India’s first brush with coffee was in Karnataka in the early 17th century.
Based on what people drink to start their day, it seems as if the world is divided into tea drinkers and coffee drinkers. Both are staunch lovers of their beverage of choice, and at most times unable to go on without a cup. Coffee lovers have the choice of indulging in filter kaapi, South India’s favourite hot drink. From the time the steel cup is brought to the table, to when the frothy coffee is poured between the cup and the deep, saucer-like vessel (called dabarah) to cool it down, drinking filter kaapi can be considered a ritual.
India’s first brush with coffee was in Karnataka in the early 17th century. It is believed that a Muslim saint named Baba Budan from Chikmagalur illegally brought seven coffee beans with him from Yemen while returning from Hajj (a pilgrimage to Mecca). During that time, transporting green coffee beans out of the Arabian Peninsula was considered smuggling because local coffee producers and traders wanted to maintain their monopoly on the item. Baba Budan hid the beans in his beard, bringing them to India, and then planted them in the Chandragiri Hills of Chikmagalur, where they thrived.
For about a hundred years after, coffee continued to be produced in the Chandragiri Hills and remained confined to the region. Coffee plantations began to think about export only in the 19th century. By the 20th century, coffee had become well-known in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
When the British came to rule India, they noticed South India’s coffee culture and decided to produce coffee commercially. With this, coffee plantations began to emerge in the hills of Coorg in Karnataka and Wayanad in Kerala. Most of the harvest from these regions was exported, but a local demand for coffee also developed simultaneously.
During the 19th century, those who were native to South India started to brew their coffee with milk, which they sweetened with honey or jaggery. And so, towards the end of the century, coffee went on to become a daily habit in Southern Indian homes but was still rare to find in the Northern parts of the country. This discrepancy lessened when Indian Coffee House, a chain that would go on to serve some of India’s favourite coffee, was established in the mid-20th century.
As more coffee houses appeared, it became the norm to use stainless steel tumblers instead of earthen pots to brew and serve coffee. These tumblers are an inextricable part of filter kaapi culture today. Each tumbler is made up of two cylindrical cups—freshly ground coffee is loaded onto one of the cups, and then compressed (similar to a French press), while the other cup collects the coffee that has been brewed.
Filter kaapi became popular across India during the 20th century. Now, it is a mainstay at coffee houses in South Indian cities and also at South Indian restaurants around the country. Over the years, filter kaapi has gone on to become a drink that is tied to South Indian identity.