The south Indian coffee brew — filter kaapi — can open the doors to a gamut of flavours if you know what to pay heed to.
The foamy bubbles seated comfortably on top of freshly brewed coffee, with steam taking off in the direction of the wind from silver or brass tumblers; is a sight for sore eyes. It is often consumed alike at homes and shops in south India, with a side of a vernacular newspaper. If it isn’t obvious thus far, the drink that is being mused over is filter coffee, otherwise known as filter kaapi.
Coffee connoisseurs (and south Indians) would prefer freshly brewed coffee over instant coffee any day. However, for an unforgettable experience of taste and aroma, one must pay heed from the very ingredients that go into the coffee powder to the final ratio of milk and decoction that goes into a cup. This article explores the many dimensions of an authentic South Indian brew that will leave you wanting more after every sip.
Suggested read: The magic of modern South Indian at Avartana
A scandalous advent
South Indian households and coffee connoisseurs have the late Baba Budan, a Muslim saint from Karnataka, to thank for smuggling coffee into India. At the time, the Arabian Peninsula had a monopoly over coffee production and, hence, the transportation of fresh green coffee beans was illegal. Budan, while returning to India from his pilgrimage to Mecca, is said to have hidden the coffee beans in his beard. Upon arrival, he successfully planted Arabica coffee in the Chandragiri Hills of Chikmagalur, Karnataka, where the production of coffee began to flourish.
In the 19th century, the British marketed this coffee and its popularity saw a sharp surge in the south. Within the century, brewing filter coffee became an everyday practice in South Indian households. While the northern part of the country continued to sip on cups of chai, states such as Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh (and today’s Telangana), and Tamil Nadu made a cultural heritage out of coffee.
Coffee was not popularised in the north until the 20th century when chain units of the Indian Coffee House were established.
Today, most households prefer the convenience that instant coffee offers. Instant coffee powder is predominantly made from Robusta coffee, which is second in quality when compared to Arabica. Hence, the quality of coffee is poor making it cheaper in comparison to ground coffee powder. Further, instant coffee powder is the result of a spray-drying process wherein coffee is brewed and dried to form the granules. Since it is already brewed, it flattens the taste profile of coffee and the fresh depth of aroma that must otherwise be present is compromised on.
Meanwhile, not all brands of packaged ground coffee can deliver the authenticity of a south Indian filter coffee. Most brands offer the option of specifying the proportion of ingredients to blend. To achieve the right taste and sensory experience one must look out for the ingredients, degree of roast, grind texture, and the ratios of ingredients that are blended.
Firstly, the ingredients that go into the powder are:
‘Plantation’ is the Indian terminology for Arabica and the ‘A’ refers to the size of the bean and its percentage of imperfection. A-grade coffee must essentially be of larger screen size, preferably over 17, when compared to the other grades (AB, B, C, etc.) with minimal imperfections. Hence, it is one of the highly graded coffee beans that are grown in India.
Peaberries are rounded beans formed due to a defective natural mutation. They are usually sorted and separated from coffee beans after harvesting. This variety of coffee beans brings complex flavours to the cup and is a significant ingredient for a good cup of filter coffee. The acidic sweetness that peaberry induces balances the acidic bitterness that pure plantation-A holds. However, this exquisite variety is rare and, therefore, expensive. Note that this ingredient can be avoided if a strong and pure mixture is preferred.
The chicory plant is completely different from the coffee plant. However, chicory’s roots taste very similar to that of coffee. It can be understood as coffee without caffeine. Although it changes the flavour of coffee depending upon the ratio of its blend, when mixed with milk it strikes the sweet notes. Moreover, adding chicory reduces the cost of ground coffee powder and increases its life span. Chicory is important to bring authenticity to the south Indian filter coffee but can be avoided if a very strong and pure mixture is preferred.
Next comes the scientific process of roasting the ingredients. Freshly harvested coffee beans go through certain endothermic and exothermic reactions to alter their colour and develop deep aroma and flavour. The former is the process of fresh beans losing their moisture and gaining energy from heat, and the latter is when the energy is used to rupture the beans or crack them open.
For a well-rounded taste profile, filter coffee is subjected to a medium roast.
To attain the right texture, the roasted beans have to be ground. Brewing coffee involves the process of extracting decoction from the coffee powder. Hence, the right grind particle size must be achieved. There are several sizes for coffee grinds that range between an extremely coarse grind (the texture is very rough with the coffee beans retaining most of their shape) and an extra-fine grind (the texture here resembles the texture of flour). The grind size is directly related to the time it takes to brew. The coarse grind takes lesser time to brew and has a mild flavour while the finer grind takes more time and has a stronger flavour.
For filter coffee, the grind must be medium-fine. This ensures that the particles aren’t too small to escape the sieve and the flavour profile is balanced between the two extremes.
Finally, the ratio for blending the ground mixtures has to be determined. As discussed above, peaberry and chicory can be avoided to attain a strong acidic flavour. However, the south Indian authenticity lies in mixing chicory with plantation-A powder. The percentage of chicory usually does not exceed 20%. It is either 80% plantation-A with 20% chicory or 90% plantation-A with 10% chicory.
However, to cut down on caffeine or to reduce the cost, the percentage of chicory can go up to 40% or even 50%. Note that more than 20% of chicory will compromise the taste and flavour of filter coffee.
In some parts of south India, peaberry is blended with plantation-A and chicory to add to the exotic nature of filter coffee. The percentage of peaberry in the mixture can be head-to-head with plantation-A (for example 45% peaberry, 45% plantation-A, and 10% chicory) to add acidic sweetness to the coffee. However, its percentage can be reduced or completely omitted to pave the way to the pleasant bitterness that plantation-A brings to a cup of coffee.
Upon blending the right proportions, the aromatic powder with a well-rounded taste profile is ready to be brewed.
Step 1: Boil water until its temperature reaches 100 degrees for the perfect brew. Let it sit for 30-40 seconds.
Step 2: Add 3-4 tablespoons of filter coffee powder to the cylindrical structure with perforations and mount it on top of the cylindrical collector. Once it sits, press the powder with the pressing disc. Allow the disc to sit on the powder and pour the boiled water onto the filter. Pour water to the brim and close the lid. Let it brew for 15-20 minutes.
In the absence of a filter coffee press/filter, a netted sieve can be used with a lining of muslin cloth on top. Place a bowl underneath the sieve to collect the decoction.
Step 3: Remove the cylindrical collector which will have the decoction. Add decoction to hot milk (any milk of your choice) in a 1:4 ratio. Add sugar to taste.
Step 4: Mix it well and top it off with a teaspoon of decoction.
In south India, filter coffee is served in a tumbler (cup) and davarah (a small bowl-like structure) otherwise known as dabarah. The tumbler sits on top of the davarah and the coffee is repeatedly poured from the tumbler to the davarah and vice-versa to bring the coffee to a drinking temperature and is then sipped on. Filter coffee can most certainly be consumed from coffee mugs but a tumbler-davarah set is essential to experience what south Indians wholeheartedly believe in — “Coffee is a drink; filter coffee is an emotion!”