I have been drinking coffee for as long as I can remember. Maybe I started drinking at the age of  three. Maybe even earlier, maybe later. But I clearly remember that back when I still had half-day school (i.e. kindergarten), after my afternoon siesta, I would sit down with my grandmother (another major coffee drinker) and we would sip coffee together. My father had been pissed off that my mother never drank coffee, and he had told my grandparents (with whom I spent the day while both my parents went to work) that they should bring me up differently. And so my grandmother had initiated me to coffee fairly early in life.

When I was in high school, I remember being one of the few people in my class who drank coffee. Back then, it was before the coffee days of the world came up, and coffee was still seen as downmarket. Something that you would invariably order at the end of “tiffin” at the neighbourhood Sagar, or Darshini. Coffee was uncool, and had an “uncle” feel to it. It was what you got when you went visiting relatives, or when guests came home. In my family, a visit to a relative’s house would not be complete without at least four rounds of coffee, one as soon as you arrived, one just before “tiffin”/lunch, one after food and another one “for the road”. And my poor mother would miss out on all this.

For a strange reason I can’t fathom now, for a long time I used to prefer the coffee that my father made, a nasty “decanted” brew, made from finely ground coffee powder we got from “modren coffee works” in the Jayanagar Shopping Complex. Despite my grandmother’s exhortations that the coffee she made – from a steel filter using “pure” (i.e. without chicory) coffee beans sourced from India Coffee Works – was superior, I would tell her that it never measured up to my father’s coffee. It was only later on in life (maybe when I got to high school) that I started finding my father’s coffee disgusting (interestingly back then, his mother (i.e. my “other” grandmother) and siblings also made coffee the same horrible decanted way), and I convinced him that we should also start making coffee using a filter.

During the last few years that I lived with my parents (ok I didn’t really live with them, only visited them during (substantial) vacations), coffee had the aura of a “special dish” in our house. We would make coffee only if we had guests. My mother anyway hated the drink, and my father would have had his daily fix at work, so instead they made  tea at home, some four times a day, with plenty of sugar. If I protested, I would be asked to visit the nearest darshini (one abominable place called Anna Kuteera). I would grudgingly sip my tea.

So coming back to high school, it was uncool to drink coffee. It was “uncle” to do so, and with friends you only had pepsi (or coke or thums up or whatever). So I was mildly shocked when I found that some classmates in my “new” school (which I switched to in 11th standard, and which was decidedly upmarket compared to my earlier school) had gone out “for coffee”. And a few days later, I ended up accompanying some of them, once again “for coffee”. We all had the relatively inexpensive espresso (Rs. 10; cappuccino was Rs. 20) that day at Cafe Coffee Day (#youremember?) on Brigade Road. It was the first time in my life I had felt “cool” drinking coffee (yeah, back then I was a wannabe and all that).

Six years later, when I got admission into IIMB, my father decided that along with me he too should “go upmarket”. The day I got my admit, we went for coffee (!!) to the Jayanagar Cafe Coffee Day (my mother refused to accompany us since she found that they made chicken samosas there). Soon, I found that my father had started having some official meetings also in coffee shops, rather than in his office (where “office boys” would source coffee in flasks from Adigas a few doors away).

Another level up was when Kalmane Koffee opened an outlet at the forum, and another in Jayanagar. Now, we could sit in a coffee shop and have “real coffee” (I never took a fancy for the taste of cappuccino). It is indeed unfortunate that they haven’t managed to scale up the way CCD has. Though I must mention here that the only time I had a “personal interview” back when I was in the arranged marriage market, it took place at a Kalmane Koffee outlet. And I don’t know why just about everyone I go to that coffee shop with ends up ordering this coffee called Nelyani Gold (I stick to plain vanilla Filter Kaapi).

Some three years back, I had bought a Moka pot from a Coffee Day outlet (they have coffee powder stores apart from their cafes). For the last six months or so, I have abandoned my filter and have been exclusively using this pot to make my coffee. For a long time, I didn’t get good results, but this time I read up and instructed the person manning the counter at Annapurna Coffee Works close to my house to grind my beans extremely finely. Awesome coffee I get, now. Now, if only I can figure out how to froth the milk at home like those Cappuccino machines in Rome do…

Degree Coffee

During my experiments to make hot chocolate of various degrees of chocolate-milk combination revealed that the higher the milk-to-water ratio, the more frothy the chocolate became. That was when I realized why restaurants (especially in Bangalore and Madras) try to make their coffee frothy – it’s a sign of  quality, that they’ve used sufficient milk and not diluted it with water. Hence you get “degree coffee”. The “fat concentration” in the milk, that provides the froth, needs to be above a certain limit, which is measured using this instrument with the reading in “degrees”.

The  quality of a good hot cup of “milk coffee” comes from two ingredients – the coffee powder and milk. If there were a way in which coffee beans could lend their flavour to milk directly, that would have been the ideal coffee. Unfortunately, since this is not possible, you need to add water. Water adds nothing to the taste of coffee. It only dilutes it. However, it is critical because it is the passing of hot water or steam that allows the flavour of the coffee beans to be released.

Given this, the ideal coffee is one where the concentration of coffee flavour and milk are maximized for a unit volume of coffee (ok concentration of flavour varies according to taste (I prefer “strong” coffee) but milk is important). This implies that to make good coffee you need to make a very concentrated decoction (one that maximizes flavour per unit volume) and then “dilute” it with an appropriate amount of milk.

Which is why you see that in “darshini” restaurants in Bangalore, they put very little “decoction” in the cup and pour a large quantity of milk. And the coffee in most darshinis is invariably tasty. Similarly in the small restaurants of Madras. Similar algo. And in the cafes of Rome, where they make a concentrated espresso and then add foamed milk to produce absolutely stunning cappuccino.

Working further backwards, the trick is to extract as much flavour as possible using as little water as possible. This is why “decant coffee” and “brewed coffee” (that you get in America) suck. They use way too much water for way too little flavour. Espresso is designed towards extracting a lot of flavour using very little water (or steam). Also, there is an “espresso roast” – coffee beans are roasted more than usual in order to make espresso. Unfortunately the technology is too expensive to keep in the homes.

In India the traditional method is “filter coffee”, where hot water passes through a bed of coffee powder. I prefer, however, to use a percolator, which uses steam rather than hot water, and which works against the direction of gravity (steam moves up while collecting coffee flavour and then condenses in a jar above). Unfortunately the percolator I use (purchased from Coffee Day) is unstable and prone to falling off and ruining the kitchen.

What’s the best coffee you’ve had? How do you prepare coffee to get strong decoction? Do you swear by the filter? Or do you get reasonably priced espresso machines? Let me know.