Most coffee snobs in South India will tell you that it’s the finer details that make a big difference.
The first time I heard the term ‘coffee snob’ was in Melbourne. Australia’s sporting and culinary capital is also obsessed with coffee; it’s also where I’ve always found the best versions of one of my favourite versions of coffee – a flat white. But even the freshly brewed coffee at Cup of Truth – one of my favourite hole-in-the-wall cafes in Melbourne – is no match for an invigorating tumbler of filter coffee in Chennai or Bengaluru. Two cities that I’m always torn between and two cities with coffee afficionados that can give Melbourne’s coffee snobs a serious run. While newer coffee brewing techniques – from French Press coffee makers to Chemex filters – have become commonplace in homes in Chennai and Bengaluru, filter coffee still rules the roost. First, the coffee growing process:
Bean to cup: The coffee bean to cup process can take up to ten months. It starts with the blooming of the coffee flowers that are very similar to jasmine flowers. These flowers become coffee berries that take about eight to ten months to become ready to be manually harvested. The coffee beans go through a laborious process to become fit for roasting. The beans are segregated and then washed, a process during which the beans also go through moisture reduction. The final stage puts the beans through fiery temperatures of between 180 to 230 C. This roasting process sees the beans change colour from green to yellow to the coffee brown we are all familiar with. The beans are finally ready for grinding and brewing.
(Also Read: The Best Places For Filter Coffee In Chennai)
Most coffee snobs in Bengaluru or Chennai will tell you that it’s the finer details that make a big difference. Here are some of the tips I’ve found handy and use for my first tumbler of morning coffee:
Choosing the filter coffee: I’m partial to home-grown brands (you can order most of these brands online) like Narasu’s or Vivekananda coffee in Chennai. My ‘go to’ brand is Cothas coffee from Bengaluru with a slightly coarse texture. Quite a few brands like Coffee Day and Leo also allow you to pick your beans and make your own blend at supermarkets or dedicated stores. I would suggest blending two coffee beans and asking the blender to add 15-20% chicory to the mix. The roots of the chicory plant don’t just add colour but extract more flavour from the coffee powder. Cotahs, for instance has an 85:15 (coffee: chicory) mix. It also adds a mild sweet taste that offsets the bitter taste of coffee.
Storing the powder: Always look for the manufacturing date on the crimp when you buy pre-packed filter coffee powder. It’s ideal if you buy powders packaged within 30 or 60 days. Also, buy smaller packet sizes (100 or 200 gm) where you can and store in an airtight jar. I’d recommend glass or stainless steel storage jars for your coffee.
Buying a percolator or coffee filter: South Indian filter coffee uses a drip brew process that is similar to how Vietnamese coffee is brewed. About seven years ago I was at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore where I checked out Trung Nguyen Coffee, one of Vietnam’s best known brands. This café places coffee percolators at the table and allows diners to watch the Vietnamese coffee gently drip down. A typical coffee filter comes with two cylindrical cups (one with a pierced bottom that sits atop the tumbler cup) and a lid, there’s also a disc with a stem that is placed over the coffee powder in the upper cup before you pour warm water. Most home percolators come in stainless steel but many old school restaurants use large brass filters that enhance the flavour. You can opt for a smaller brass filter for home use, but as I have discovered it is high maintenance and requires an extra effort to keep shiny.
Brewing the coffee: This is the most critical step. I’d recommend an overnight process if you like waking up to filter coffee. You can also brew the coffee effectively in about an hour too. Transfer the desired amount of coffee (my usual measure is three heaped teaspoons for two cups of coffee) to the upper cup and flatten it with the plunger or stem. Sprinkle a small quantity of coffee over the stem and then sprinkle some white sugar over this powder (this step adds a slight caramelisation to the coffee and is a trick many wedding cooks use). Pour warm (not boiling) water over the coffee and let it brew. Remember good filter coffee takes time.
(Also Read: 5 Best Filter Coffee Places In Delhi NCR)
Chennai vs. Bengaluru filter coffee: From Kumbakonam degree coffee to Mysore Coffee and to Mylapore coffee, filter coffee goes by different names in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but the brewing process is almost identical. The one difference between the Chennai and Bengaluru version is the viscosity. The classic Chennai version is made with thick milk and strong coffee, it almost coats your tongue. I lean more towards the Bengaluru version that is slightly lighter – I use 50% milk for this mix that includes the brewed coffee and boiling hot water to make up the balance. This is usually down to personal preference and you are bound to develop your ideal mix (that also depends on whether you use high fat or slim milk) as you start brewing filter coffee regularly at home. And if you want the froth, make sure you use a tumbler and cup (or davara) and ‘pull’ the coffee – it’s what some people call metre coffee, instead of stirring it.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI’ve discovered cultures, destinations and felt at home in some of the world’s most remote corners because of the various meals I’ve tried that have been prepared with passion. Sometimes they are traditional recipes and at most times they’ve been audacious reinterpretations by creative chefs. I might not cook often but when I do, I imagine I’m in a cookery show set – matching measuring bowls, et all!