Pilgrimage to Mount Coffee: A Personal Journey

Dr. Suresh K. Joishy, MD is Special to usindiamonitor. He is Father of usindiamonitor.

Pilgrimage is generally a long journey made to some sacred place. Classic examples include Mecca, the Vatican, Jerusalem, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya etc. Sacred mountains and hills are key destinations for Hindu pilgrims in India such as Mount Kailas in the Himalayas or the hilltop temple of Tirupathi.

This year I undertook a different type of unique pilgrimage to “Mount Coffee.” I am sure that you have never even heard of this place in India. I respectfully made up this name referring to a mountain called Bababudan Giri of Chikmagalur District in the state of Karnataka. I am using the name Mt. Coffee metaphorically only for the purpose of my personal journey. This is the story of the origin of coffee in India and my experience of drinking coffee in India, America, and many other countries across the globe.

I have the best reason to enjoy drinking coffee since I was 4 years old, thanks to my mother. I was an asthmatic child and by her astute observation, she found out I was getting some relief from the constant wheezing when she served me a tiny cup of strong coffee. There was no calculating at the time whether coffee was good or bad because little was known about caffeine. After I became a physician later in life, I came to know my mother was right in giving coffee to me. There is plenty of medical literature on the benefit of caffeine for asthmatics to relieve narrowing of air passages and breathe easier.

When I was in middle school in India, through history books I came to know the legends of the origin of coffee in India. Chikmagalur is one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in the state of Karnataka. A Sufi saint by the name of Baba Budan who lived there completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Coffee drinking was common in Arab countries, and Baba Budan enjoyed it. However the export of live coffee beans to other countries was prohibited. So Baba smuggled exactly 7 fresh coffee beans by hiding them in his beard when he boarded a ship back to India from the harbor city of Mocha. Yes- that same coffee Mocha you can order so casually today. Of course there were no X-ray scanners or dogs to screen or sniff the coffee beans at the customs counter.

Back in Chikmagalur with the contraband, next he planted those coffee beans. Today there are miles and miles of coffee plantations all descended from those 7 seeds planted by Baba Budan. The mountain he first planted the coffee beans on is named after him as Baba Budan Giri; Giri means mountain in Sanskrit. Ever since his death his burial place is still considered sacred with a mosque and also a Hindu pilgrimage temple called Dattatreya Peeta Atru, an integration of Muslims and Hindus over the centuries achieved by the glory of coffee indeed.

Next to this there is an even higher mountain called Mullayanagiri with a temple at the top if you venture to climb hundreds of steps and withstand the blowing winds. The view from these mountain tops is the most spectacular 360 degrees you’ll find featuring layers of undulating mountains as far as the eyes can see. The view from the peak was no less than breathtaking. Nature aside, my interest in this pilgrimage was to learn all about coffee and by stroke of luck I found a coffee museum in Chikmagalur maintained by the Coffee Board of India. Here are some highlights of what we learned: India is one of the largest exporters of high quality coffee to the world. While Brazil is the largest exporter it uses machinery to harvest their coffee beans, while India uses human labor to pick coffee beans. Coffee pickers are mostly women and it is a treat to watch them picking coffee beans as shown in a documentary video.

By sight and feel of their hands, the coffee pickers always succeed in picking the choicest coffee beans (fruits Berrie). Another surprise is the flowering coffee trees, huge bunches of pure and bright white colors, which are even prettier than cherry blossoms. India is the only coffee producing country that grows coffee plants under the shade of big trees. The coffee plantations called coffee estates in India look more like dense forests with trees grown to produce shade for the coffee plants. India produces the coffee varietals called coffee Arabica and coffee Robusta.

There are an amazing number of coffee making machines on display at the museum. Even today new kinds of coffee brewing machines are being invented and mass produced. All said and done, the best coffee needs a human touch. No two cups of coffee taste the same in restaurants even using the same brand of machine. The most affordable coffee is as complex as expensive wine making from grape vineyards to the bottle, from coffee estates to the cup. Amazingly, each of us may taste the same coffee differently. It is not only taste but the aroma that is critical in enjoying coffee. Just like the wine tasting experts are called Sommeliers, coffee tasting experts are called Baristas. The museum has a diagrammatic representation for the number of coffee aromas and tastes. It is a wheel with hundreds of spokes representing the number of aromas. Yes, we tasted a Chikmagalur coffee in a well known local coffee shop. It was heavenly.

Visiting  Baba Budan Giri (Mt,Coffee) fulfilled the goal of my pilgrimage to learn about coffee in India.

I have had my morning cup of coffee in at least two dozen countries, all tasting different. Because I use milk and sugar with my coffee it adds more variables to the taste. European countries generally have strong tasting coffee. The coffee in the cafe culture of Paris is overrated. It’s difficult to find a good cup of coffee in tea drinking countries like Japan and China but some restaurants may have European coffee. Coffee in African countries is on the bitter side such as Kenya and South Africa. Coffee in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are usually on the milder side. In Malaysia, they use sweet condensed milk with coffee, so no need to add sugar.

Indonesia is a major coffee exporting country. When we visited Bali in Indonesia there was a tourist attraction for the visitors about coffee, quite unsettling for me. The world’s most expensive coffee is exported from Indonesia. It is called Coffee Luwak. We were shown how it is processed. They force-feed coffee fruits to a cat-like animal called Civets. After feeding the coffee fruits, the undigested coffee beans are harvested from its feces. It is claimed that the enzymatic changes of the coffee seeds produce the best tasting coffee in the world, so much so that a cup of Coffee Luwak may cost $30-$100. I tasted a sip. I am not a Barista but I will never touch it again. It was just like the claims of some kind of wine or whiskey bottle costing $5000.

I spent many years in the state of Tamil Nadu during my school years. There you get the best tasting cup of coffee, whatever beans they use, called “filter coffee”. I am not  biased because I am of Indian origin but the best coffee is definitely the filter coffee you may get in any restaurant in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The filter is actually not a filter paper but a vessel made of brass or stainless steel, generally a cylindrical lower part without a lid and a similar cylindrical chamber with a perforated bottom and a lid snugly fitting over the top opening. How to make filter coffee? Open the lid and and put coffee grounds one spoon for a cup, or more according to stronger taste.

Pour boiling hot water and close the lid and set aside overnight. Yes, this is the slowest brewing process for a good filter coffee in the morning. The brew is quite concentrated, you may need only a quarter cup of it. Add hot water, hot milk and sugar to make a cup. Traditionally the coffee was served in a brass vessel set, consisting of a wide mouthed vessel with an everted rim called dabara and a short glass shaped brass tumbler with everted edges too. The everted edges helped to pour hot coffee in an ark repeatedly to air cool the  coffee to drinking temperature. There are a lot of blogs to read on Chennai filter coffee. Your trip is never complete unless you taste a cup of filter coffee.

I also remember some restaurants served filter coffee with a tricky move. Close the mouth of the tumbler with dabara  and quickly rotate and invert both together. The dabara may have only  a few drops of coffee at the bottom. Why would they undertake such a funny move to serve coffee? No one has explained to me but as a scientist I think by inverting the tumbler with the lid closed, you are creating a large air bubble on top (actually at the bottom). The air bubble is an insulator to keep coffee hot longer. When you want to serve it the customer has to make an equally quick move, rotate and turn the dabara and tumbler together to make the tumbler to stand in the normal position. Remove the dabara from the top and lift the tumbler only to sip the coffee. CAUTION: Don’t attempt to do this because both the tumbler and the dabara are hot unless you can do this maneuver with lightning speed. Better to ask the server to do this. Only a few restaurants are serving coffee in the inverted tumbler now, but I did experience this during my visit this year.

There is a quick way to make a good, pure cup of coffee as my mother used to make. Boil water in a stainless steel vessel. Put coffee grounds 1-2 spoons/cup straight into the bubbling boiling water. The bubbling stops and before it starts bubbling again, shut off the flame. Stir the coffee and the boiling water with a spoon a few rounds. This makes the grounds settle at the bottom. You can wait for a minute or not at all depending how strong you want it to be. Pour the top of the brew in a cup. If you like black coffee sip it straight. If you prefer add milk and sugar and enjoy. This is the most natural way to make coffee, no cloth or paper filters, no contact with plastic, no electric burns of the grounds in the brewing machines, and yes, the coffee aroma goes straight to your nose.

As a physician I can state boldly that  drinking no more than 4 cups of coffee a day is safe for adults. However each person has slightly different tolerance to coffee or caffeine. Feeling jittery, tremulousness, irritability, anxious, rapid heart rate, and importantly sleeplessness may indicate you are going overboard with the quantity of coffee consumed daily. If you wish to reduce or give up coffee don’t stop drinking coffee suddenly lest you may get withdrawal symptoms, same as the symptoms above plus headaches. Take a few days with a gradual reduction goal. Moderation is the key for any habit to be safe.

Though I stated my journey to Mt. Coffee as pilgrimage metaphorically only, in actuality it turned out to be a real pilgrimage. I found out Muslims come to Bababudan Giri on pilgrimage to visit the tomb of Baba Budan. Hindus come on pilgrimage to pray at a Dattatraya Peeta a few feet away. Hindus generally have pilgrimage sites in beautiful natural settings such as a mountains, river banks, waterfalls, dense forests or sea shores. To make the journey itself to the destination, there may be several sub-pilgrimage sites along the way.
I travelled from Udupi which itself which is a world famous pilgrimage site. On the way to Chikmagalur we visited an ancient temple in a pilgrimage place called  Sringeri on the banks of a river. A few more highlights:

-We were able to witness a rare event in nature in the Chikmagalur hills that occurs once in 12 years only: massive blooms of a wild flowers called Neel Kurunji wrapping the hills in blue colored carpets. Quite a feast for the eyes.
-Honnamana waterfalls along a scenic road (all roads were scenic going through dense forests with huge trees)
-Lake Hirekolale, nice to walk around
-A stunning water fall temple like which I had never seen before-  A huge black granite rock carved into a temple. A forceful waterfall hits  directly over it and circles it with torrential water. We had to wade across the water to reach the temple.
-A nearby place called Belvadi has a huge temple carved entirely of rock, little known to most tourists. It had 108 stone pillars carved in the same fashion as the world famous temples in Beluru and Halebeedu.

I am about to have my next cuppa.


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