Merlin Raj, India’s National Barista Champion, 2012 tells Esther Elias that Indian coffee blends are an unexplored treasure trove
Coffee was, is, and always will be, Merlin Raj’s first love. The affair began as a child, when he watched his grandfather wake up to a steaming cup of filter coffee every morning for 15 years. It dimmed for a while during Merlin’s training as a chef, but resumed with full force when he joined Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) in its coffee retailing efforts. Through his experiments at creating different coffee brews with Indian beans, Merlin went on to become India’s National Barista Champion 2012 and, later represent India at the World Barista Championship in Vienna.
Proving his mettle
In Kochi for a demonstration during CCD’s ‘The Coffee Festival’, Merlin says the national level of the Barista Championship truly tested his mettle. He was given 15 minutes to make four cups of espresso, four cups of cappuccino and four cups of his signature brew. Of the last, Merlin says, “I come from Marthandam, near Thiruvananthapuram, an area where the local coffee bean has a natural dark chocolate flavour. To showcase that bean, I created the ‘Kappi Marthandam’ which was an espresso made with frozen cubes of tender coconut water, cardamom and black sugar. The final result has a smooth texture on the palate.”
Besides the Best Cappuccino Award, Merlin bagged the Best Signature Brew Award for ‘Kappi Marthandam’. The concoction is now sold as ‘Cocoa Boung’ at coffee outlets in Vienna.
At the World Championship in Vienna, Merlin had to invent a unique brew from any Indian coffee bean that would represent the country. He chose beans from the estates of Chikmagalur, roasted them to perfection himself, and created an espresso that used guava leaves, as well as the flesh and skin of the guava fruit.
Merlin credits his knowledge of, and creativity with, coffee to his training under Sunalini Menon, Asia’s first woman coffee taster, and proprietor of Coffeelabs in Bangalore.
To create sound brews, Merlin says a barista must know every stage of the beans life — from birth to cup — which involves planting, harvesting, roasting, blending, grading and much more. “Tasting is the final step,” he says, “You first smell the aroma of your coffee, blow it around your palate and check for thickness and basic flavour. It should not be too bitter, too sour, or too acidic. And the aftertaste should be mildly sweet.”
India is not a coffee-growing nation by default, says Merlin, but in adapting it to become one, we’ve created over 10 regions of coffee cultivation, each with its unique texture and flavour varying by the methods of farming.
“In areas with high altitudes and alkaline soil, coffee is grown alongside spices and under the shade of fruit trees such as jackfruit. Indian coffee is a hundred per cent shade-grown because this slows the plant’s growth thus maturing the bean longer,” says Merlin. The result has been two primary kinds of coffee — Arabica, which has a wide variety of flavours, and Robusta, which is milder in comparison.
“Indian coffee, in particular Robusta, is used world over to create blends that balance out the acidity (brightness, in coffee terminology) of beans from large-scale coffee cultivators such as Brazil and South Africa.
The challenge for Indian coffee drinkers is to understand how each local bean must be treated to bring out its natural flavour, says Merlin. “There are beans that have a natural tinge of caramel, chocolate or vanilla, others that resemble nuts, or fruits such as sapota and orange,” adds Merlin. Coffee blends created from beans of multiple origins, and coffee mixed with chicory (the powdered root of the chicory plant) add further variety to the choice available. The most-commonly committed mistake in brewing coffee is to add boiling hot water.
“Water should be between 90 and 92 centigrade. Beyond that, all the soluble elements of the bean are lost and the coffee gets burnt,” says Merlin. Adding excessive milk and sugar to coffee further dilutes its natural taste. As his demonstration in CCD reveals, knowing your coffee blends is as important as choosing your coffee-making equipment. The same blend put through a French press has a different final texture and strength, than when sent through a stove-top espresso maker.
The art of coffee-tasting has evolved into one almost as popular as wine tasting, says Merlin. There are entire institutes devoted to the art, and India offers year-long diploma courses in coffee-tasting. “People are slowly realising that while wine has 150 differentiable components, coffee has about 800 natural ones. The bean needs no additions for variety of flavour,” says Merlin. Of the lot, what’s his personal favourite? “I still love our good old filter coffee!”
The Coffee Festival is on at the CCD outlets opposite Medical Trust Hospital and near Shenoy’s Theatre till September 26.