Ground realities: Wake up and smell the coffee with Swetha Sivakumar

Ground realities: Wake up and smell the coffee with Swetha Sivakumar

When hot water hits ground coffee, a rich aroma fills the air. This is not surprising, since more than 800 aroma compounds have been identified in coffee. The hot water also releases the browning pigments, cell wall carbohydrates and taste compounds that give a mug of coffee body.

But all this yumminess comes with a ticking clock. The high heat at which coffee grounds are brewed releases the volatile flavour, but it’s a flavour that starts to fade within an hour of brewing.

The coffee tree is native to East Africa, though historians cite Yemen as the birthplace of the beverage. From Yemen, coffee made its way to India, legend has it, via a Sufi saint named Baba Budan, who smuggled a handful of seeds into India and planted them in Karnataka, in the 16th century. Domestically, coffee is still grown predominantly in the hills of South India, with Karnataka accounting for 70% of India’s coffee production.

Although several species of coffee exist, the two most commonly cultivated ones are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is known for its refined flavour and sweeter taste, while Robusta is strong and bitter, more pest-resilient, and grows readily at lower altitudes and in higher temperatures. Robusta quickly became the preferred choice for South Indian filter kaapi. It is used in many instant coffees too.

For that unique South Indian filter kaapi flavour, it helps to add chicory. Chicory powder is made by roasting and grinding the root of the chicory plant. It is caffeine-free and has long been used as a coffee substitute, but coffee and chicory weren’t mixed until the shortages of World War 2. Then, what began as an additive became a mainstay. But chicory is also much cheaper than coffee, so some coffee producers overdo the ratio to cut costs. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) dictates that “the coffee content in any coffee-chicory mixture shall not be less than 51% by mass.”

Most coffees are processed the same way: Once the beans are picked, washed and fermented, they are roasted to release the flavour locked within. The hotter the roasting temperature, the stronger the flavour (though sometimes a dark roast may be used as a way to hide deficiencies in lower-quality beans or get a uniform flavour out of beans from multiple sources).

For those looking to reduce their intake of caffeine, there’s decaffeinated coffee, where the caffeine is removed from the beans using either water (Swiss Water Process) or chemical solvents such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. The Swiss Water Process takes eight to 10 hours and is thus more expensive.

While coffee aficionados these days obsess over where their beans are from, how they were roasted, etc, many coffee drinkers still love the ease of instant coffee. This variant was first popularised by the Swiss conglomerate Nestlé’s Nescafé brand. In 1938, Nescafé worked with the Brazilian government to process a bumper coffee harvest. It used a new method to preserve the vast quantities better: concentrated brewed coffee extract was sprayed into a drying tower and the water extracted. The high temperatures led to a harsh, slightly bitter product. In 1965, a newer process emerged where freeze-drying technology was used to make instant coffee. Here the coffee extract is rapidly frozen and broken into granules. It is then subjected to a vacuum, which dries out the coffee via sublimation. Since there is no heat or oxygen exposure, this kind of instant coffee retains more aroma and flavour.

There are exorbitant coffees, cheap coffees, strong coffees and weak ones. When it comes to this brew, there are really no wrong answers. Except for the 3-in-1 ready mixes that pack in coffee, creamer and sugar in a single sachet. To prevent clumping in water and hardening in their packaging, these sachets are packed with emulsifiers, stabilisers, anti-caking agents and hydrogenated fats. You’re better off just buying instant. Or stopping at a good coffee stall on the way to work.

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Vijay Singh

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