South India’s coffee scene and its signature drink, kaapi, have remained largely in the background.Nikhita Venugopal
The bubbles froth close to the edge of the tumbler, so precarious that it’s hard not to worry whether the liquid goodness is about to spill. Fortunately, it rarely does. Instead, you’re left with a beverage for mornings, afternoons, and evenings, a leisurely ritual and a way of life. It’s a cup of filter coffee, one that’s crucial yet commonplace to many who have lived or grown up in South India.
Not long ago, almost everyone thought that India only drank tea. That’s true in that an overwhelming majority of people drink tea in the country, even among the coffee-producing southern states. India is the nation of tea drinkers, the home of Darjeeling and Assam, the land of masala chai. But, at the same time, coffee in India has evolved from a European drink to a middle-class practice in Tamil Brahmin homes to cafe chains that gave young urban Indians a new kind of coffee culture to a third wave of small-batch and artisanal coffee makers.
India is the sixth-largest coffee-producing country in the world and inextricably tied to India’s coffee story is South Indian filter coffee. Called by many names depending on slight variations — Madras filter coffee, meter coffee, degree coffee, or simply its Tamilized name, kaapi — it’s a drink that’s beloved in several parts of India. Yet even as its counterpart, chai, has captured a devoted audience in the West, kaapi has remained largely unfamiliar and is less readily available to mainstream coffee drinkers outside South India.
“Every Tom, Dick, and Haresh can give you a cappuccino or a latte or an espresso or an Americano,” said Harish Bijoor, a brand consultant who’s worked with several coffee ventures in India. “But very few people can give you real south Indian filter coffee.”
The story of coffee’s arrival in India goes like this: In the 1600s, Baba Budan, a Muslim pilgrim, brought seven seeds into India, taped to his stomach or hidden in his beard (depending on which version you’ve heard) and began cultivating coffee in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Some even allege that the Portuguese took coffee plants from Goa to Rio de Janeiro in 1760. (The more popular provenance story says that Brazil’s coffee seeds came from French Guiana in 1727.)
The morning cup of coffee had initially been a European habit, but that started to change around the turn of the 20th century, when coffee started to replace the South Indian drink of kanji or neeragaram, a nutritious porridge-like mix made with leftover rice or millets. As Tamil historian AR Venkatachalapathy wrote in his essay, “In Those Days There Was No Coffee”: “The incursion of coffee into Tamil society was marked by a cultural anxiety which was matched only by the enthusiasm with which it was consumed.” Coffee grew in popularity, but critics believed coffee tread on conservative Tamil values, caused addiction, ruined appetites, threatened sleep patterns, and, perhaps worst of all, led women toward Western vices. But, ultimately, coffee won out and bound itself to middle-class Tamil home etiquette.
However, no one is quite sure about the origins of the Indian filter, from which the coffee gets its name. Its closest cousins can be found in Italy’s Neapolitan coffee or the Vietnamese coffee filter, both of which similarly rely on gravity (as opposed to percolation).
“There is no trace at all," said Sunalini Menon, a veteran coffee expert. She’s the former director of quality control at the Coffee Board of India as well as the CEO of Coffee Lab Pvt. Ltd., which evaluates the quality of coffee while educating and training people in the industry. (She’s also been called “Asia’s first lady of coffee” by Gastronomica.) "We have the story of Baba Budan and nothing else."
A good cup of South Indian filter coffee relies on three key elements: boiling milk, sugar, and some very strong decoction, the hot coffee-infused liquid that forms the base of the drink. Making the decoction involves spooning coffee powder (with or without chicory, an additive with a distinct flavor that’s as much a part of India’s coffee-drinking history as anything else) into the filter’s upper cylindrical chamber, which has a porous base, and pouring boiling water into the chamber. Then the liquid drips into the lower chamber for anywhere between 20 minutes and several hours, depending on the amount of decoction or the size of the grind. Often, the process is left to happen overnight so it’s ready by morning. Unlike espresso, the decoction is not usually drunk on its own.
But kaapi can’t be drunk in any old paper cup, said Chef Hari Nayak, who has led several Indian-focused restaurants during his 22 years living in the U.S. There’s a ceremony to the service of filter coffee. It’s often served in a tumbler, a stainless-steel cup which sits in a flat, squat cup called a davara. (The protruding rim of the tumbler is rooted in casteism, said to allow Brahmins to tip coffee into their mouths without touching the vessel, which may have been used by a person of a marginalized caste, according to Venkatachalapathy.) About one-third of the tumbler is filled with decoction and the remaining two-thirds with boiling milk (yes, it’s more milk than coffee). Sugar is added (yes, it’s sweet) and the coffee is poured from tumbler to davara to cool the liquid and create the final foamy crown.
By the 1920s, coffee houses or hotels had started to crop up in Tamil Nadu, but caste discrimination was an inextricable part of their ethos. Renowned activist and politician EV Ramasamy, known by the honorific Periyar, fought against caste oppression in coffee hotels, which created separate areas for Brahmins and once refused to serve him coffee. In the 1940s, the Coffee Board of India started the India Coffee House, which later led to the emergence of the Indian Coffee House in 1957, a chain that grew and expanded to multiple cities, and continues to serve tumblers of filter coffee across the country. Tamil plantation workers who migrated to Malaysia and Singapore during British colonialism are said to have brought filter kaapi to the region, leading to the development of kopi tarik, a local variation.
It isn’t impossible to find filter kaapi in the U.S., but the experience is largely confined to South Indian or Malaysian restaurants, such as Saravana Bhavan and Kopitiam, and homes. Nayak, who was born in Karnataka, where most of India’s coffee is grown, and now lives in New Jersey, has thought about bringing kaapi to mainstream coffee drinkers in the U.S. for years. “There’s no reason this can’t be popular in the West,” he said.
The world has only begun to realize that India grows and makes some excellent coffee, said Menon. In 2007, Menon told Gastronomica that “Brazilian and Indian beans are the pillars of an espresso cup,” underlining the fact that there is little familiarity with India’s part in the coffee industry. Unlike the Italians, who have turned their version of coffee culture into an aspirational ideal, for years, India’s coffee beans, humble filter, and coffee preparation methods have stayed in the background of the global coffee movement.
In recent times, as coffee culture has grown in India, there’s been a greater appreciation for the traditional Indian filter (which Menon fondly calls her ‘dabba’) as more than just an old-fashioned apparatus that many South Indians have seen in their grandparents’ kitchen. “Slowly, we’re making inroads,” she said.
“A lot can be done with the dabba filter,” Menon told me.
But perhaps it’s that languid process that’s deterred kaapi’s breakout in the United States. To coffee purists, the individualized preparation of the filter kaapi is key, something that can’t necessarily be replicated on a large scale. “You can’t have a giant filter percolating because then you’ll lose the value. You need to have tiny filters doing it. Now, how many tiny filters will Starbucks have?” Bijoor asks.
In India, however, local tiffin shops and fast-casual restaurants are known to serve hundreds of tumblers of kaapi per day, preparing massive amounts of decoction with large-scale filters. For context, Saravana Bhavan’s locations in Chennai, the filter coffee capital of India, sell around 30,000 cups of coffee per day, while Adyar Ananda Bhavan sells around 30,000 cups in Tamil Nadu, half of them in Chennai. Though the strength and flavor may be compromised, filter coffee can still be made and served at scale — and it’s the most popular way people in cities get their kaapi.
And coffee aficionados are increasingly willing to wait for the perfect cup, as similar devices have become household names, from French presses to pour-overs, as an art-of-coffee movement prioritizes quality over convenience. “People wait for that drip coffee for five minutes, 10 minutes and for that latte for 15 minutes,” Nayak said. “It’s just a matter of somebody representing it and standing behind it and creating this experience.”
Danée Shows had her first kaapi years ago when her then-boyfriend (and now-husband), an Indian ex-pat, brought her a cup of filter coffee in bed. “This is what I imagined coffee was supposed to taste like,” she said. She quickly drank through his supply, but then struggled to find Indian coffee beans in New York.
That experience led to the Ministry of Kaapi, which Shows started in Manhattan, New York in 2016 with a mission of bringing Indian coffee beans and kaapi to the U.S. Shows often travels to India, where she buys beans at coffee estates in the south and brings them back. Using her small-batch decoction, Shows first brought filter kaapi to LIC Flea & Food in Queens and later to famed outdoor food festival Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.
“India produces great coffee and the U.S. needs to know about it,” she said.
The process hasn’t been without challenges. North Indian culture, which is far more associated with chai, often dominates America’s perception of India. “There’s also a challenge just to educate people,” she said.
Shows often found that people knew little about Indian coffee beans, primarily grown in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, as well as in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and even thought that they might be inferior. Though she was initially adamant about serving traditional filter kaapi, she soon found the need to westernize the experience for her clientele, including the serving size. “We have to call it a latte. Like an Indian latte,” she said.
Rohan Kamicheril, who runs the supper club Tiffin, has also found that India is often far from Americans’ minds when it comes to coffee. “If you ask people where you get coffee…people will say Italy or someplace else that’s not Ethiopia and not India.”
No matter the excellence of a great cup of kaapi, if the challenges rooted within the coffee market in India aren’t addressed, it’ll be even harder to spread globally. Indian coffee farmers face climate change and struggle to earn a fair price for their beans. Reports also suggest that efforts to increase coffee consumption and the proliferation of cafes have not translated to any significant boost for farmers. And overall demand for coffee in India is still low — India per capita coffee consumption is just 100 grams compared to around 4 kilograms in the U.S.
“First we have to get people actually talking about filter coffee,” Kamicheril added. “It seems like a space that’s full of potential.”
Menon suggests that India is making strides. The country’s packaged coffee market grew 75% between 2012 and 2016, and was the third fastest-growing market in the world after Indonesia and Turkey during that time. New entrepreneurs are leading the third wave of coffee that emphasizes a connection to India and pride in the locally-produced bean. It’s easy to imagine how this could translate to artisanal coffee shops in the U.S. as well.
“So when I can promote a third wave of coffee, why can’t I call it an Indian wave?” Menon asked, “and put the dabba filter on the table?”
Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance food and culture journalist who has written for publications such as The Ringer, Food52, Bon Appétit, Taste, and Eater.
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