What it takes to brew that perfect cup of coffee!
There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. Perhaps that's true for that hot cuppa you're sipping on right now!
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Nothing brings out the North-South divide in India better than when one is drinking coffee.
We Northies are tea or chai addicts by and large, and coffee is a special drink that has historically demanded a special occasion, such as weddings and receptions, where we had ‘Expresso’ machines that only spewed hot steam and added froth to our instant coffee cups.
Or winters — my mother was told by her mother that coffee should not be consumed during the hot summer months, and hence, as children, we were forbidden from drinking it between March and November. Come December and we would cheerfully stock up instant coffee powder and mix it in hot milk for a steamin’ cuppa.
For us Northies, coffee really meant Nescafe or Bru, or if we really wanted to splurge — Davidoff.
Southerners, on the other hand, always knew their coffee well, presumably because they grew it in their farms there.
In Chennai and Bangalore — two cities that I often travel to — small coffee roasteries and grinders exist in most neighbourhoods, and locals are known to make trips to these shops every week or ten days religiously, for coffee needs to be freshly roasted for it to taste its best.
Instant coffee mixed to hot milk — that's what Indian winters are made of. (Source: Reuters)
In the early 2000s, Barista and Café Coffee Day opened their first cafes in North India and introduced us to real coffee. While we drank our first Cappuccinos and Lattes with reasonable suspicion, many from the old generation insisted on ordering the ‘Expresso’ and were patiently explained to by the staff that the real espresso is not what they serve at Punjabi weddings — it is instead a small and highly potent shot of black coffee.
Many felt disillusioned, even disgusted at this discovery.
The fact that brewing coffee requires specialised equipment, unlike tea, is perhaps one reason why most North Indians stick to instant coffee at home. One could imagine it would be sacrilegious for a South Indian home to not keep at least a drip coffee maker at hand — one that is used for brewing the famous South Indian filter coffee. North Indian homemakers in contrast only get pressure cookers or food processors as wedding gifts — finding a coffee percolator in a city in Punjab or Haryana can be nigh-impossible.
In fact, many Indians are unaware of different coffee brewing methods and corresponding equipment. Espresso machines (thanks to cafes) and drip coffee makers are rather well-known, but few know of the existence of French presses, Moka Pots, pour-over systems that use paper filters, Chemex, Aeropress or the Vacuum Pot.
A Moka Pot typically makes only two cups in one go — so, keep two at home. (Source: YouTube screengrab)
Personally, I swear by my Moka Pot — it is simple to use, reasonably quick and produces an excellent-tasting cup of coffee right at home. All you need is high-quality coffee beans or ground coffee, and a gas or induction stove. The only drawback of using a Moka Pot is it typically makes only two cups in one go. My workaround is to keep two Moka Pots at home.
The Moka Pot-style coffee is also hugely popular in Italy — by one estimate, over 70 per cent of Italian homes have one. It was invented by an Italian, Alfonso Bialetti, and to date, Bialetti remains the most popular Moka Pot brand around the world. Of course, you can buy an Indian version or ask a friend to get you one from any cookware shop in Bangalore or Chennai.
Drip-style or pour-over systems using paper filters brew even better-tasting coffee and should be your first choice — although paper filters can be a significant recurring cost (they are typically imported from Japan) and it can be incredibly frustrating when the filters run out and you’re left staring at your coffee beans.
For household use, a French Press comes next, but I don’t like the residue that inevitably finds its way into the cup after you’ve brewed it. Electric coffee or espresso makers are the one type that I seriously detest — they invariably produce a godawful cup of coffee.
It could be sacrilegious for a South Indian home to not have a drip coffee maker at hand. (Source: Facebook/Babi's Recipes)
Then there are professional-grade espresso machines that come in manual, semi-automatic and fully-automatic avatars, and are typically found in cafes or restaurants. But you don’t really need them unless you plan to open a café of your own.
Most coffee lovers will tell you they hate instant coffee. Of course, the taste can be somewhat misleading, but the missing flavour and aroma are a dead giveaway.
Comparing instant coffee to real coffee is like comparing margarine to butter — once you have tasted the real thing, you will never go back.
A big reason for this is the process of making instant coffee — actual coffee is brewed from ground beans, then the water is mechanically evaporated, the residue is filtered and converted to fine grains, packaged in jars and sold in grocery stores. Along with the water, a significant volume of chemicals that make up the flavour and aroma of real coffee also evaporate, and hence what you end up drinking at home or at work is merely an imposter.
Once the brewing method is decided, next comes the question of choosing your preferred coffee beans. You want to stick to Arabica coffee, and many Indian estates grow excellent and flavourful Arabica beans.
Specialty stores often allow you to taste your brew before you buy. (Source: Zomato.com)
In my experience though, the best coffee is found in Europe, and if you ever have a friend visiting France or Italy, the only souvenir you should really ask for is a pack of freshly roasted coffee beans. And if you ever find yourself in Paris or Rome, I’d strongly urge you to order an espresso at a roadside café and judge the difference yourself. If you can’t drink your coffee without milk, order a noisette in Paris or Caffe macchiato in Rome.
Once the beans are chosen, the next stage is deciding on the intensity of the roast. Coffee beans are typically roasted either medium or dark — also called the espresso roast sometimes. Personally, I can’t drink an Indian dark roast coffee without milk. A good medium roasted coffee is a different matter altogether — it tastes heavenly on its own.
Oh, you also have the choice of buying beans or ground coffee. Many coffee enthusiasts swear by freshly ground coffee and invest in manual, electric or even fully-automatic coffee grinders. As a somewhat lazy person, I buy ground coffee in really small packages, no more than 100 grams at once.
Should you add milk to your coffee? Opinion is sharply divided on this one.
My personal take is that adding milk is a necessity if you’re drinking a cup in an Indian mass-market café chain. But if you are brewing at home with a pour-over or Moka Pot. using high-quality medium roasted beans, the resulting brew is mildly sweet and eminently drinkable without needing sugar or milk. In fact, adding milk to a good brew is somewhat akin to adding club soda to a fine Macallan — just because a lot of people do it doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.
Coffee chains introduced many Indians to the many kinds of coffee preparations that can be done. (Source: IndiaToday.com)
In fact, my biggest grouse with Indian café chains is that they use an exceptionally dark roast that produces such bitter coffee that it's simply undrinkable.
Interestingly, an industry insider once told me that some Indian chains roast their beans dark because they reuse them for multiple cups. Simply unimaginable in any western café!
Five-star hotels do a much better job with coffee. My major gripe with hotel coffee is about the brew served outside of restaurants, say, in a banquet. Until a couple of years ago, most five-star banquets served instant coffee. Of late, at least Delhi and Mumbai hotels have started investing in espresso machines even for their banquet catering. Down south, of course, they often have a filter coffee maker.
Many international airlines serve freshly brewed coffee even to their economy class passengers. (Source: Reuters)
You also need coffee when you are travelling and taking an early morning or late-evening flight, after a long day at work. Most Indian airlines only serve instant coffee — most of them take undeserving pride in serving instant brews to even their business or first-class passengers. On the contrary, I have seen many international airlines serve freshly brewed coffee even to their economy class passengers.
On the road though, your best bet is to carry your own equipment. I carry my Moka Pot along with an induction stove and ground coffee on my frequent road trips. A French Press or a pour over equipment can be even easier to carry.
If nothing else, there is always the ‘Cowboy’ method — all you need is a saucepan and fire, and you can brew your coffee like tea. Just don’t expect it to produce a great-tasting cup.