Tucked away in a narrow lane within the Adi Kumbeswarar temple complex in Kumbakonam is Sri Mangalambika Vilas Coffee Hotel. With a low roof that partially hides the name board, it is easy to miss, but for the aroma of fresh coffee being brewed.
Wrapped in old-world-charm, this hotel has been functioning for 109 years with the famous degree coffee as its flagship item. Rajagopalan Iyer and his wife Neela, the owners of the hotel, take us to their coffee station. “This is where it all started,” says Rajagopalan, fondly called Ramani. “Back then milk would be tested daily for its purity, rather, density with a lactometer. It has to show the letter ‘M’ . That is where the title ‘degree’ comes from,” he adds.
Neela interrupts, “We had our own cows and used fresh milk without adding water.” While their only contender, Panchami Iyer hotel, closed their doors almost 15 years ago, Sri Mangalambika Vilas carries the legacy beverage forward.
Swaminathan, their trusted coffee master, comes in on time for the evening rush. “Rendu degree kaapi,” Neela informs him. For the degree coffee, decoction is freshly made and only the first extract is used. In a filter, Swaminathan first sprinkles a teaspoon of sugar. “This step is important. After we add the coffee powder and as we pour the boiling hot water, the sugar melts and covers the pores in the filter so that the granules don’t seep in. As the sugar caramelises, it also makes the taste smooth,” says Swaminathan. With a steady rhythm that can only come from years of practice, he adds the coffee powder, pressing it down gently with a spoon, pours in the hot water and closes the filter to let it percolate.
Past and future
Rajagopalan Iyer’s father VG Harihara Iyer came to Kumbakonam when he was 14 and began to work in this hotel in 1914. “The hotel must have been functioning for a few years before my father joined but we have no record of that. So we decided to go with the words ‘Since 1914’,” Ramani informs.
In the kitchen, dinner is getting ready. Neela takes a fresh idli which is still steaming. “The food we serve here is homely with only a moderate use of spices. The menu changes every day. On Mondays we serve gotsu, Wednesdays we have kadappa, on Fridays, arisi upma and there are stapes like adai, podi dosai and bonda.” Most stoves used here run on firewood which Neela believes adds to the taste of the food. In an emergency the gas stove comes to the rescue.
While the property belongs to the Kumbeswarar temple, these long-term tenants have made minor alterations, adding vents for a smoke-free kitchen and solar panels to power their mixers and grinders. “My elder daughter monitors all this through a camera from the US. Maybe she will carry on the legacy after us,” she adds.
Swaminathan comes looking for us to inform that the decoction is now ready. “Now we have vendors here who give us a special blend. Earlier, we would roast it here and personally take it to the coffee mill to ensure it didn’t mix with the Panchami Iyer batch,” he says.
“Most coffee hotels here don’t have cows anymore because they are difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead, we use the 6% full cream milk which can qualify as pure milk,” Neela clarifies. With no lactometers to test the milk with, “Is it still a degree coffee?,” we wonder.
Only degree coffee is served in a brass set while the regular coffee is in a stainless steel one. Swaminathan adds sugar, pours between 10 and 15 ml of decoction into the tumbler, followed by some milk, and mixes it by transferring it between the davara and tumbler. Finally, he tops it with frothy milk and a few drops of the decoction. The coffee, whether degree or not, is rich, creamy and sweet as any good coffee should be.
At Sri Mangalambika Vilas Coffee hotel, the degree coffee is sold at ₹40 and regular coffee at ₹20