The Great Indian Filter Coffee

The Great Indian Filter Coffee

Indian filter coffee is a traditional beverage that is made by mixing frothed and boiled milk with the infusion obtained by percolation brewing of finely ground coffee in a traditional Indian filter. For many Indians, there are a few caffeinated beverages that prove as potent and satiating as a cup of good filter coffee. This local coffee, which is brewed either black and extra strong or with plenty of sweetened milk and served in steel cups that sit atop containers known as dabarah(also pronounced in some regions as davarah), is fuelling parts of South India for centuries now. While its popularity soared across the country over the 20th century, it also spread outwards- to Malaysia and Singapore. Also known as Kopi Tarik, the drink was introduced by roadside stalls run by Indian migrant communities.

Rev. Edward Terry, who was the ambassador at the court of emperor Jehangir, provides a detailed account of its usage: “Many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no wine at all; but they use a liquor, more wholesome than pleasant, they call coffee, made by a black seed boiled in water, which turns it almost into the same colour, but doth very little alter the taste of the water. Notwithstanding it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood.”

The British East Indian company came across South India’s coffee culture and took it upon themselves to commercialize its production. Under these efforts, coffee plantations became appearing throughout the hills of Coorg in southern Kerala, Wayanad in northern Kerala and other regions. While the yields are mostly exported, a local market also developed at the time.

According to David Burton, a food historian in New Zealand writes in his book The Raj at Table - “India’s first coffee house opened in Calcutta after the Battle of Plassey in 1780. Other houses also offered free use of billiard tables, recovering their costs with the high price of one rupee for a single dish of coffee.”

Indian filter coffee was popularised by the India Coffee House run by the coffee board of India since the mid-1940s. It became the demanding drink for millions after the emergence of more popular Indian Coffee Houses in the mid-1950s.

The most common coffee beans in India, Arabica and Robusta have been growing in India since the 1600s. These coffee beans are grown in different states of South India, such as in the hills of Karnataka (Kodagu, Chikkamagalur and Hassan), Tamil Nadu (Nilgiris District, Yercaud and Kodaikanal), Kerala (Malabar region) and Andhra Pradesh (Araku valley).

What makes Indian Filter Coffee distinct in its taste?

The Indian Filter Coffee has a certain type of coffee grinding and roasting required for reaching that roasted strong flavour and deep mouth feel.

  • Perfect fit for filter coffees, these beans are usually medium roasted to dark roasted.
  • Coming to grinding... finely ground coffee is always preferred. This coffee is sometimes blended with roasted chicory.
  • The final ground coffee composition is typically equal quantities of regular plantation A (washed Arabica) beans and Pea berry beans with 10% to 30% added chicory.
  • Because these beans are called “Indian monsoon coffee” due to the rainfall associated with them, a good cup of Indian filter coffee should have a naturally sweeter bean with lower cut acidity due to the rainfall, which gives it a distinct taste.
  • It should be producing a distinct aroma, fresher and not flowery, slightly fruity, with thickness.
  • The colour in the resulting brewed coffee, which when raw should have a rather wine like brown tint.

What is the mechanism behind Indian Filter Coffee?

With the advent of coffee houses, earthen pots used to brew and serve coffee were replaced by stainless steel tumblers- which are synonymous with Indian filter coffee to this day.

  • Indian filter coffee is prepared by brewing with a metal device that resembles two cylindrical cups, one of which has a pierced bottom that nests into the top of the tumbler cup, leaving ample room beneath to receive the brewed coffee.
  • The upper cup has two removable parts: a pierced pressing disc with a central stem handle and a covering lid (a very similar device is also used to brew Vietnamese coffee). The upper cup is loaded with freshly ground coffee.
  • The first grounds are then compressed with the stemmed disc into a uniform layer across the cup’s pierced bottom.
  • The coarser the coffee grinds, the more the coffee must be stamped to obtain the same extraction.
  • With the pressed disc remaining in the place, the upper cup is nestled into the top of the tumbler; boiling water is then poured in.
  • The lid is placed on top and the appliance is left to slowly drip the brewed coffee into the bottom.
  • In cases where chicory is used, it retains the hot water longer, letting the water dissolve and extract more of the ground coffee.
  • The resulting brew is usually much stronger than Western drip/filter coffee, and often stronger than espresso.
  • Traditionally, the coffee is consumed by adding one to two tablespoons of the brew to a cup of boiling milk with the preferred or required amount of sugar.
  • Then the coffee is drunk from tumbler, but is often cooled first with 'dabarah', a wide metal saucer with lipped walls.
  • Coffee is typically served after pouring back and forth between the dabarah and the tumbler in huge arc-like motions of the hand.

This is done for several reasons: mixing the ingredients (including sugar) thoroughly; cooling the hot coffee to a temperature at which it can be sipped; and most importantly, aerating the mix without introducing extra water (such as with a steam wand used for frothing cappuccinos). An anecdote which is related to the distance between the pouring and receiving, leads to another name for the drink, “Meter Coffee”.

Coming to present day, Indian Filter Coffee continues to be a regular habit as well as an ethnic tradition both inside and outside the country for coffee lovers!

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