In Search of the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee

In search of Kumbakonam’s Famed ‘Degree Coffee”

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I make the transition from the 4th to the 5th gear, when I see signs of Kumbakonam Degree Coffee on the Chennai-Bangalore highway near Kanchipuram. The Coffee that they serve is usually passable, to the point that it helps you refresh on a car ride, and then you get back to driving. While I have seen spurious copies of the Kumbakonam Degree Kaapi, I always wondered whether I would anytime be able to amble by for an original filter coffee/Degree Coffee at Kumbakonam. I found an opportunity recently, and I thought I should get to the right place to have the coffee. So I set out in an auto from the bus stand to the Venkkatramana Hotel, which I was told was the best place to sample the ‘Degree Kaapi’

What is the Degree Kaapi? Why is it called so?

Degree Coffee in a Brass Dabara-Kumbakonam
Degree Coffee in a Brass Dabara-Kumbakonam

Coffee is a mix of Decoction and Milk, and the Degree Coffee is basically using the first decoction of the day, with boiled milk at a particular temperature around 110 degrees (and hence the ‘Degree’ in the name). The first decoction is also sometimes called as the first degree. Quora has an interesting thread, that also says that chicory was mis-pronunced as Tikery and that came to be known as degree. The decoction comes from the Arabica and Robusta Coffee beans. Apparently Coffee came to India from Yemen in the 1600’s and the Coffee at Venkkatramana hotel comes through ‘Mohan Coffee Works’ which makes the powder, after sourcing it from the hilly tracts of Chikmaglur in Karnataka.

People queing up for Coffee Powder at Mohan Coffee Works-Kumbakonam
People queing up for Coffee Powder at Mohan Coffee Works-Kumbakonam

WikiPedia also mentions this on Filter coffee- ” The upper cup is loaded with freshly ground coffee. The grounds are then compressed (i.e., tamped) with the stemmed disc into a uniform layer across the cup’s pierced bottom. The coarser the coffee grinds, the more one has to tamp the coffee to retain the same extraction. With the press disc left in place, the upper cup is nested into the top of the tumbler and boiling water is poured inside. The lid is placed on top, and the device is left to slowly drip the brewed coffee into the bottom. The chicory holds on to the hot water a little longer, letting the water dissolve and extract more of the coffee grinds.

The resulting brew is generally much stronger than Western drip/filter coffee, and often stronger than even espresso.”

Where is Kumbakonam?

Kumbakonam is a temple town in Tamil Nadu by the Cauvery river known for its temples. It’s also the hometown of the famous mathematician Ramanujam. Kumbakonam plays host to the ‘Mahamaham’ which is held once in 12 years (very similar to the Maha Kumbha Mela with a rythmic 12 year cycle)

Kumbakonam- 6 hours away from Chennai (Tamil Nadu)
Kumbakonam- 6 hours away from Chennai (Tamil Nadu)

In Search of the ‘Degree Kaapi’

I figured out that there were 4-5 places one could go to for sampling the ‘Degree Coffee’ in Kumbakonam. There is Murali’s Cafe, Krishna Bhavan, Mangaleshwara Cofee Hotel and Venkkatramana Hotel if you want to have the Coffee directly. If you want to take home some memories there is Venus Coffee Shop and Mohan Coffee Works. I chose the last hotel in each of  lists, as I was recommended this by the local auto-driver

The auto driver taking me through Kumbakonam
The auto driver taking me through Kumbakonam

I hear the first destination to sample the Coffee was 10 minutes away. The auto driver, drove with an air of superiority as if he was the crowned prince who was steaming down his private road, passionately muttering things about the little lanes we pass by. I also hear him put together a temple package for the evening. I nod my head and say, we’l see. As it turns out he chose to assist me filming at the venue, in return for some coffee and tiffin.

Route from Kumbakonam Bus Stand to Venkkatramana Hotel
Route from Kumbakonam Bus Stand to Venkkatramana Hotel

Venkkatramana Hotel- Go For the Coffee

We met the Venkkatrama hotel’s proprietor who tells me about the history of how the Pasumpon Coffee Club used to have fresh cow’s milk early in the morning and how that used to lend a special taste as the decoction added was the first one. Usually the taste withers off with the second and third decoction, and that’s where the difference in taste happens. The earliest person to make this was Panchapakesa Iyer, who used to own cows and start making the first brew available at his Lakshmi Vilas hotel as early as 5 am. Over time, there have been more people from the Iyer community of Tamil Nadu who have set up shops, but there are only a few in operation, including the Venkkatramana hotel.

Do watch him and my experience with the Degree Coffee in the below video.

 

K-Balachandran-Proprietor of Venkkatramana Hotel
M-Balachandran-Proprietor of Venkkatramana Hotel

Post the ‘Degree Kaapi’ experience at Venkkatramana hotel, I proceeded to Mohan Coffee Works to go buy some coffee back home for my father, as he loves the powder from this store.

Buying Coffee Memories for Home- Mohan Coffee Works

Coffee Machines at work-Mohan Coffee Works(Kumbakonam)
Coffee Machines at work-Mohan Coffee Works(Kumbakonam)
Route to Mohan Coffee Works from Kumbakonam Bus Stand
Route to Mohan Coffee Works from Kumbakonam Bus Stand

 

The Coffee machines usually aim to ground 100 grams of the beans to around 80 grams of coffee powder. Usually this is an indication of very high quality, but its probably for the connoisseurs of this special taste of Coffee. This process is called roasting and after the heating is done, its advisable that the powder cools for 5-10 minutes, else the powder is half baked.

Chicory is added for colour before the Coffee powder is lapped by customers. However the beauty of the ‘Degree Kaapi’ is the heating up of the un-diluted milk to 110 degrees, and then mixing it with pre-heated decoction

I signed off from Kumbakonam, after making my bag pregnant with 4 packets of Coffee powder, and promised to come back for more to explore this little town. I am interested to go to the nearby temples on my own pace, and I hope to come back to Kumbakonam to just be able to do that over the weekend.

 

 

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44 thoughts on “In search of Kumbakonam’s Famed ‘Degree Coffee””

  1. I am not a coffee lover, I know, I know, it isn’t normal don’t like coffee, it is my fault 😀
    But even I don’t like coffee I found your article very interesting and well done, full of information about the Degree coffee. You did well to trust the tuk-tuk driver 🙂
    Also, the videos are very well done.

    1. Thank you Fabio on your comment on the article and video! I happened to go visit this place, and did not have lug around my Camera. It was lapped up on the mobile. Found it pretty handy!

    1. Thanks Divyakshi. Tamil Nadu is home to the Degree Kaapi, and that’s how most homes here drink it. Just that its only now, that its being marketed as degree kaapi all over, since Tamil Nadu is going through a whole demographic change and there’s a generation of people who have disposable incomes.

  2. I’m a coffee lover and so I’m truly curious about how this tastes! I’ve tried having civet cat coffee up the mountains, but this degree coffee I haven’t heard of. Perhaps we have one called in another name.

    1. The Degree coffee is basically just heating up milk and decoction to a certain temperature. The decoction comes from the fine roasting of seeds. So if you have a look at the video, it should help you.

  3. Wow, how I wish my wife and I lives near. We’re both coffee lovers.

    I wonder if that coffee is above or below Civet coffee.

    I do hope to try out that one someday. 🙂
    More power to your blog.

    1. Thanks Neil. You are from the Philipenes right? No coffee or civet there. When you mean above/below civet,in terms of taste? I think its very subjective based on taste preference. Thanks for your feedback on my blog.

  4. I had never heard of a degree coffee, leave apart it’s technical details 🙂 You always surprise me with such stories of things right from the neighborhood that I have somehow never heard of. Got to try this out.

  5. Your post about Degree Kaapi took me back on the waves of nostalgia to some years back when my mom used to make filter coffee and we all savoured the first decoction coffee. Of course we were oblivious of the fact that someday, somewhere it was being called degree coffee. Anytime is degree coffee I hope to savour its taste in Kumbakonam some day.

  6. Interesting! I’m glad you found the degree coffee in Kumbakonam… Now I’m curious about this coffee. Although for me, coffee tastes the same. But still, I’ll try looking for it in the stores. 🙂

  7. I love coffee but I have never heard about degree kaapi before so this is such an interesting thing for me to read. I also watched the video, it’s so fascinating to see how it’s prepared. I am lactose intolerant but if I get a chance to go there, there’s no way I will leave without trying degree kaapi.

  8. Loved the videos. Also never knew about degree coffee before and I’m a huge coffee person, so this is definitely the article for me. Can’t wait to try it.

  9. Wow your video is very detailed and informative, and i learned new things about coffee farming. Thanks for sharing this story!

  10. Wow, what an original content you got here. This is the kind of topic that I want to read more of from travel bloggers. I loved how you went out of your way in search of this degree coffee. I’m a coffee lover myself, so I kept my eyes peeled all throughout this reading journey. I’d love to do something similar when I go back to India, By the way, do you prefer your coffee black or with milk?

  11. wow, this was such an amazing read, though i have travelled to Tamil Nadu but did not know about this degree coffee concept and as I am a coffee lover, will surely keep this in mind next time and try and find my Degree Kapi

  12. Karthik, I wish I had known about Kumbakonam 3 years back when we lived in Bangalore. We would have definitely driven down to taste it for ourselves. Oh the regret! My husband Bharat is a huge coffee lover and both of us would have definitely made the trek. Your videos were the perfect accompaniment to this post – I am impressed at how old these institutions are and are continuing their tradition of making coffee in this style. Btw, the dosa looks super yummy too. So glad I came across this post. Sharing it on Twitter too.

    1. Hey Supriya and Bharat, There’s always a next time. Its not very easy to get from Bangalore owing to a single train or no train (I had last been here from Bangalore in 2013 and I had to do a break journey at Villupuram). Chennai is the easiest place to get to Kumbakonam. 230 kms and many trains/buses.

  13. Oh wow, I felt like I was back in school again as I looked confused at a variety of words, so great job. I just learned more then ever about coffee, the coffee beans, and coffee culture

  14. I had never ever heard of the famous Kumbakonam coffee. But now that I know about it I could not resist planning a trip there. I am a die hard coffee lover. Thank you for such a nice introduction to Kumbakonam. Loved the video and the pictures.

  15. I had not even heard of Degree Coffee. It’s interesting why it is called Degree coffee. I have been to Chikmagalur and there I learned about the coffee culture. Now I know what not to miss when I visit Kumbakonam.

    1. Hey Abhinav. Mostly Tam-Brahms know this since we make this at home. Its great that this post is helping non Tamil folks know about this special type of coffee. Do visit Kumbakonam when you can.

  16. I always love south Indian styled coffee with so much froth and made in a special way. But through your post, I can now understand how it is flavored so differently because of 110 degree temperature and special decotion from Arabica . I have been to Kumbakonam for temples but never had coffee in Degree coffee but now it is on my list.

    1. Hey Yukti. I think Kumbakonam if it can be visited in a slow manner, like 3-4 days has enough time and temples to see and absorb. I should plan to be back soon, as I am quite fond of Kumbakonam.

  17. No matter how many ever varieties of coffee I have tried so far and will try in the coming years.Filter kaapi will always remain my favourite type of coffee forever.Considering that I have it almost every week whenever I am in Tamil Nadu my mouth is still watering when I saw the video and the way you described how it is brewed.I am laughing out loud at the way you have described the auto driver’s attitude.

  18. Thats so awesome that you would travel far and wide for a specific coffee! Never heard of it before but it must be extra yummy knowing you are willing to do that!

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