Our previous blogs tell you that India is the 6th largest producer of coffee in the world. They also tell you how the British commercialized this crop for export and Mysore Coffee became a much sought after product in Europe. While most of the crop was cultivated for export, there was a small local market too, which soon made coffee a popular beverage in South India. But, coffee was expensive, and India was rooted deep in the caste system that allowed it to become a drink only of the elite Brahmin Class. Even though Coffee Houses sprang up all over the country, the working middle and lower classes did not have access to them. This ended in the 1940s when the Coffee Board of India was formed to promote the production of coffee and regulate coffee prices. South India was soon producing enough for home consumption as well as export. Prices were not so daunting anymore and coffee became a staple morning drink for most South Indians.
South Indian Filter Coffee
Filter Coffee is the common name for coffee brewed the Indian way. This is a percolation brew method using finely ground coffee and a traditional Indian filter that originated in South Indian. Coffee brewed this way has many other names. ‘Degree coffee’, ‘meter coffee’, ‘filter kaapi’, are just some of them and they depend on the sub-region, cultural history and context. We’ll keep it simple and call it by its most popular name - South Indian Filter Coffee.
There is something about a cup of South Indian Filter Coffee - it is precise, it is science, it is art, and, it is tradition. It evokes nostalgia for those of us who have childhood memories of waking up to its distinctive smell. A delightfully satisfying cup is a combination of a lot of little perfect things - the bean, the roast, the blend, the grind, the brew and finally the way it is served. Believe us when we tell you, every aspect plays an important role in making that quintessential first cup. And here’s the thing - if the first cup is done right, you’re never left wanting a second.
What makes this coffee preparation so special? Let’s find out.
The basic Bs and then some
The beans, blend and the chicory. Wait, what? Chicory? You wonder… We’ll get to that in a moment. Authentic South Indian Filter Coffee is a blend of two varieties of coffee beans - Plantation A (Washed Arabica of the highest quality) and Peaberry (also Arabica variety). This blend is roasted to a medium level and ground fine to use in a traditional Indian Coffee Filter.
Now, sometime during WW2 trade routes were disrupted and the coffee industry suffered setbacks. Chicory root came into the picture then as it resembled the color and aroma of coffee minus the caffeine. Chicory was mixed into the coffee as a substitute, adding a slight bitterness and strong aroma. Today it is the factor that contributes to the distinct taste and aroma of authentic South Indian Filter Coffee. The most common coffee to chicory ratio is 80:20. Coffee purists in India however, prefer their brew without the chicory.
Now that we have the beans sorted, let’s talk about the filter. The traditional South Indian Coffee filter is made of stainless steel or brass material and has two cylindrical compartments, one sitting on top of the other. The top container has tiny holes in its base and acts as a filter. Ground coffee and hot water is added to the top, in the right ratio, and the coffee brew that collects in the bottom container is called the decoction. There is also a plunger that acts like a tamper to pack down the coffee powder, and an airtight lid. This simple contraption when used right can produce the most delicious coffee decoction (concentrate). No electricity, paper filter, or waste (other than your spent coffee grounds!). Most South Indian homes will have at least 1 of these (sometimes a few more to accomodate guests), and they last forever!
Putting it together
The method of making that perfect cup of coffee is something that is passed down generation to generation in South India. Of course one can try out various methods / recipes that are available on the internet but chances are that if you know someone who starts their morning with a cup - they were taught to brew it at home.
Tanya Rao remembers being taught to brew a cup at the age of 12. Her mother, a tea drinker, never liked the taste of coffee, but she knew how to brew the perfect cup.. The exact ‘coffee to water to milk’ ratio is written down somewhere in her Indian recipe book, but more importantly Tanya remembers the strong coffee aroma and the exact shade of brown when you mix the boiled milk with the coffee decoction.
The method is really quite simple. Bring a cup of milk to boil and turn off the heat. Now add the decoction and sugar. Then comes the fun part - the coffee is poured between the pan and the cup in stretchy motions. This does 3 things - mixes the sugar, cools down the coffee just enough to sip, and creates the froth without adding steam like you would on a regular espresso machine. Traditionally the coffee is served in a stainless steel tumbler and a davarah (a stainless steel saucer with lipped walls - resembling a ramekin). The coffee is passed back and forth between them by the person drinking it.
Pouring the coffee back and forth is also a sort of art. Commercial establishments that serve South Indian Filter Coffee indulge in theatrics too - some of them pouring the coffee from a meter high!
South Indian Filter Coffee is served in restaurants and cafes around India and the world, but, if you’d like to learn how to brew your very own cup - stay tuned and we’ll teach you.