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.