out of his passion.
Neeraj’s story goes back to 2009-2010 when he was stationed in Congo with the UN Peacekeeping Force. Up until then, coffee had been something he associated with drinking to stay awake. It was his friends from Latin America and Europe who exposed him to a whole new world, and by the time his stint in Africa came to an end – Neeraj’s understanding and love for coffee had converted him into a confirmed coffee drinker.
When he returned to India after a year, he had to take the tough decision of leaving the army due to a serious spinal injury. It was not easy after having served for 15 years, and with a wife and young child to support. But, his belief that “the more you contemplate, the less you do – so, get up and get out” gave him the conviction to take the step, and he got his release from the army in 2013. With initial plans of a venture in motorcycle touring, he had to make a shift when his injury relapsed.
The eureka moment came during the six months resettlement course at IIM, Ahmedabad when his coursemates got a whiff of the coffee he was making in his hostel room and asked him why he wasn’t selling any! That’s when the seed, or in his case, the ‘bean’ was sown. He started to read up everything he could find on the internet, realising his interest lay in the third wave coffee culture.
Although coffee was discovered accidentally by an Ethiopian goat herder in the 9th century, the first wave of coffee is dated from the 1700s to the 20th century when it became a mass consumer product with the emergence of coffeehouses. The second wave of coffee happened when it became a basic household staple and coffee chains came up, wanting to automate specialty coffee. It was in the mid 1970s that the third wave of coffee began with a shift in focus to the quality of the coffee – the flavours, origins, roast profiles, and brewing techniques – its entire lifespan from bean to cup.
“To do good coffee, you have to be a little crazy,” believes Neeraj. He spent two years learning about coffee, turning his home into a laboratory as he burnt and learnt his way through. With no set way to learn, he taught himself through trial and error. His training in the army made it easy for him to follow exact processes while keeping the focus on attaining perfection and precision to serve coffee in the best way.
When Curious Life Coffee Roasters Blue opened its doors to Jaipur in September 2015, for the first 2-3 months people came out of curiosity and with the expectation of getting regular coffee. But Neeraj wasn’t into the business of regular coffee – he served specialty coffee and it had to be done in the best way the product could be is served – and if they didn’t like it, he was not sorry.
“I never say sorry for a cup of coffee I have made. When I have put in my best, given everything to the cup of coffee – how can I say I am sorry about it and ask them to come back and try again. Instead, I believe that the coffee wasn’t for them” says Neeraj.
Not used to this blunt response, especially since Jaipur is known for its hospitality, it created quite a buzz. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for people to understand Curious Life was about the service, and with Neeraj’s masterfully roasted coffee establishing an enviable reputation, both online and offline, he went on to open his second café, Curious Life Coffee Red.
It intrigued me – the thought of the ‘perfect coffee cup’. I’m a coffee drinker and definitely wanted to find out what went into the makings of the perfect cup of coffee, as also the person behind the cup. So, I got into a conversation with the colonel and the coffee roaster, Neeraj Sheoran to find out more:
- What goes into making the perfect cup of coffee?
It starts with Mother Nature providing a conducive environment and conditions to grow great coffee. Then there is a long chain of farm practices – post-harvest processing – curing work at the coffee factory – green coffee packaging – transportation – storage by roaster – roasting – post-roast quality check – packaging – the skill of the barista – and the environment in which the coffee is finally served. So, a good cup of coffee is the result of passionate work with total integrity at every level mentioned above. Also, you need a discerning and appreciative customer to understand the value of all this effort. Unfortunately, most consumers due to the lack of knowledge and exposure to good specialty coffee often get carried away by marketing gimmicks and end up drinking some false story instead of some great coffee.
- Is there anything about your life in the army that is a part of Curious Life?
A lot of things actually. Integrity is the first and foremost – what you see is what you get. Nothing is sugar-coated. The attention to detail – there are no shortcuts. The way I take care of my team has a lot to do with what I learnt in the army. There are equal opportunities for all, no work is considered menial and like a family, we celebrate all festivals together. For us, our team is as important as our product.
- Who is the team behind Curious Life Coffee?
The core team consists of Manu, Meenakshi, and me. Manu takes care of operations, the kitchen, and also coffee when I am away. A Ph.D. in Biotechnology, she is amazing at her work and people love our food as much as our coffee. Meenakshi is one of the best administrators you can find – she steers Curious Life by taking care of procurement, administration, finance, and HR. Additionally, we have a strong team of 40-45 young boys and girls who wear the Curious Life logo with pride – Deepak, the oldest member of the team is our manager and also an excellent barista. Bhavesh is our head barista. Sanskriti has been with us for the last two years – she takes care of the counter and is an excellent barista. Mahinder manages Blue and also helps Meenakshi in administration. Tanvi an engineering graduate is now back with us again working on innovations and technical research. Each and everyone is a barista par excellence as that’s where it all begins.
- What do you see as some of the emerging trends or new initiatives that will shape the future of specialty coffee?
This would be too long to answer but you may say that slowly machines will start to play a bigger role, but a good palate to recognise great flavours is so far irreplaceable, and so is the human touch that’s needed to interact with consumers.
- The most memorable cup of coffee you have had and the worst, and where?
Since we have been constantly striving to make it better every day, it is difficult to pinpoint anything. In the process of tasting and exploring, I end up having something better than what I have had earlier. Honestly, I haven’t had anything worth mentioning outside Curious Life, I recently had some good coffee at Meraki The Coffee House in Surat, but then it was again a coffee roasted by us.
- If you could have coffee with any person from the past, who would you choose?
It would have to be Yeddu Krishnamurthy and Leonard Cohen. One has inspired me, and the other one’s music opens and closes my cafe every single day – Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.
- What do you do in your downtime?
I cycle a lot. In fact, I want the café to be connected to cycling.
- If you could go back in time, what would you like to change?
Nothing, I have enjoyed every bit of my journey.
- I have to ask you this – how does Coffee Roaster Neeraj Sheoran like his coffee?
Black, intense, and loaded with subtle flavours of good coffee that lingers on your palate for a long time after you finish the cup.
- Finally, how would you like to be remembered?
He loved whatever he chose to do.