In Search Of A Perfect Cup Of Coffee

Updated: Nov 29 2003, 05:30am hrs
The morning alarm rings. Its so cold, you want to shoot the clock and snuggle back under the quilt. Unless. Unless you have something really special to get out of bed for. Coffee.

Shivering my way to the kitchen, I freshly grind some coffee beans that a friend has brought me from Mysore. A rich aroma fills the air. I inhale it by the lungful. Then I put the ground coffee in a plunger, pour hot water (never boiling) on top and wait exactly four minutes for it to brew. In that time, I choose some music to listen to: maybe Bach on the violin.

For the next hour, I revel in the aroma and taste of good coffee. I am immersed in quality. I dont just drink the coffee, I sip it mindfully. I reflect, I catch up with myself.

Coffees at seven, gods in his heaven, all is well with the world. This is anti-rush hour. To enjoy it completely, let me hijack Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanhs statement about tea: Drink your coffee slowly and reverently as if it were the axis on which the earth revolvesslowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. For only this moment is life.

This small ritualsimultaneously sensual and spiritualgets me out of bed and straight to heaven.

I am an unabashed coffee lover. I have a relationship to coffee that parallels that of wine connoisseurs to good wine. I can get as excited about a Jamaican Blue Mountain as they can about a Chateau Latour. I can usually follow the aroma of a good coffee right back to its originsthis is from Colombia, that from Sumatra. I can tell you where to find the best coffees in India. These include the Hyatt coffee shop in Delhi, the Crossword bookstore in Mumbai and surprisingly, the Jet Airways Business Class Lounge at Mumbai airport.

I am annoyed that coffee doesnt get the kind of press that wine does since it is capable of bringing as much joy on earth.

Coffee is one of the most pleasurable drinks availablebut many people simply dont get all its got to give. They drink it in a rush. They make it all wrong. And that ill-tasting stuff they pass around in offices Please dont call it coffee. It tastes like it came out of a geyser instead of a coffee maker.

To me a good life is marked by good coffee. Drinking it is a signal to stop and re-centre myself and so it works as a marvellous stress reduction technique. A cup of freshly brewed aromatic coffee is worth sitting down for. Let the world wait.

Its also one of the simplest ways to refine life upward: Drink good coffee, eat good food. The smallest of gestures have the potential to re-enchant everyday life. Good coffee, good clothes, good conversation, good literature, good films. These things dont cost very much but they can qualitatively change the texture of your life.

Incidentally I am not the only one going crazy about coffee here. Ever since it first crossed the lips of Sufi mystics in the 13th century, its had an almost cult following. Rich men had rooms specially built for coffee drinking and servants specially trained to brew it. From the Muslim world, coffee spread all through Europe, changing quite significantly the way people lived their lives. Michelet, the 19th century historian even described coffee as the great event which created new customs and modified human temperament.

If drinking coffee alonehand poised around a warm cupinvites reflection, drinking it with others invites conversation and intimacy. It follows that those who love coffee would love coffee houses. Things happen in coffee houses that dont happen anywhere else, not even in pubs. Alcohol dulls the brain whereas coffee sharpens it. As a result, coffee houses have always been the places where intellectual debates rage and new ideas are born. It is said that even the French Revolution was fomented in coffee house meetings.

In her book Coffee, Claudia Roden says: Coffee houses were the stage for political debate, fringe centres of education and the origin of certain newspapers. Insurance houses, merchant banks and the stock exchange began in coffee houses. Everything, it seems, went on in these establishments.

Coffee houses near universities were called penny universities: a man could pick up more useful knowledge there than he could by reading text books for a whole month. For the price of a single cup, you could spend several hoursand re-emerge much more animated than when you walked in. Ask someone who cut his revolutionary teeth in Calcuttas coffee houses in the 1970s and youll know what I am talking about.

Wit, camaraderie, debate, ideasall come with coffee. In contrast, tea seems like a fuddy duddy old uncle.

Most of all, though, coffee houses provide a sense of community. This is an intrinsic human need. Think about popular television shows like Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld: much of the action happens in a coffee shop. People need cafes. They need a place to congregate and connect with each other.

Today we have several coffee chains in India that provide fairly decent coffee. But they arent real coffee houses. They have a fast food feel about them, not the soulfulness that is essential to a good cafe. A good cafe needs to be designed to get people to linger and converse. It needs the aroma of fresh beans roasting not, as one Delhi cafe has, the smell of phenyl all over the place. How brain-dead is that

Alas, India lacks a cafe society, which is real loss. Cafes are great fertilisers for creativity and human bonding. The sign of a good coffee shop is the community it builds around itself: Many of the same people come everyday for their cappuccino. They hang around. They sit in corners and write best-selling novels. Everyone knows everyones name. They know that anytime they come theyll find conviviality.

Soon they cant not come. Its become a habit.

People are starved for community. They need a place to belong to. I cant think of many such places here, at least not in the big cities. This specially struck me on a recent visit to the US. An old neighbourhood cafe was shutting down. The New York Times sent a reporter to spend the entire day in the cafe, writing about people who came and went. The story got two entire pages in the paper. Thats how important a coffee shop can be to a community.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at simranonsaturday@yahoo.co.in