Zen and the art of making a perfect cup of filter coffee

Zen and the art of making a perfect cup of filter coffee

If you are born to an intelligent father, life is difficult. It is more difficult if he knows every single detail in the world and to top it, he is a mathematician.

To my father who was a mathematician, everything was about space, time, pressure, density, direction and the likes. In my childhood, I grew up listening to formulae, directions, speed, distance, quantifying life. Why did the cup fall off the table? Because I bumped into the table? No, it was because the cup was positioned at the edge of the table a distance which gave it maximum pull and could not take the pressure and the force of gravity acting on it. Are you there, did you get it? No? Well, good, I didn’t understand or bother to understand either. Why I was finding the square root of a number, or trying to decode reflection or refraction of light was beyond my bean-sized brain. Talking of bean, the one thing I owe to my father is the formula for a divine cup of coffee, and the story goes thus.

Go to the market, to a trusted vendor who loves coffee as much as you do and pick up the best Arabica bean, graded for its colour, size, density and packaged with care and reverence. Roast the bean in an even heat, and watch with fascination the sway of the wooden ladle as it flips and swirls the beans with grace, while you sweat and stink in the heat. Then follows the process of cooling and grinding the perfectly roasted beans to a powder in a mixie that screeches and puffs, before finally discharging its contents. The method to make the essence of the drink, the decoction, has an interesting procedure. South Indian filter coffee, also called degree coffee or meter coffee, is brewed in a plain-looking stainless steel cylindrical utensil with two compartments stacked one on top of the other; the upper container with lots of little holes also has a piston-like tool, a pressing disc and a central stem handle which is used to press the powder.

Roasting coffee beans in those days made me feel like I was being punished for the pleasure of drinking the coffee that followed. In the 80s, in middle-class-aspiring-to-become-upper-class or already-arrived-upper-class families, it was drilled into the consciousness of good boys and girls that coffee was bad. Well, alcohol is SIN and you should drink only Bournvita (malt powder from Cadbury) mixed with milk; all sins brew from the same pot or malt grain! Malt is the base for beer and whisky, and our pious Bournvita powder was a little detail forgotten, I suppose.

Hydrostatic equilibrium/state: The real story starts here. Boil water, and while it is getting heated, add 3 tablespoons of ground coffee into the upper container of the filter. Press the powder gently with the piston. When the water boils anxiously and starts spurting, slowly pour it over the piston placed on the ground coffee in the upper container. Hold the piston gently and slowly remove the pressure and close the container. Wait for 30 minutes and the decoction, a thick concoction, will filter down. Then boil milk in a high, stable flame, add five tablespoons of the decoction to your cup and as the milk rises to wish you from the vessel, pour it along with the cream into the cup in one swift move. No indecisiveness here and do not let the milk wait for a minute as the cream will form a thin layer that will change the taste of the coffee. Now swirl the liquid with a spoon smoothly, even as the aroma fills your lungs and your senses. If you want to add to your sins, add a spoon or two of sugar and there you go, the perfect cup of filter coffee. Today, I have outsourced the roasting and powdering, but the rest is done in-house. Over the years, I have made a fine art of making a perfect cup of filter coffee.

As I make my cup of coffee and sip it in the morning while the sun is breaking over the yonder, I feel a moment of peace and stillness – call it my Zen moment. The whole process of coffee-making, a well-orchestrated sonnet, resonating the gentle rhythm of life, has the power of harmony. The challenge is to hold these moments and create more pockets of this blissful peace, the integral silence. I realize that life is all about how many things we can do with perfection, exactitude and consciousness, enjoying every second, while the identity of the doing and doer is merged, transformation to a state of oneness, and the unifying bliss.

There is nothing small in God’s eyes; let there be nothing small in thine. He bestows as much labour of divine energy on the formation of a shell as on the building of an empire. For thyself, it is greater to be a good shoemaker than a luxurious and incompetent king.

-Sri Aurobindo

Sunitha Lal is a Human Resources professional and organizational culture expert, based out of Bangalore. She has over 25 years of experience spanning diverse industries and geographies. Because of her keen interest in understanding human behavior, she views organizational dynamics through the lens of behavioral science, psychology, and anthropology.  

1 Comment

  1. mail work 3 years ago

    I truly appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this!

    Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thx again!

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