Once a week, I stop by the neighbourhood Ayyanar Store during my evening stroll as they have a Leo Coffee kiosk. Leo is one of Chennai’s best known coffee brands, retailing coffee beans and powder all over the city from its roastery at Mylapore. I promptly ask one of the store boys for a packet each of Peaberry and Plantation A coffee beans. The ‘A’ denotes premium Arabica beans, and Peaberry is a smaller variety in which only one of the two seeds of a coffee cherry are fertilised, giving it a pea-like roundness. I watch with deliberate focus as coffee beans pour out of a golden spout and into the steel tumbler to be weighed, and just as they are about to be tipped into the grinder, I blurt out “Only beans, don’t grind Anna,” much to everyone’s surprise. Normally, folks gets their beans ground at the store for use in a filter kaapi maker. However, I have other plans.
Every morning, I announce my arrival at office with the burr of my tabletop coffee grinder; far more welcome is an unmistakable aroma of freshly ground coffee beans that waft out of my cubicle. I proceed to scoop the coarse grind into an Aeropress, which is a geeky manual brewer resembling an oversized syringe. I add just-off-the-boil water and stir, as a gorgeous beige ‘crema’ rises to the top, indicating that the coffee is freshly roasted. The crema is an emulsion of coffee oils, carbon dioxide and smaller ground particles. Roasted coffee beans rapidly lose carbon dioxide and absorb moisture as time goes by and a flat or no crema at all is a tell-tale sign of stale beans.
I put on the Aeropress cap, fitted with a paper filter, flip the whole contraption onto a cup and press the plunger down with a steady hand. The rubber lined plunger of an Aeropress traps air above the brew and uses it to force the brew down through the filter, thereby extracting a cup of coffee. I like to use Peaberry beans with a paper filter, their acidity gives a nice clean ‘bite’ through paper, which absorbs some of the coffee oils. One can also use a metal filter, which works great with mellower Plantation A beans. My colleagues often peep in puzzled and quiz me on why I take the trouble to make ‘black coffee’, when our canteen serves a perfectly delicious dabara of filter kaapi. They are especially wary of the Aeropress.
Chennai is indeed besotted with its filter kaapi, and nothing would move in Namma Madras without this frothy, robust libation. I am fan too, but for a coffee aficionado like me, filter kaapi remains a flavoured beverage. The real ‘coffee’ is a viscous extract that’s colloquially called decoction. It’s prepared by steeping finely ground coffee powder with hot water, and letting the brew drip through a filter for at least 15 minutes and up to overnight. The powder can be made from a single coffee bean variety or a blend of different varieties and often includes chicory, which is the roasted root of the Chicory plant, to enhance body and colour. The exact proportion of a blend are among closely guarded trade secrets, and what venerable brands thrive on. Flavourful as it is, the decoction is brewed with the ultimate intention of mixing it with milk and sugar, and no self-respecting Chennaite would consider sipping the decoction on its own. These days one can find readymade packets of decoction, which can keep for upto a week in the fridge - it is my preferred quick-fix when diluted with hot water, and far superior to instant coffee.
Call me a coffee snob if you please, but I seek pleasure in the unadulterated aroma and flavour of coffee beans. I find coffee to be much like whiskey - sure, you could add some Coca Cola or maybe whip up a Mint Julep, but why not enjoy a dram of the liquid gold by itself? Letting its nuanced flavour dance on your palate, especially if it is a much vaunted batch that has been carefully distilled and lovingly matured?
At this point, you might be wondering why I would go through the trouble of manually brewing my own Cup of Joe from scratch when I could easily use a Coffee Machine or grab an Espresso. My answer is threefold. First, manual brewers offer a greater degree of control. You choose everything that goes in - from the coffee beans and their grind size to the water temperature and steep time. Then there is the question of picking from an entire universe of coffee brewing equipment. Every single parameter will impact how the coffee tastes, and enthusiasts debate endlessly over each detail. What is certain however, is that the cup of coffee you brew is reflection of who you are and what you choose. Much like your signature, it is yours alone.
India cultivates some of the best shade-grown coffee in the world, a sustainable technique where the coffee plants are grown alongside other plantations like Rubber, Peppercorn, Jackfruit, etc. Lamentably though, most of our best produce is exported out to Western Europe, North America and Japan while Indian consumers queue up outside Starbucks. It is about time we cheered for beans from our own soil. While websites and niche cafes championing premium single-origin Indian coffee have taken off in the recent years, many of us have had access to great coffee beans all along! In cities like Chennai and Bangalore, you can find a coffee depot just around the corner, in almost every neighborhood. While you may not be able to afford first-rate Espresso machines, you can buy basic manual brewing equipment like a French Press and grinder for about Rs. 1000 to start brewing. The high level of control helps in treating each variety on its own merit and figuring out how to best savour its nuances.
The final reason is more philosophical. Coffee is a product of nature, labour and love. Every single coffee bean is a consequence of an incredible journey that spans many years. Beginning with the careful cultivation of coffee plantations and the painstakingly laborious art picking of ripe coffee cherries. Subsequently processed using age-old methods, a great degree of expertise goes into roasting green coffee beans to the little brown nugget we have come to adore so much . The last leg of the coffee bean’s journey is in your hands - its final consumer. I consider the ritual of brewing coffee my obeisance to this wondrous gift, which in invigorating me with all that it has taken from earth and the many hands it has passed through, completes the circle and helps begins my own.
The author blogs at Pursuit of Yumminess about his food and travel experiences. He has a comparatively boring day job of an HR Manager at Bharat Petroleum. He says it "helps pay for all the food!"