Friday, April 26, 2013

A brew of aroma, art and cheers - Kumbakonam Degree coffee

From its legendary discovery by an Ethiopian goatherd, to its standing as the world’s morning beverage of choice, coffee has come a long way. It has gone forth and conquered, marking many trendy  lounges where drinking coffee in a cafĂ© now is all about meeting friends, a social encounter. Coffee today means a great reason to be with the people you really like.  No longer is it a simple beverage designed to wake up human.

                                                    Photos taken @ Sixth sense -a coffee and art shop

Many a variations like capuccino, lungo, freddo,Mocha,marocchino, Macchiato, Americano, expresso...... what have you? You must have tried and tasted many a variations in the various star lounges and must have read its history on the displays adorning the walls.  But very few are  aware of the 'Kumbakonam Degree coffee'(KDC). The coffee  which is popular around Kumbakonam and its surrounding towns on the bank of River Cauvery.
 Unlike the above listed expensive brews, KDC is a simple beverage designed to wake up humans  and pep them for the day, so much so that this wake up drink fondly called ‘Filter kaapi’ is  a signature of culture and practically defines a community today.
 Many believe that the name of this coffee is defined by the coffee powder from Kumbakonam and so many source them from this temple city by courier to their places. Contrary to belief, it is not the  coffee powder alone,  it is the combination of ingredients and filtration technique that makes this coffee brewing an art and renders its name. 
Long ago, much before milk were sold in packets and bottles, the homes around the agricultural town of Kumbakonam sourced the milk from the home bred cows. It was a routine in most homes to milk the cows early in the morning.  The  required amount of fresh milk would be directly used for making coffee when cold storages were unheard of. And in those homes which did not rear cows relied on the milkman to deliver the cow’s milk.  To check the purity or thickness of the milk, most homes had a lactometer. The red grading on the lactometer indicated the degree of thickness of the milk. This ‘degree’ milk was used for making coffee. Hence the tag ‘Kumbakonam degree coffee’.
The style of brewing the coffee is different. The coffee beans are not indigenously grown around here. The coffee beans are sourced from the neighbouring district of Nilgiris and from BabaBudan giri(BB hills) of Chikmagalur, Karnataka. But of course, people around here have a preference some prefer Peaberry seeds, some Plantation A, some go for plantation 1. They are graded according to the ripeness. The most pure ones are peaberry(green colored called pinju kottai).  Some even add chicory for thickness, some prefer without it.
Traditionally, this is a ritualistic art in a few homes of coffee aficionados, like my husband’s grand parents place. They infact, use a silver(not stainless steel)  filter for this purpose and coffee is served in brass tumbler.  Here are a few steps how it is made –
  •   The seeds peaberry and plantation 'A' in the ratio of  1:1 are roasted in a  kadai and ground instantly in a coffee grinder.
  • The freshly ground coffee is then put in a coffee filter where hot water is added to make a decoction.
  • The coffee filter  has two chambers stacked one over the other. The upper chamber has perforations and the lower chamber is the collector. The upper chamber is where the ground coffee powder( 2 table spoons)  is put and hot water(( a cup)  is poured.
  • The resultant decoction is collected in the lower chamber.
  • The  decoction is added to the freshly boiled ‘degree’ (thick) milk and sugar.
  • The brew is done according to individual’s taste, some like it strong so more decoction is added. If you want it lighter, less decoction is added.
  • The coffee is served in brass cup and saucer called tumbler and davara’
  • To  bring it to the right drinking temperature, it is swished from the davara to tumbler and back. This brings the froth on the cup.
  • To enjoy its true taste, it is said the freshly brewed  aromatic ‘Kaapi’( coffee) should be consumed twenty minutes within the time of preparation, else it loses its zing.
 The coffee grinder at my grand parents place. It can be fixed to a wall or a table. The roasted beans are put in the white chamber & ground with the handle. a bowl underneath collects the powder.(click on it for better clarity) 
This brand  is now revved up by a few enterprising people and many highways on ECR(east coast road)  and NH 45 are making brisk business by using the brand of ‘Kumbakonam Degree coffee’. Perhaps to counter the Baristas, Qwikys and CCD’s.  Many of them have drifted from the original brewing style and does not taste closer to the home brewed ones say coffee lovers. Here neither is coffee bean  roasted, ground , nor is fresh cow’s milk procured, it is like a vending machine.

The two chambered south indian coffee filter comes in various metals like brass, silver and stainless steel. 

                                   A frothy cup of 'Kaapi' in a  tumbler(glass)  and davara(rimmed saucer)

 Many homes also use commercially branded coffeepowders, electric percolators rather than homeground seeds and steel filter. Even at my home, we use the  coffee day powder and electric percolater when there are many guests. ( filter is used only when there are few people).But the home made brew is a hit with my friends who love 'Filter kaapi' made at home by my Mil. Infact, she is the source of information for this post. I confess here i don't like coffee much and my mood swings when i smell the coffee and I gargle my mouth after a drink which is very rare. 

Information courtesy: This information was  authenticated by a employee 'Keshavan in the Sri Krishna hotel at Thirukadaiyur. He and his mom Bhavani were ex-employees at the famous mayavaram' Kaliakudi' hotel. This hotel famous in the 50's and 60's has been closed now and its employees have moved into two hotels, one at mayavaram and the other is Thirukadaiyur's Srikrishna Bhavan. 


  1. Wow! That's loads of interesting information and at last the mystery and history behind 'Kumbakonam Degree coffee' is revealed. Will definitely taste this KDC whenever I am down South. Thanks for sharing, Asha!

    1. Thank you, Shilpa:) yes, you must try KDC once when you are down south.

  2. Aha - a post for the connoisseur. Early morning. A margazhi nip in the air. The Hindu delivered early. The aroma of coffee beans being ground in the air (usually the job of children in yester years). Fresh milk (lactometer degree certified). Hot coffee, indeed in tumbler and davara. Hindu in one hand, tumbler in the other. Ahhhhhhh - all is well in the world :)

    I dare say that something similar can be experienced in the Asha household although the lady herself , alas, does not seem to be partial to this !!

    1. margazhi, the hindu, kaapi, the kolam, the morning raaga of MSS suprabhatam... i am sure you can add more content to this post, Ramesh:)

  3. Nice information Asha.
    Coffee is best when had immediately after it has brewed, and too with freshly boiled milk. After even 15 minutes or so it would taste like second decoction coffee. Now a days all good hotels all over south, do make good coffee, whether it is Cothas coffee, or Narusus's, Leo, they all taste very good. I somehow prefer the real South Indian coffee than all these capuccino lattee etc., only when there is no south Indian hotels. I would drink this kind coffee. Even Kalmane is good, I don't know whether you get it Hyderabad. it is the Coffee day style of joint, yet it has premium South Indian coffee in its menu which is really good.

  4. thanks rama. HAve been to halli mane at malleswaram and basavangudi and tasted their malnad tea but not coffee.
    Yes, my aunt swears by cothas and my mom too regularly brought it from Malleswaram. At my anothe aunt's home it was narasu's, my sis prefers green label. YEs, many have preferences towards the brand. Hyderabad has no local coffee drinking population, infact not even the telugus.

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  6. Rightly said, the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee's sold in highways are not made in traditional ways.