Explained: How ‘filter kaapi’ became South India’s favourite beverage

Tata Starbucks will add South Indian filter coffee to its menu alongside lattes, flat whites, and espressos. It is one of the “regional favourites” that the chain is introducing along with masala chai and small bites in an effort to expand its presence in India. The popularity of this style of coffee, which is typically served milky and hot in a tumbler and davara made of stainless steel or brass, has increased over the past couple of decades. However, its inclusion on the menu of a pan-Indian brand may signal a mainstream status that has eluded filter coffee for decades.

What is filter coffee exactly?

Whether in Mylapore, Chennai, or Matunga, Mumbai, the aroma of freshly roasted beans, accompanied by the promise of a hot, bracing shot of sweet, milky coffee, has long characterized a particular, typically South Indian style of coffee consumption.

The “filter” pot used to make it consists of two cylindrical metal components: The coarsely-ground coffee powder is placed in the top cylinder, which has fine holes in its base, and a metal disc is used to press it down. The coffee is allowed to steep for approximately ten minutes, with the brew slowly dripping into the bottom cylinder. The decoction is mixed with milk — strictly cow milk, if one wishes to prepare the renowned “degree” coffee of Kumbakonam — and sugar, and served in a tumbler and davara.

Ideal coffee is made from freshly roasted and ground coffee beans, with purists insisting that chicory is never added. However, many commercially available blends do contain chicory.

A brief historical overview of filter coffee

While tea/chai established pan-Indian dominance — in large part due to a marketing push in the 1930s by the British, who were seeking a larger consumer base for the colonial tea industry — coffee consumption has been considerably less widespread. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the coffee-drinking custom took hold in Tamil society. By the 18th century, coffee cultivation may have been established in the Mysore region, but the majority of it was exported to Europe. As documented by historian A R Venkatachalapathy in ‘In Those Days There Was No Coffee,’ by the turn of the 20th century, the emerging Tamil middle class was consumed with a passion for coffee.

Expectedly, cultural anxiety accompanied the enthusiasm, with critics associating it with “every imaginable and improbable disease.” It was considered to be more addictive than alcohol, and Venkatachalapathy notes that women in particular were perceived to have succumbed to its “dangers.” In spite of this, coffee became the most prestigious beverage in Tamil society, to the point where not serving it to guests was viewed as a lack of social grace.

Coffee, or kaapi, had become a “cultural marker” and a symbol of modernity, especially for the Brahmin middle-class, in contrast to tea, which was considered the beverage of the “urban working class.”

Breaking Brahmin traditionalism

In his book, Venkatachalapathy records a tongue-in-cheek description from 1926 of the increasingly popular “coffee hotels” (also known as “coffee clubs”): “A public tavern established by Brahmins. A divine messenger sent to challenge Brahmin orthodoxy.” Even though all types of people frequented coffee hotels, they were almost always owned and operated by Brahmins and had separate sections for Brahmins and non-Brahmins. While caste-based segregation is largely gone, the influence of Brahmins on the filter kaapi culture is still evident in the design of the utensils used to consume the beverage: the tumbler and davara were designed with outward-facing, lipped rims so that the coffee could be poured directly into the mouth without touching the utensils.

As coffee consumption became widespread in other regions of South India, “Udupi” hotels were established in other parts of the country, particularly in Bombay and Delhi, to introduce filter coffee to newer populations. Despite the wider availability of filter pots and even packaged decoctions, only devoted fans will make the effort to prepare filter coffee at home due to the need for specialized equipment and a certain degree of patience and skill.

Read more • indianexpress.com

Suggested Reading