A journey to find the perfect brew!

Brewing coffee the right way is an art and a form of meditation.

Read below

During the pandemic, I began experimenting with crafting the perfect brew. Perfection, I soon found out, was a myth. I changed the definition, in this context, to mean ‘the closest taste to what one liked from memory.’

Tasteful memories

Coffee pots

Memories from younger days have a way of bubbling up in later years.

College days. Times when pocket money was a luxury. Calicut, the small town where I went to college, had a cafe called the Indian Coffee House (ICH). Once in a while, my friends and I used to go there. This was also the place where one took girlfriends to impress.

We would look at the menu at ICH and order the same things. Vegetable cutlets and filter coffee. Every time. The cutlets came with a thick red sauce made of beetroot. The coffee is to die for.

Canadian coffee

When we migrated to Canada, one of the first sights I noticed was the strange habit of carrying coffee. Till then, when I ordered coffee, I savoured it straight away.

When the barista behind a Starbucks counter near my office asked me, “To go?”

I blinked and replied, “Maybe later.”

Definitely, after drinking the coffee, I thought.

The barista then asked my name.

I gave her the full version, all 18 alphabets.

With the black marker poised above the empty cup, she looked at me. Her left eyebrow went up a shade.

“Is there a short version?” she asked.

“Mad,” I told her.

This seemed to have confirmed her suspicions. She wrote ‘MAD’ on the cup.

Every day, after this incident, I held up my ‘to-go’ coffee high like the torch in the hand of the Statue Of Liberty to shine my path and walked to my desk on the sixth floor.

Due to the space taken up by all the coffee drinkers with the extended hands holding cups of various sizes and colours, the elevator could accommodate only half the number of travellers.

Indian coffee

To be more specific, South Indian coffee.

If you visit a traditional restaurant in South India, the coffee is presented (more often plunked on the table) in two vessels known as tumbler and davara. The set has two containers – a narrow and taller one and a broader and shorter container (image below). The smaller container held the steaming coffee (you could smell from a distance). One held them by the edges. Indian coffee has chicory as an ingredient, which gives it a different flavour. A well-brewed coffee is made in milk. Completely.

Customer engagement is built into this coffee-drinking process. One has to pour the coffee into the second container back and forth to mix the sugar and create a froth. Not necessarily the three-finger foam a well-brewed beer demands.

The process

Every day during the pandemic, my wife and I devised ways to keep insanity in check. Brewing coffee the traditional way was one. By the second week, I whipped out the two-tier coffee percolator I had brought back from India.

Brewing South Indian coffee is an art. Like an abstract painting, one has to find the right taste and let it grow on you.

First, the coffee beans are ground – somewhere between not-too-fine and not-too-coarse – in small batches to retain the flavour. For two cups of coffee, four heaped tablespoons of powder are dropped into the top container to make the decoction (thick coffee syrup). The plunger is then gently lowered to tap the powder to an even level.

In my first experiment, I poured hot water to the brim. The brew took almost an hour to trickle down. Apparently, if it is tapped too tight the syrup will not drip.

After consulting my Tamil friend #1, I changed the process. The advice I received was, “You have to let the coffee powder expand, wait for a minute, and then pour the boiling water to the brim.”

Mixing the decoction with milk or milk with water produced different results. To improve this age-old tradition, I straightened out the curve in the plunger to get an even level, this destroyed its shape.

During this lengthy experiment, the coffee beans expired. I gave up.

The second coming

When movements were restricted again due to the second wave of COVID, I fished out the second filter my Tamil friend #2 had given me. This one was smaller and made enough decoction for one coffee. It had no plunger.

I went through many variations – the coarseness of grinding the beans, tapping the powder from gently to harder, different percentages of milk, and administering the hot water in stages.

After a few attempts, I gave up again. This also coincided with the rules getting relaxed. I alternated visiting my Tamil friends to get great coffee.

In September 2023, I went on a 10-day meditation retreat (more on this story later). I had a lot of time to reflect. Memories from the past bubbled up, some as far back as 50 years ago. The ICH coffee memory also came up as I poured the lame coffee at the meditation centre.

On return from meditation, I began brewing coffee in earnest. I began to experiment with a discarded, expired bag of coffee beans. This phase produced better results.

The Italian connection

During this time my wife and I visited a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That evening, she (not Tamil) gave us brewed coffee. This was the closest I can compare to the ICH coffee.

Traditional secrets, verbally handed down through generations, are a closely guarded secrets. After some cajoling and pleading, she relented and let me in on the secret.

The stovetop coffee percolator she had was different. Although this one had two chambers, this process defied gravity and my understanding of physics. The brew bubbled up and filled the top chamber. She even gifted me with a spare percolator.

The third phase of my experimentation has commenced. The process is getting better. Now, all that’s left is to try out coffees from all over the world!

I will never be able to replicate the taste of ICH coffee from four decades ago. There were too many variables then – company of friends, age, the occasional fly that buzzed around, the flow of conversation around girls, and more than I can remember.

The process of making coffee has become therapeutic. The aroma of freshly ground coffee beans in the morning is enough to awaken my grey cells.

Photo by Igor Haritanovich, Pexels
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