A few years back we went to Borneo to see orangutans in the wild. The highlight of the trip wasn’t the orangutans, magnificently sweet as they were. It was Kopi Luwak—the incredibly expensive gourmet, each-gram-worth-its-weight-in-gold cat-butt coffee. Yes, cat butt— get with the programme darling— coffee that is harvested from civet cat poop. Apparently civet cats eat coffee cherries, which pass through their digestive tract with the beans intact but fermented by the action of the digestive enzymes. These beans are collected, presumably washed with extra strength Surf Excel Matic and ground, making up kopi luwak. A single cup of this err... brew sells for upwards of $75.
The thing is that despite, no, because of the long and winding road that the coffee takes before it ends up in your cup, it is transcendental. The short stay visa in the civet’s intestines destroys proteins in the bean, which means that you end up with all the flavour, but little of the residual bitterness typical of coffee. So every sip is that rare creature: the heady, complex, incredible aroma of coffee finally made edible. You can get drunk on its deliciousness, there is no other way to describe the taste than to say that this is a coffee that tastes exactly as good as it smells.
And that’s something. Especially in a world where most of human endeavour seems to be fixated on improvements in two fairly specific enterprises—razor blade technology (if men’s razors make their skin any smoother, they are going to start selling essence of Gillette razor blade serum in tiny expensive capsules to women) and coffee brewing and consumption. Everywhere you look, there seems to be yet another place or another way to consume coffee. And everyone’s kitchens are sinking a few centimetres into the ground faster than the rest of their homes from the accumulated weight of all the coffee-making paraphernalia that people buy obsessively and then stash away. And of course, in all of this, the holy grail is getting a brew that fulfils the tantalising promise of its aroma.
I remember the dark days when I was a kid, when coffee for a North Indian illiterate like me still only meant instant coffee, I was a barista nonpareil. I had a secret weapon: A killer arm that could whip up Nescafé, sugar and water in a mug to a pale pillowy aerated mass within minutes. This, when topped up with a frothy mix of milk and water made the best cup of coffee that most people had ever had and transformed me into a coffee ninja. Today, of course everyone is a real coffee connoisseur and has their own secret blend of Arabica and Robusta and spends the GDP of a small African nation on single origin beans. Meanwhile, instant coffee is widely understood to be constituted of ground up edible brown crayon and synthetic coffee essence, and no one thinks of it as anything other than a joke.
And though the journey from drinking crayon to drinking poop, (some might not call it progress) has been made joyously by India, the truth is that our overnight obsession with coffee has been twenty years in the making. Most people have traversed a familiar path starting with instant coffee, which is literally the trainer bra of coffees, just the first stop along a road filled with many many many better and bigger err... cups. For most Indians, south Indian filter coffee is the general next step and many have fallen so irrevocably in love with this brew that they have never felt the need to seriously stray from its aromatic caffeine embrace.
I remember the first time that I encountered south Indian filter coffee—it was a revelation. It was at a South Indian restaurant where it was listed as metre coffee, apparently because the pouring of the coffee between the tumbler and the wide lipped bowl should ideally be done at the distance of a metre in order to achieve the desired level of froth and also to dissolve the sugar. For someone who had only ever played in the shallow rock lined pool of Nescafé up until then, this was like being plunged into a swirling gushing ocean current of taste and flavour and sensation.
The thing I love most about South Indian filter coffee is that while its cred as serious coffee is undeniable and its aroma and flavour is unmatched, and its adherents are as fanatical about their favourite blends as other coffee drinkers are, it’s hard to become a pompous ass about it. Given that sweet Aunty Padmanabhan from next door has been going to the same place for the past 60 years to get her coffee powder ground and she has been using the same stainless steel (or to give it its technical name, “eversilver”) filter for the past 40 of those years, and her coffee can kick your coffee’s ass any day, it’s hard to argue chicory content and single origin coffee beans and get into a mine-is-bigger-and-has-more-impressively-hissing-parts war about coffee makers with her. Or any other south Indian filter coffee aficionados and master brewers.
Because that’s one thing about coffee: It inspires passion in its devotees. This devotion isn’t just competitive wankery. Well, not all of it anyway. Because caffeine allows human beings to perform some impossibly nifty moves that nature typically hasn’t designed us for, coffee has a place in human consciousness that is unparalleled. So a person can wake up, have some coffee and actually feel like there is life coursing through his veins, a fact that pre-coffee had seemed impossible to imagine. The introduction of coffee into the bloodstream has also propelled human beings to use their own legs and their own nether ends to expedite (metaphorically speaking) the motivational manoeuvre known as a kick up one’s own bum, a feat that is designed to be otherwise orthopedically impossible. That’s why wise men have postulated that the pyramids were actually built by a bunch of Egyptians who had been tasked with building a water fountain and who built what the coffee coursing through their veins bade them to.
But because coffee is not just a liquid medium for caffeine, a wide variety of beans, mix-ins and machines have turned coffee brewing and consumption into a delicate art. Which is of course why baristas at all these trendy places you go to routinely take years to make up your order (and also invariably spell your name wrong)—it’s because they are making art. But seriously: Because a change in beans or a change in process can change the taste and flavour and strength of the brew completely, most coffee drinkers have their own preferred ways to get their caffeine fix.
So for some, the critical difference is in the origin of the coffee and how it’s treated or stored to extract maximum flavour from it. There are those who swear that the best place for coffee once it is bought is the freezer and there are those who claim it is the worst. But the one thing that everyone agrees upon is that fresh ground coffee tastes better and is more potent. As far as origin of the coffee goes, some good places to throw around in coffee-related discussions are Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Colombia and Andorra. (I have no idea if Andorra grows coffee or if it’s any good, but no one else does either, so it’s always safe to throw it in.)
As far as ways of brewing goes, there are lots of options. Some swear by the French press, some by cold brew and even more dedicated coffee devotees actually learn the art of making wonderful aromatic Turkish coffee, simmering it for just the right amount of time with coffee grounds and sugar. Those with more kitchen counter space veer towards worshipping at the altar of the standard drip machine, or lately the single serve coffee, where you put a pod into a gleaming stainless steel space-age machine which gives you a consistent, faultless cup of coffee every time. (While I have always been amazed at the efficiency of this contraption, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in it overall. Something that looks so space age and uses moving parts called pods should be launching nuclear-powered rockets into space, not making decaf at the press of a button, is my feeling.)
But what do I know? I am that sad creature, whose resolutely rustic liver produces extraordinarily small amounts of the enzyme CYP1A2. What that small deficit means is gargantuan—it means that I cannot metabolise coffee. It drives up my heart rate, gives me a pounding headache and generally makes me useless to man or beast. So while the rest of you lucky sods can talk ad infinitum about how dysfunctional you are before caffeine enters your bloodstream or what your preferred way of getting your caffeine fix is, or whether you need one or many cups during a 24 hour cycle to enter and re-enter the human race, I am forever destined to be on the sidelines of this magnificent adventure. I am fated to be driven mad by the aroma of coffee and to distraction by talk of its flavour while never being able to really fully experience it for myself without becoming the human equivalent of a cat on a hot tin roof.
There are, however, a few bright spots to this hideous deprivation that my enzyme deficiency has inflicted upon me. One, I don’t have to know what the words Grande, Triple, Venti, No Foam, Half Sweet, Macchiato Caramel or even Non-Fat Frappuccino mean. In a complicated world, there’s an entire language I don’t have to be conversant with in order to be able to get up and get to work every morning. And equally importantly, there is no danger of me idly starting to water the garden one day and getting carried away by coffee and going on to build the Taj Mahal instead.
That’s not a lot as consolation goes, but it’s not nothing either. I’m just saying.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker