January 24, 2019

Everything You Need to Know About Filter Coffee

I know what you may be thinking – filter coffee is the stuff you see in diners and drive-thrus, cheap coffee grounds burnt and boiled past any semblance of good taste and wholesome flavor, with a simple disposable paper filter keeping the grounds out of the coffee itself. But I’m not talking about that kind of filter coffee. I’m talking about South Indian filter coffee.

Also known as Madras coffee or kaapi, South Indian filter coffee is a traditional way of making coffee in India that can be traced back several centuries to trade between Yemen and India. Indian coffee is a frothy, rich liquid made with dark coffee, typically a combination of the bitter Robusta beans and Peaberry beans, blended with roasted chicory.

Peaberry Beans?

Robusta coffee is, as mentioned, coffee made from the Robusta plant, which is one of two plants commonly cultivated for coffee beans. Robusta coffee beans are larger and less prone to pests than Arabica beans, and they’re generally more economical to produce. However, they also contain more caffeine and are usually felt to be less sweet, lacking in flavor and taste. Most instant coffee brands rely on Robusta beans as a way to preserve the strength and coffee taste of their brews during the dehydration process. Some Italian espresso blends also utilize both Robusta and Arabica beans to give their blends a higher level of caffeine and that classic, dark, roasted taste.

Peaberry beans are something altogether different, and they’re found in both types of plants. Seen as a sort of rare accident, peaberry beans are essentially coffee beans that consume their fellow bean – most coffee beans come in twos, wrapped inside of the flesh of a coffee berry. However, in certain cases, one half of the seed of the berry may consume the other half, resulting in what is essentially a single, larger seed. Some people explain that peaberry coffee tastes different, with more acidity, a stronger flavor, and a generally better, stronger body. Others find that peaberry coffee tastes worse, and some find that there is absolutely no difference in taste between regular coffee and peaberry coffee. Nothing scientific seems to suggest there would be a difference in taste.

Most peaberry coffee blends are more expensive due to the fact that they usually have to be handpicked and sorted, requiring much more effort. However, not all Indian coffee is made with peaberry beans. You can find plenty of Madras coffee blends without peaberries in them. The really important component is the chicory.

How It Started

Many myths, legends, and pieces of lore are dedicated to that moment in history, with some stories claiming that an Indian saint traveled to the Middle East and discovered the existence and wonderful nature of coffee. At the time, the Middle East was very protective of its previous coffee plants, and the coffee trade was forbidden. But the saint smuggled a handful of beans out of Yemen through his clothing and planted the beans in the slopes of Southwest India.

Coffee culture in India flourished long before the British arrived, but it was through the Indian Coffee Houses that the Madras-style of filter coffee became wildly successful. Run as a cooperative after a worker’s takeover 1950s after low profits saw the company’s board of directors closing doors on thousands of workers, Indian Coffee Houses continues to be a successful nationwide franchise with over 400 outlets. Making Indian filter coffee at home requires a couple different things.

What You Need

Making filter coffee doesn’t require paper filters, but a set of stainless-steel tumblers used specifically for the process. Two tumblers, a pressing disc and a covering lid are essentially your required kit for Indian filter coffee. Your coffee beans should be ground and mixed which roasted chicory. Look specifically for a Madras blend, often made with about 20 percent chicory.

  1. Grind the coffee into an extremely fine grind, about three level tablespoons worth (25g). Prepare 125ml of boiled water, at about 96 Celsius (not quite boiling, but hot).
  2. The ground coffee is poured into the upper tumbler, and compressed with the pressing disc. The coffee should be tamped with the pressing disc to ensure that it is level. You do not need to press down on it as much as you would for an espresso puck. Due to the concentration of the coffee, it’s bound to be very strong already. The upper tumbler is attached to the lower tumbler, and the water is poured into the upper tumbler, with the lid on top.
  3. The water slowly drips into the lower tumbler, through the compressed coffee and chicory, which apparently holds onto the water longer than the ground beans usually would, producing an incredibly strong brew.
  4. Only roughly half as much coffee as milk should be used, or, if you want a milder brew, use only 1-2 tablespoons per serving. Bring the milk to a boil, but don’t let it continue boiling – this is simply to ensure that the milk is frothy. Use roughly 120-150ml of milk per serving, and add sugar to taste (or none, if you prefer).
  5. Before drinking, the coffee-and-milk mixture is mixed between the tumbler and the dabarah (a deep metal saucer), usually with some air between the two, similar to how teas are poured in Morocco. Sometimes, Indian filter coffee is referred to as meter coffee due to the traditional distance between the dabarah and the tumbler during each pouring. Because locals often pronounced chicory as chigaree or digaree, it’s also known as degree coffee.
  6. You can change some of the variables to adjust the strength of the coffee. A coarser grind will reduce the strength of the coffee. Pressing down harder with the pressing disc will produce a longer brew time, making the coffee stronger.

Most places follow these basic guidelines or change them in one way or another. If you’re not partial to purchasing a special set specifically for making Indian filter coffee, consider simply utilizing your cafetière for similar and acceptable results. Be careful when frothing the milk using the traditional method, as it should ideally be quite hot and can create quite a mess if spilled everywhere. Not to mention that you’ll be wasting a lot of coffee and milk. Mixing it with a spoon is fine, as is slowly pouring it from the saucer (dabarah) to the tumbler, and back.  

Coffee is quite ubiquitous, being a beverage that has existed for centuries and has traveled around the world and back. There are unique ways of preparing and drinking coffee in many different corners of the globe, and they’re all equally valid in the eyes of someone who just enjoys a good cup of coffee. What’s your favorite coffee?