There was a time when the question “Would you like to come inside for a coffee?” would stimulate the mind in a manner that caffeine — despite the psychoactive drug that it is — could never rival. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being much coffee present in such circumstances.
These days I shake my head. Okay, so nobody says this to me anymore, but if they did, I’d shake my head and the neurophysiological response would be the opposite. Dread and suspicion would be writ all over my face: did she say “coffee”? The imagination – crabby and pessimistic with age – thinks of a small sachet of instant Nescafe – snipped at the edge with the kitchen scissors, lying in a freezer for weeks. It’d be yanked out and drizzled into a spoonful (maybe half, because most people don’t know how much coffee it takes to make coffee) thrown into a cup of boiling water (microwaved?), stirred and served taking all of 30 seconds. I would then proceed to take a sip in a valiant act of chivalry and proceed to retch and ruin the hypothesized evening.
I discovered coffee (beyond the instant kind) when my love affair with tea ended abruptly on discovering, much too late in life, that I was 100% lactose intolerant. And even though a cup of green tea is what I start my day with, let’s face it: this vile drink was invented as an entry level Chinese instrument of torture. Café Coffee Day also plays a huge part in keeping people away from ingestible coffee and certainly delayed my affair. The coffee at Café Coffee Day – like a Chetan Bhagat book, a Salman Khan film, or an Arnab Goswami’s news hour – is crafted with a one-size-fits all approach, and appeals to the ever-expanding cerebral chunk of the Indian consumer that celebrates mediocrity. CCD is a prime example of why India will never be a world superpower, or indeed ever, a developed nation. But on the bright side, if you’ve had the misfortune of quaffing a CCD coffee and decided you don’t really care for coffee, be assured you’re a prime candidate for liking good coffee. You’ve been through the trenches, now dress to the nines for the good life.
So where do you start? Most people have consumed a dark gruel-like liquid masquerading as “coffee” while growing up and are predisposed to hate it or at best be indifferent. It’s only when you step out of your parents’ home and taste real coffee – brewed by a barista who knows what they’re doing – when you realize that bad coffee has zero merit and can never be romanticized in a manner like a cutting tapri chai in with bhajia in the rain. Coffee for many is unlearning and rediscovering. The moment of epiphany “I like coffee” is dormant in every one of us.
My own epiphany was triggered by an Indian-grown single origin coffee that was drip-brewed. And even though autodrip machines are mocked at by snobs (you can control only one of three critical aspects of coffee-making), the heavens conspired in such a manner that there was no going back. It was love at first scald.
As I familiarised myself with a new kind of terroir, the espresso shot quickly became my go-to-beverage. Copious amount of literature was gathered, and it hit me that unlike cheese, or wine, or single malt, you can’t be a coffee connoisseur if you only drink it. You must make it too.
Now, it started to get tricky.
Sample this instruction, a tip from an expert barista: “‘Bloom’ the coffee grounds by pouring five ounces of the 196-degree water slowly and delicately in a spiral over them, then let them sit for 25 to 30 seconds before pouring an additional 8.5 ounces of water in the same gentle, even spiral.”1
What’s that? It took some time to get there where every step started to make sense and — more importantly — could be implemented. I’d already moved on from drip to the Aeropress — a manual air-pressure driven apparatus — and more concerns emerged: how could the same coffee taste so different when prepared in another device? Questions needed answers, and answers came with the acquisition of a shiny new espresso machine. To borrow and mangle an analogy from poker, I was coffee-pot committed.
Like any worthwhile hobby, coffee is expensive. And there is no tangible payoff. A decent espresso machine costs tens of thousands. An acceptable tamper — a simple piece of weight used to firmly pack the coffee into the porta-filter — costs upwards of two thousand rupees. Honestly, if you spent an hour looking on the footpath outside your home, you could find a piece of rock that would do the job. But never say that to a snob like me. Of course, once you’re in tamper territory you’re going need milk/coffee thermometers, drip scales, and other such hardware for fine-tuning the coffee to perfection. All this assuming of course you’re already armed with the basics such as a good grinder, frothing pitchers, cappuccino cups, and cleaning material such as grinder burr brushes, etc. Then, of course, there’s the coffee.
The world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak, costs up to $100 for a cup. That’s $100 for what is essentially weasel poop. But you can do with regular single-origin coffee that sometimes still works out to more than what you’d pay for top coffee at a chain. And that’s why a true coffee lover will never be found at coffeehouse chains, places where desserts masquerade as “caramel macchiato”. And what self-respecting coffee geek would have his name mispronounced when they could be home, dazzling visitors in his own kitchen?
It’s a bit of hard work because the truth is, making coffee is a precision sport that needs years of training and perseverance. I’m confused about what I’m enjoying more: the quest for making the perfect brew, or drinking it. Probably the former. Right now I’m obsessing over two aspects that are getting my goat: Achieving a thick, healthy crema, the light brown liquid/foam that sits upon freshly pulled espresso; and making some form of latte art, the intricate designs found on professional coffee surfaces. And neither of them is easy. The crema, for instance, depends on several factors that is the essence of a pulling a perfect espresso. It starts with the tamping pressure: 27 pounds is the optimal amount of muscle you need to put into it. How do you calculate? By rehearsing on a bathroom scale. Then there’s the quality of water (cold but fresh), the amount of coffee (solo or doppio, beans to be measured on a scale), the freshness of the grind, grind coarseness, good grain distribution, the degree of roasting, timing of the extraction.
If you think I’m being obsessive about the perfect cup, you should see the pros measure their water on drip scales calibrated to one-tenth of a gram. That’s right: 0.1 grams. Of water. For a regular morning cup of coffee. You might think this is overkill, but that’s where I want to be when I grow up. These days I’m watching a forum thread like a hawk over at coffeegeek. com on new theories to achieve microfoam for soy milk for a more velvety texture. Short answer: it’s not possible. It looks like I am doomed to never being able to drink cappuccino that I’ve made for myself.
Maybe you’re better at this than I and are feeling inspired to brew some of your own coffee and reap the rich reward it brings. Remember, coffee is for everyone. Even for the folks who’re addicted to CCD.
I have a visual coffee blog over at https://coffeewithk.tumblr.com/
*An edited version first appeared in Mumbai Mirror http://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/others/leisure/confessions-of-a-coffee-snob/articleshow/57350816.cms
1 source: foodandwine.com