A century ago, people looking for a good cup of coffee in the South Indian town of Kumbakonam would check to see that there was a cow out back to provide fresh milk. As a result, some shops put their cow by the entrance.
Kumbakonam degree coffee is a piping hot blend of milk combined with a decoction of chicory and fragrant ground coffee powder sourced from local plantations. True degree coffee requires pure milk. Pasumpal Coffee Club may have started the trend—the shop had a cattle shed behind it, where cows were milked regularly to ensure that the milk was as fresh as possible.
The nomenclature of “degree” has been debated for almost as long as the coffee has been served. One theory points to the lactometers that measured the purity of the cow’s milk. The device’s thermometer-like gradations may have led to the brew being named “degree” coffee. Others speculate that “degree” is a mispronunciation of the drink’s signature chicory.
With the rise of pasteurized milk, traditional degree coffee has become harder to find, even in Kumbakonam. Several small coffee-powder shops still use antique equipment to grind their coffee. But the golden days of shops serving Kumbakonam degree coffee—with fresh milk—late into the night are long gone. Kumbakonam is much better known for its colorful towers that feature hundreds of painted sculptures. But great coffee is out there—select coffee makers are resurrecting the tradition.
Need to Know
The designation of Kumbakonam degree coffee is widely used to market coffee with little connection to its origins. One place to find a truer version is Mohan Coffee House, one of the more well-known coffee-powder producers in Kumbakonam. It's traditional to cool the coffee by pouring it in an arc between two brass cups. Take a look at the video to see how some brewers have turned this into an art.
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Where to Try It
Mohan Coffee HouseSwaminatha Nagar, Valayapettai Agraharam, Kumbakonam, 612001, India
A well-known coffee shop in Kumbakonam.