Instant versus boutique coffee


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 3:49 PM

While growing up, drinking coffee was a luxury. Obviously, there was only instant coffee (that we knew of), the one you mixed with water and milk (or just milk, depending on your lactose preferences), stirred in some sugar, and voila, it was good enough to headily savour. And yes, those who opted for ‘black coffee’ were supposed to be on a higher intellectual trajectory.

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Back in India, when Nescafe, Bru and Sunrise ruled the roost, we never even considered the likelihood that there could be another variant to ‘instant’. A small jar of coffee was a monthly purchase, deemed an expensive one, and usually kept for guests or ‘special people’ (my father’s favourite cousin, my mother’s ageing aunt who — it was assumed — had no other pleasure in life and so on). We, the ones taken for granted, would get a cuppa on rare Sundays when my mother was in a good mood and would agree to my “May I have some coffee?” request.

There was something really posh about serving coffee. That look that would transfix guests — including my father’s favourite cousin and mother’s ageing aunt — when they were asked, “Do you want coffee?” Nobody would ever say no. The closest they came to refusal was when they countered with a “Why not?”. Whenever I eavesdropped on adult conversations, I would hear stuff like how “so and so is such a good host, they always serve coffee at their place”. If someone served tea, they would have to compensate by accompanying it with biscuits or (at times) samosas; but if one served coffee, the gesture became a hit on its own strength, there was no need for ancillary benefits to prop it up.

Because coffee was in such short supply in our lives, I would look forward to weddings. Bengali weddings had just evolved to a point where guests would be served coffee (in plastic cups) and savouries before the actual repast began in right earnest (someone had once remarked this new-fangled ritual had been instituted to reduce hunger pangs among guests: once they had their fill of coffee and knick-knacks, their appetite was bound to be vastly reduced, and would end up eating way less of the real food).

At these weddings, with some luck, I could manage three-four cups of milky, oversweet coffee, but how good I felt, and how good I thought they tasted.

These days, I am reminded of the instant coffee days whenever even the moderately well-heeled suddenly ramble on about coffee variations (there is a pecking order that borders on classism), the mechanisms to brew the brew and their utter disdain for anything that doesn’t come out of a slow-roasted pot. Even coffee chains have a pecking order. One of the biggest coffee chain ‘brands’ in the world is labelled “too common”, the best of the lot are apparently to be found in ‘boutique’ cafes where attention is given to customised orders.

Consequently, what’s happened is that I’m a bit scared to meet friends at a ‘coffee place’. What will happen if the coffee — it may be cappuccino or Americano or espresso or whatever — is not up to steam because the processes they follow are not good enough? Chances are they may spill: “Eeww, such bad coffee, XXX is known for its bad sourcing, I am surprised you suggested this place! Now ZZZ is so much better, I should have insisted we meet there!” To be on the safe side, I let the other party choose the venue (or brand), since I am usually non-fussy.

I genuinely feel sad at this loss of innocence: this waking up to smell the whiff of a new — and evolving — dimension, this erosion of the ‘coffee culture’ that people like us who had their roots in instant gratification have been drawn into.

So, I tried experimenting coffee-making with instant coffee. I rounded up a little huddle of people who are desperate for coffee in any form, and beat up instant coffee and sugar together with a splash of water. If one keeps beating it (it’s a good arm exercise as well), the mixture turns smooth and light brown. I heat milk (full fat) and water at a 50:50 ratio and add it to the mix. The resultant broth has a nice dollop of froth gathered at the top. This is poured equally into smaller cups, and presented to eager drinkers.

They loved it. Turns out, the arm-racking beating opened up the coffee powder’s mass-produced DNA and gave it a certain unique flavour. These days, I’ve started keeping aside a few minutes every day to make “coffee that’s better than what you get in the cafes” (their words, not mine) to give a leg up to the rapidly-declining legacy of instant pleasure.

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