Olympia Shilpa Gerald follows the trail of the elusive degree coffee in a temple town that is far from keen on advertising the coffee it lent its name to and yet turns up its nose at imitations outside.
Clay dolls painted in eye-popping green and blue and power generators that chortle to life every other hour — Kumbakonam embraces us with an explosion of colour and noise, making sure neither Navarathri nor the regular 14-hour power outages slip from our minds. As we snake our way through the higgledy-piggledy lanes of the temple town on the banks of the Cauvery — remembered for its associations with the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, a notorious fire tragedy, betel leaves, brass vessels, and Carnatic music — an unmistakably warm whiff hits us. Ah yes, filter coffee.
My local acquaintance leads me inside Mohan Coffee Works, where amid gunny sacks and pictures of goddesses, a contraption with a funnel swallows green-tinged coffee seeds (of the peaberry, robusta or plantation variety from hilly tracts in Chikmagalur and the rest of Karnataka) and coughs up roasted beans that look like chocolate-coated nuts. The beans again disappear down a red funnel and come out as a solid, muddy waterfall, heaped up and sealed in packets as powdered coffee. Some of the powder emerges from another appliance, where it is mixed with chicory to produce a darker and richer stream.
Like the 25 or so coffee powder units in the city (three of which we visited), Mohan Coffee manages to attract a regular clientele, even from outside the town, despite the presence of branded coffee units. V. Sugumar, co-proprietor of the shop, established in 1977 by his father, though unable to trace the history, admits that Kumbakonam Degree Coffee does not owe much to the powder but to the purity of undiluted milk used in the preparation of the coffee.
Turning into the marketplace where we take care not to get run over by buses that roll right up to the edge of the streets, we arrive at Venus coffee shop, where coffee beans glisten an exotic brown. “If you get 80 grams after roasting every 100 grams, it is a sign of high quality coffee, though such quality control comes at a price,” says 78-year-old Swaminathan, the owner. He comes up with three names popular for serving degree coffee, but before I ask for directions, says all of them have closed down.
Picking up a name from Swami’s list leads us to his septuagenarian neighbour V. Venkatraman of Raman’s coffee, who throws more light on the man who popularised degree coffee. “The credit goes to Panchapikesa Iyer, the proprietor of Lakshmi Vilas also called Pasumpal (cow’s milk) Coffee Club, where coffee would flow from 5 a.m. till late evening. The milk was sourced from 12 milch cows in the cattle-shed right behind the hotel. Being on the main road, every bus passing this way used to stop here for a tumbler (drinking glass),” says Raman, who claims to have supplied powder during the final years before the shop closed and Iyer’s successors moved out. Both men insist that “there is no coffee without chicory”, but refuse to sell coffee with more than 20 per cent chicory.
No boasting here
While “Kumbakonam degree coffee” as a brand name is sighted in towns all over Tamil Nadu, particularly on the Chennai highway, there is not a single board proclaiming the degree coffee in Kumbakonam. The town is strangely not keen on advertising its signature fare, and yet, it turns up its nose at imitations outside the town.
Most locals are indignant that the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee name is used to market coffee all around the State. Mohan, whom we meet at Sri Venkatramana Hotel, admits, “No one makes degree coffee in Kumbakonam today.” Rubbishing theories that Google pops up as explanations for the word “degree”, including the distortion of the word chicory, he elaborates on the one we have picked up — undiluted pure milk. “The co-operative societies test the purity of milk using a lactometer, which has markings like the degrees on a thermometer. Only freshly churned cow’s milk that is not diluted with water will stand below the red line marked as ‘M’ for milk. Any dilution, and the reading shoots up.” He puts forward a cup, topped with white surf-like foam — this is milky coffee with bitter undertones, capable of a jolt. “But we have stopped making degree coffee 10 years back; we buy packet milk,” he says, leading me to the modern percolator where decoction drips to a container below. So much for old-world charm.
In pursuit of a 90-year-old eatery, we step under a sheltered pathway with a painted ceiling leading to the Adi Kumbakeshwara Temple. Suppressing the feminine instinct to pause in front of glass bangles packed on either sides, I halt at Mangaleshwara Coffee Hotel where waiters in dhotis are doling out steaming sambhar to customers bent intently over banana leaves. Though the hotel serves the typical bittersweet coffee, this is again not the coffee of yore. But we meet N. Jayakumar, 65, who served at the original degree coffee hotel. “There were men who came in three times a day to milk the cows so that coffee served at mornings, afternoons and evenings was prepared with milk, extracted merely minutes ago. If the coffee was not hot, Panchapikesar would ask us to discard it,” he says.
A round-the-clock coffee shop, a century ago, where every cup had frothy milk, straight from the cow added to freshly brewed coffee — “Must have been heaven,” I sigh, shaking off my reverie. Jayakumar continues, “We would wash the brass utensils four times a day and it would shine like glass.”
We make our way into a low ceilinged house, with a gleaming wooden swing as centrepiece, where I impetuously prop myself up, wondering whether the aged but dapper Ramani, the erstwhile proprietor of Mangalambika Vilas, whom we have come to visit, would mind very much. “They used to swish their tongues, deliberate in silence and then cry out for a second cup. They could not resist the temptation,” he describes the customers’ reaction after the first sip of degree coffee.
“We roasted coffee in earthen pots on wood fires till we heard a splitting sound. A lubricating sheen would cover the coffee beans, a sign that the coffee was well roasted. They were crushed by a manual hand grinder. Unlike how milk is kept simmering at coffee outlets today, Panchapikesa Iyer used to boil milk for every fresh order. The first extract of decoction was brewed and kept warm in a tub of hot water. When catering to big parties, he used to taste it first. Customer satisfaction, not profit, was the motive then.”
The right way to make Kumbakonam Degree Coffee is to first add sugar, top it with decoction and finally pour milk, to assess how strong you want your coffee. Sreenivasan and Usha, the couple at Krishna Bhavan, where coffee is brewed in brass filters with minute sieve-like holes, give us a live demonstration in their old fashioned kitchen with wooden rafters and asbestos sheets. But even here, change has crept in. “Gas stoves have replaced the old wood stoves and we use packet milk,” reveals V. Sreenivasan as his wife pours out a dark nectar-like decoction into my tumbler. It leaves a bitter taste that lingers long after the coffee goes down.
Overdosed with caffeine and not willing to down any more coffee, I decide to make a final halt at Murali’s Café, where it is rumoured an attempt to revive the Kumbakonam Degree coffee is under way. “Warm and family-friendly atmosphere” reads the welcome note in Tamil at Murali’s. I am skeptical when I hear Murali is a science graduate and has been only five years in the business. But when the polite and earnest 38-year-old produces a lactometer, I jump in joy. A sizeable space has been earmarked with a stainless steel counter lined with dozens of dabaras. Pointing to a room where arrangements are still on, Murali divulges his plans. “We regularly have tourists who enquire where they could taste the degree coffee; it’s unfair we are not able to provide them something for which the place is renowned.” Besides using fresh decoction that is kept warm on a heating plate and the right technique, Murali is determined to follow in Panchapikesa Iyer’s footsteps and provide the best coffee round the clock. “I have identified a farm with jersey cows seven km away. I can ensure the quality of milk by collecting the milk there at 4 every morning.” Till now, he has been procuring cow’s milk in limited quantities from a distributor three hours away.
It is no easy task to point out where the best coffee is made in Kumbakonam, but the town offers connoisseurs variations — milky, watered down, cow’s milk, pasteurised milk, sweet, bitter, dark and light, tailored to every whim. Murali’s brew is topped with dark and light brown flecks — the milk is just there and so is the decoction, but neither announces its flavour with fanfare. “My father had a small eatery a little distance from Kumbakonam. He worked for Panchapikesa Iyer and I grew up listening to stories about him, which set me on this course.” Perhaps, this is what they call the circle of life.
How to make:
Put required teaspoons of sugar in a dabara. In a brass or stainless steel ﬁlter, add powdered coffee. Pour hot water heated to 110 degrees into the ﬁlter and close. Collect the ﬁrst decoction and keep it warm by placing in a tub of hot water. Pour 10 to 15 ml of decoction over sugar. Add milk, (preferably fresh) till it ﬂows onto the saucer. Swish coffee once and drink hot.