The museum that showcases the journey of coffee to the valley is battling pandemic-induced challenges
The hiss of the espresso machine is back at the Araku Coffee Museum in Araku Valley, after a gap of almost six and a half months.
The museum’s small team of staff is busy attending to the sudden flow of visitors they had been witnessing in the past two weeks. It’s no secret the pandemic has affected small businesses everywhere. Araku Valley, about 120 kilometres from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh was not immune to it. From a bustling staff of 180 members, the Araku Coffee Museum is today being managed by just 45 people, all hailing from the local tribal communities. “Being cut-off from the main city during the second wave of the pandemic had hit us badly. It is only in the past three weeks that things have begun to change,” says Naresh Akella, son of Prakash Rao who along with his two brothers Santosh Kumar and Gopal Rao took over the reigns of managing the museum after the death of their father a few years ago.
The Coffee Museum sells 60 varieties of coffee beverages, coffee powders and coffee bean chocolates (chocolate-covered roasted coffee beans), all made from the locally grown and processed coffee beans. Arabica coffee is the main variety under cultivation in Araku Valley. Here, coffee is grown in the shade, employing environmentally sustainable methods. After battling a steep fall in their 15-year-old business, the recent spurt of tourists to the valley have kept the team on their toes and brought in a glimmer of hope. The museum has been getting about 700 footfalls every day which goes up to 2,000 during the weekends. “There has been a sudden increase in number of tourists. We did not witness this even during pre-pandemic days,” says Naresh. According to him, a majority of the tourists visiting the museum are from the States of Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “The numbers peaked in the last 12 days,” he adds. Adhering to the safety protocols, the entire staff is fully vaccinated.
The colourful murals on the walls at the entrance of the museum narrate the journey of coffee from bean to cup. The bright art works depict how the cherries are plucked, pulped, fermented and dried till they are ready for roasting and grounding. Inside the museum, the soft lights bring alive the dioramas (three-dimensional figures made of fibre and cement) that reflect the long journey of the coffee bean from its discovery in Ethiopia to its popularity across the world and Araku. An audio-visual show gives a glimpse of the lush green slopes of the Araku Valley where coffee is grown under the shade of silver oak trees and pepper creepers.
The museum was set up in 2006, but its journey began much earlier, in 1954 when Prakash Rao, a migrant, set up a small coffee shop near the Araku Railway Station to showcase Araku’s Arabica coffee which continues to be the all-time-favourite here. While the menu has been curtailed due to the pandemic, it still includes the slow brewed craft coffee and other expensive varieties of coffee like the Kopi Luwak, considered the world’s most expensive coffee made from beans digested by a civet cat.
Here, one gets to not only learn about the history of the coffee variety, but also witness the entire process of making it. “We are planning to hire and train a team of guides who give dedicated guided tours around the museum for small groups of tourists,” says Naresh.
Even as he battles a pandemic-induced loss of over ₹15 lakh, Naresh says he has no plans to expand the business through retail chains or outlets. “Our speciality is to offer an experience in Araku which no other destination will provide. The only way to savour it is to drive down to the valley and relish a steaming cup of the refreshing Arabica coffee flavour,” says Naresh.