The last, long weekend saw us in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu, to honour certain long-standing religious commitments. And, while in Kumbakonam, how could we not stop and smell the coffee… er, the degree coffee.. and drink our fill of it, too? That is how this dream of mine got crossed off my bucket list, finally.
What on earth is ‘degree coffee’?
For the uninitiated, ‘degree coffee’ is just one of the things that the temple town of Kumbakonam is very famous for. What is interesting, though, is that there are no flashy signboards proclaiming the availability of the drink in hotels across town, nothing to make it a big tourist attraction. I mean, several hotels do have it on their menu, but it is quiet, understated, like a sort of guarded secret.
The degree coffee we tasted at a few places in Kumbakonam looks and tastes just like the regular filter coffee that is commonly available across Tamilnadu. So, what is the difference between the two?, we asked. As per the service staff at most hotels we tried out, degree coffee is made almost the same way as regular filter coffee. The only difference between the two is that degree coffee is made with pure cow’s milk, while the filter coffee is made from ‘packet milk’ aka pasteurised milk. We did come across milkmen delivering milk to hotels and homes in huge cans, from their farms, so this theory makes sense. The milk we ordered in for the bub in our hotel room in Kumbakonam did seem to taste very pure, fresh and delish. And, yes, after a few samplings, we did realise how the degree coffee tastes much fresher and better than ordinary filter coffee.
Why is ‘degree coffee’ called so?
No one, in Kumbakonam or otherwise, really seems to know the story behind the name ‘degree coffee’. There are quite a few other interesting legends about the name, though.
Some believe that this coffee was originally called ‘chicory coffee’, because chicory would be added to extract the full flavour from the coffee. Locals started calling it ‘tikeri coffee’, which, over time, changed to ‘degree coffee’.
Another explanation is that ‘degree coffee’ is made only with milk whose purity has been checked using a lactometer – that the degree markings on the meter led to the name.
Some people believe that ‘degree coffee’ is made using the first decoction from the filter – sometimes referred to as ‘first degree’. This is what gave the coffee its name.
Some people believe that the coffee was originally called ‘decree coffee’, which later morphed into ‘degree coffee’. A certain 19th century British Collector of the Thanjavur District loved the coffee that was served to him by a local cook in Kumbakonam so much that he decreed that he should be served similar coffee on all his travels.
Whatever be the story behind its name, degree coffee certainly is outstanding. We tried it out several times over, and it was always lovely, fresh and aromatic and refreshing. Everywhere, it is served in little brass davara-tumblers – those quintessential South Indian vehicle for coffee – that are beyond cute. There’s definitely something special about Kumbakonam’s degree coffee.
I urge you to try out this coffee, if you haven’t ever.
Hotel Venkatramana and Murali’s Cafe are believed to be the best places in Kumbakonam to have degree coffee, though a few other restaurants serve it, too.
I hear there are a lot of ‘fake’ degree coffee joints dotting highways in Tamilnadu and several in Madras, too. I cannot claim to tell you about the authenticity (or not) of these places. If you are interested in authentic degree coffee, your best bet would be to head to Kumbakonam and try it out in the little eateries in town.