Outside of India the term "filter coffee" may refer to coffee which is brewed through drip method, which is a distinct form of preparing coffee and is a subject for another day.
Indian filter coffee represents a hot beverage made by coming together of boiled, frothy milk with a decoction of coffee obtained by percolation from brewing of finely ground coffee powder in a traditional Indian filter. The drink popularly known as Kaapi, which is the South Indian phonetic realisation of "coffee". It is also referred to as Madras filter coffee, Madras kaapi, Kumbakonam degree coffee, Mylapore filter coffee, or Mysore filter coffee and countless more.
The British Influence
Indian filter coffee was popularised by the India Coffee Houses run by the Coffee Board of India since the mid-1940s. It became the drink of millions after the emergence of more popular Indian Coffee Houses in the mid-1950s. Indian filter coffee migrated overseas in the early 20th century to Malaysia and Singapore, where kopi tarik (pulled coffee) is a close cousin of the Madras filter coffee and was introduced at roadside kopi tiams.
India's first coffee house opened in Calcutta in 1780. Soon after, John Jackson and Cottrell Barrett opened the original Madras Coffee House, which was followed in 1792 by the Exchange Coffee Tavern. The enterprising proprietor of the latter announced he was going to run his coffee house on the same lines as Lloyd's in London, by maintaining a register of the arrival and departure of ships, and offering Indian and European newspapers for his customers to read.
Coffee Cultivation & Composition
Coffee has been grown in India since the 1600s, when it was first brought to India from Yemen by Sufi Saint Baba Budan The most commonly used coffee beans are Arabica and Robusta. These are grown in different states of South India, such as in the hills of Karnataka (Kodagu, Chikmagalur and Hassan), Tamil Nadu (Nilgiris District, Yercaud and Kodaikanal), Kerala (Malabar region) and Andhra Pradesh (Araku Valley). The beans are usually medium-roasted and finely ground and blended with roasted chicory. The final coffee powder composition is typically blended with between 10% and 30% chicory, producing a distinct aroma, thickness and colour in the resulting brewed coffee.
Indian filter coffee is brewed with a metal device that resembles two cylindrical cups, one of which has a pierced bottom that nests into the top of the 'tumbler' cup, leaving ample room beneath to receive the brewed coffee decoction. The upper cup has two removable parts: a plunger (pierced pressing disc with a central stem handle) and a covering lid.
The upper cup is loaded with freshly ground coffee. The grounds are then compressed (tamped) with the stemmed disc into a uniform layer across the cup's pierced bottom. With the press disc remaining in place, the upper cup is nested into the top of the tumbler; boiling water is poured in. The lid is placed on top, and the appliance is left to slowly drip the brewed coffee into the bottom. The chicory retains the hot water longer, letting the coffee to dissolve and give a richer extract as compared to normal pour overs or channi coffee. The resulting brew is generally much stronger than Western drip/filter coffee, and often stronger than espresso.
Traditionally, the coffee is consumed by adding the coffee decoction to a cup of boiling milk with the preferred amount of sugar or jaggery. The coffee is drunk from the tumbler but is often cooled first with a dabarah - "dabarah" (also pronounced in some regions as 'davarah'): a wide metal saucer with lipped walls.
Coffee is typically served after pouring back and forth between the dabara and the tumbler in huge arc-like motions of the hand. This serves the purposes of: mixing the ingredients (including sugar) thoroughly; cooling the hot coffee to a sipping temperature; and most importantly, aerating the mix without introducing extra water (such as with a steam wand used for frothing cappuccino).
An anecdote related to the distance between the pouring and receiving cup leads to another name for the drink, "Meter Coffee"
A term often heard for high-quality coffee is Degree Coffee. Milk certified as pure with a lactometer was called degree milk owing to a mistaken association with the thermometer. It is claimed that coffee prepared with degree milk became known as degree coffee. Yet another possible derivation for the term is from the chicory used to make the coffee. The South Indian pronunciation of chicory became chigory, then digory, and finally degree. Another explanation is that when coffee is infused for the first time, it is referred to as the first degree or simply as the "Degree Coffee''. This has the strongest flavour and the necessary strength to mix with milk without watering down the taste. In less affluent households coffee would be infused for a second or third time from the same initial load and would be called the second or third degree coffee respectively given its lower strength. Yet another explanation could be that coffee was mixed by pouring it from one cup to another cup, it has to be poured at a certain angle or "degree" for best taste
Culture and the Shift
Coffee is something of a cultural icon in all the South Indian states of India like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu , Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala. It is customary to offer a cup of coffee or tea to any visitor. However, with the growing acceptance of coffee in rest of India or as we put it North of South India, it is our endeavour to popularise and make South Indian Filter Coffee accessible pan India and make it popularly known as Indian Filter Coffee.