Food
There is no compromise when it comes to filter coffee!
Deepa Harishankar

There are coffee connoisseurs, lovers and fanatics all over the world. But the south Indian filter coffee takes things a notch above and has nothing less than devotees. From Kodagu to Kumbakonam, one can trace some serious coffee devotion. People pore into wills to see who inherits the sacrosanct family coffee filter. These are folks who wake up every morning with one singular thought: filter coffee.

How it all began

Karnataka is India’s major coffee cultivator. The origin of coffee in south India precedes the colonial times. Legend has it that Baba Budan, a 16th century saint from Chandragiri Hills (modern day Chikkamagaluru district, Karnataka) went on his Haj pilgrimage where he fell in love with coffee. He wanted to grow coffee back home but the Arabs wanted monopoly over coffee and did not allow people to take coffee seeds out of Arabia. They allowed only roasted beans, incapable of germination, outside their territory.

Baba Budan, it is said, was so smitten with coffee that he managed to bring home seven coffee beans, concealed in his clothes. These seven seeds led to south India’s thriving coffee culture as we know it today. South India might have opened its doors to Starbucks and Costa with their espressos, lattes, mochas and cappuccinos but coffee in this part of the world is all about a frothy, milky concoction served piping hot in steel tumblers. The filter coffee!

The art of coffee-making

Brewing the perfect filter coffee is an art. It takes years of coffee consumption, preparation and critique to get it right. The journey starts as a pre-teen, waking up to the intoxicating aroma of coffee decoction from the kitchen. V. Ananthanarayanan, a Chartered Accountant from R.A. Puram, Chennai is a self-confessed filter coffee devotee.

The voracious reader nods his head in agreement with R.K.Narayan’s essay in My Dateless Diary where the author tells us about initiation in the path of filter coffee nirvana. ‘I could not help mentioning my mother who has maintained our house-reputation for coffee undimmed for half a century. She selects the right quality of seeds almost subjecting every bean to a severe scrutiny, roasts them slowly over charcoal fire, and knows by the texture and fragrance of the golden smoke emanating from the chinks in the roaster whether the seeds within have turned the right shade and then grinds them into perfect grains; everything has to be right in this business’, says the celebrated writer from Mysuru.

Ananthanarayanan mentions that Tamil readers remember Kalki Krishnamoorthi fondly for his stellar historical fiction (Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sabatham, Parthiban Kanavu to name a few) and for the wonderful coffee his guests were served. Sunda, in his biography of Kalki Krishnamoorthy (Ponniyin Puthalvar) mentions the intricate process of filter coffee at the Kalki residence.  

Mrutyunjay Raman, a Singapore based senior management professional in a tech giant, grew up in Thanjavur. He says, "Good filter coffee is like single malt. It’s strong, smooth and rich. It has quality standards, tradition and a place in our hearts."

The mathematics 

Experts have their own ratios and minor variations for that perfect tumbler of coffee but the general process starts with getting a specific ratio of Plantation A and Plantation B coffee beans ground at the friendly neighbourhood coffee store. Most people stick to a 50:50 ratio.

While purists stop right here, a majority of coffee drinkers like to add chicory to the mix. Chicory makes thicker and desirably bitter coffee. This powder is stored in an air tight steel container with utmost caution. A currently popular WhatsApp forward, dubiously attributed to writer Sujatha Rangarajan, tells us that a full dabba of coffee powder was stored away from the neighbour’s nose because it invited nazar. While the authorship is debatable, there is no debate on the context!

Every day, decoction is brewed fresh before the sun is up. Extremely hot water is poured on coffee powder lined in a filter, in a circular motion. The powder is pressed down just right and not more than necessary. Any extra pressure can lead to powder settling into your decoction and that’s a deal breaker. The water has to be piping hot that it sizzles when it reaches the powder in the filter.

If it’s not hot enough, the water does not draw enough strength from the powder. That’s weak coffee and no one wants that from their morning tumbler. If the water is not poured in a circular motion and is just dumped on top of the powder in one go, the water doesn’t come in contact with all the powder. That leads to powder settling down in a weak decoction and a waste of precious powder. That’s the worst rookie mistake one can make. First decoction is liquid gold drawn with minimal water and maximum essence. The second decoction that is drawn after the first process is completed is reserved for people you don't particularly like!

A faction of filter coffee fanatics swear that sprinkling a few granules of sugar to the coffee powder makes  a thicker and flavourful decoction. Sugar and decoction are mixed first and then, milk is added. It’s never the other way round. Filter coffee is expected to be slightly bitter. In fact, sugar is not even necessary in the first place. So, any extra sugar is frowned upon.

Getting it right

"I want coffee, not paanaka!" is what the Parampalli household chimes  when they are served very sweet coffee. The Parampallis owned coffee estates in Sakleshpur, Karnataka and are connoisseurs of fine coffee. The minutiae of coffee brewing that one hears from Hema Parampalli, matriarch of this coffee snob family in Bengaluru, leaves you stunned. "Milk for the coffee has to be boiled in a small container. A larger container makes the milk stick to the edges and char a little. The smell of burnt milk is the last thing you want in your filter coffee. Water has to be boiled over a naked flame and not in kettles and microwaves. Invariably, the water acquires the taste of kettle sediments and it ruins the coffee." 

South Indians might invest in expensive china but filter coffee is always served and savoured in tumblers or lotas. Traditionally, it was served in brass tumbler and davara/dabara but today, it is predominantly stainless steel. Venkateswara Boli Stall in Arya Gowda Road, Chennai, serves filter coffee in brassware. The man at the billing counter says they sell 850 coffee tumblers on a week day and over 1000 on weekends. A week day evening at the shop sees a multitude of people walking in for hot, frothy filter coffee after a day’s work.

Bengaluru and Chennai (and the highway connecting them) have a number of ‘Kumbakonam Degree Coffee’ places. What is degree coffee? Milk for filter coffee should be undiluted. That’s rule numero uno in seminal filter coffee texts. Co-op dairy farms use a lactometer to check if the milk is indeed undiluted and fit for filter coffee. The lactometer was confused with the thermometer by those who did not know better. This gave rise to the term ’degree coffee’ in the Cauvery delta region, particularly in Mayiladuthurai where local dairies supplied to coffee houses.

It caught on in Kumbakonam and that’s what led to the term ‘Kumbakonam Degree Coffee’, says filter coffee historian Ananthanarayanan. He adds that filter coffee is a very integral part of south India. The bride and groom families could fight and even call off a wedding over coffee! A weak and watery coffee was what the proverbial sammandhi sandai (anywhere between a mild argument to a full-fledged war between the families of the bride and the groom) would start with.

When it comes to coffee, there is no 'swalpa adjust maadi'!