Coffee has for long been a delectable beverage inspiring millions across the globe. Tracing its roots to ancient Ethiopia, coffee is today an acclaimed “global beverage” that has captured the imagination of the masses and lent itself to be an inseparable part of their everyday life. According to a study by Ponte Stefano published in the journal World Development in 2002, over 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed in the world every day, and the numbers are only set to increase everyday!
Kumbakonam is an ancient temple town in South India, known for its vibrant culture, unmatched temple architecture, betel leaves, Carnatic music, and the signature filter coffee brew that has made it stand out with distinction. It is a coffee that has won the hearts, minds and souls of connoisseurs from around the globe simply because of its elegance, balance, intensity and finish. The beauty of the coffee lay in the fact that it could announce its flavor without fanfare, yet make people swish their tongues with a gentle after-taste. Another specialty of the town lies in its presentation of the same coffee in astounding variations. A number of varieties are available, right from a watered down version to a one with pure milk, bitter sweet, dark and all, all customized to the whim of the consumer. Yet, it is a coffee that stands on its own, with no mix of any flavors, be they artificial or natural.
The specialty of Kumbakonam degree coffee lies in its purity as there is very less chicory mixed to lend a strong aftertaste and in the high purity of the milk used in its preparation. The strange but genial fact is that the town where this coffee has originated does not advertise or proclaim its signature fare in anyway. Though there are imitations everywhere, Kumbakonam has nothing to do with any of them.
Strong credit for founding and popularizing the degree coffee concept and making it associated with Kumbakonam goes to a gentleman named Panchapikesa Iyer. He was the proprietor of Lakshmi Vilas, a hotel that had a coffee club. Coffee would flow in continuously from the wee hours of the early morning until late in the evening and the milk was sourced from milch cows that were maintained in a cowshed right behind the hotel. The story goes that the coffee club was so popular that no visitor ever left the temple town without stopping by to have a coffee from the coffee club.
The secret lay not only in the milk but also in the preparation and roasting of the coffee beans. The coffee beans were roasted in earthen pots on wooden fires till a splitting sound was heard. The beans were usually of the peaberry, robusta or plantation variety from hilly tracts in Chikmagalur and the rest of Karnataka. A lubricating sheen visible on the coffee beans was an indication that the coffee was roasted. Then, it used to be crushed in a manual hand grinder.
Today, gas stoves have replaced wooden stoves and milk is not sourced directly from cows in the shed. Though modern technology has replicated many of these archaic processes and saved time, the distinction of the flavor still stands not only in the beans and the roasting but in the milk and the preparation as well. This is the true hallmark of the Kumbakonam degree coffee.