Percolate – from Latin percolo (“I filter”), from the verb percolare, from per (“through)+ colare (“to strain”); to cause a solvent (i.e., water) to pass through a permeable substance (i.e., coffee grounds) especially for extracting a soluble constituent
There was a time in the untroubled and insouciant days of old when one could put water into the bottom of an aluminum coffee chamber, and, measuring scoops of coarse coffee grounds from a Chase & Sanborn tin can, pour them into a basket-like metal strainer at the top. The apparatus was covered and placed on an electric stove, and heated water was gradually forced up a tube connected to this strainer into its perforated lid, thence seeping through the coffee grounds and flowing back into the bottom in a continuous brewing cycle. A glass valve atop the pot stopped perking if the overall temperature was nearing 100 C, and one removed it from the heat source – “Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled,” as an old Turkish saying supposedly went. It would then be time to decant the simmering brownish liquid from the percolator and serve coffee. A few drops of Liberty evaporated filled milk enhanced the flavour even more.
In our old apartment at 153-B Mayon Street in La Loma, Sunday repasts in the late Fifties were punctuated by such coffee. A breakfast of fried eggs (“estrellado,” or sunny side up), “Royal” Vienna sausage (that most assuredly didn’t come from Vienna), pan de sal from Long Life Bakery along nearby Retiro Street and the ubiquitous Puto Pulo (in puti, pula and kutsinta varieties) procured from itinerant vendors at the entrance of Lourdes Church, was topped with percolated Chase & Sanborn coffee, then available only from the PX stores like those at Sangley Point, the US naval base in Cavite City. Coffee would be poured on vari-coloured Duralex cups and saucers that matched the breakfast plates, and at 5 years old, I began a flirtation with java that would henceforth turn into a lifelong obsession.
As the shadows of the post-war years gave way to the 1960s, soluble coffee slowly took the place of percolated brew. Nestle had developed instant coffee as early as 1938, when eight years of research following the surplus of Brazilian bean production in 1930 – and the collapse of the world coffee market – produced a nectar that could be prepared conveniently, expediently and with the barest of equipment. Café Puro, Café Exelente and Café Bueno, first purveyed as roasted coffee beans by Commonwealth Foods, Inc., joined the instant coffee bandwagon, and the percolator simmered down to its inglorious end. As metal containers yielded to glass, coffee makers increasingly packaged their merchandise in bottles that could double as drinking mugs or crystal-like cups. Percolating was hardly a complicated method, but instant coffee reduced brewing to a simple, inexpensive and unadulterated process.
Enter the 1990s – Figaro opens up its first kiosk at Ayala Center in 1993, and Bo’s follows suit at Cebu in 1996. In 1997, Starbucks descends upon Philippine shores and sets up the first of today’s over 150 outlets at the ground floor of fashionable 6780 Ayala Avenue, and coffee culture undergoes a seismic jolt. San Francisco Coffee (at Libis in 1997), Seattle’s Best (at E. Rodriguez Avenue in 2000), Gloria Jean’s, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and UCC Cafe all sprout in the metropolis as well. With Starbucks, a new lingo was born – suddenly, plain black coffee was boring, and espressos, ristrettos, cappuchinos, machiattos, lattes, Americanos and frapuccinos ruled the day. Baristas flaunted cutting-edge concoctions and terminologies, along with disdainful raised eyebrows, and every order had to be precise and bespoke – you start with cup size (tall, grande, venti or even the 30-oz trente in some markets), state your milk preference (soy, skim, 2% low-fat, breve or skinny), and indicate foam quality (wet, dry or none). Know what “quad” means? That’s four shots of espresso. Upside down? That’s pouring the caramel first, instead of last, in a caramel macchiato. Half caf? That’s equal parts of regular and decaf espresso. And customers proved more than equal to the task – one urban legend says that the longest-named Starbucks drink ordered by possibly the most obnoxious and entitled coffee imbiber in Montana back in 1997 was a double ristretto venti half-soy non-fat decaf organic chocolate brownie iced vanilla double-shot gingerbread frapuccino extra-hot with foam whipped cream upside down double blended with one sweet n’low and one nutrasweet. The fact that a frapuccino could not conceivably be extra-hot, nor that a double ristretto venti was unnecessarily redundant (all ice ventis, at 24-oz capacity, have double ristrettos, duh), seemed to have been lost on that vainglorious quaffer.
These days, a third wave of specialty coffee shops has launched their own invasion. Independently run, the focus is on brief beverage menus, freshly roasted single-origin beans, often stark design shop aesthetics, and precision-sharp extraction techniques. Sugar is frowned upon – why ravage the coffee that nature has so lovingly created with sweetener? Whether pour-over (or hand-brewed), AeroPress, French press or espresso, scientific parameters are used to brew the perfect cup. Call them snobs, call them geniuses of grind – these Brewmeisters take their infusion seriously. Consider the meticulous directions for the pour-over method:
point. Then pour it into a metal kettle with a swan-neck spout.
This is most assuredly NOT coffee making for the faint of heart – those who have to catch the 6:45 am FX going to work, or have to bring the kid to the car pool. And neither is drinking at one of these upscale specialty cafes. Each sip there is an individual journey in appreciating the bean-to-cup transmogrification, and if you have neither the time nor the panache, I suppose you’ll just have to endure the Kopiko or Jimm’s 3-in-1 sachet at the office pantry.
When Kaldi, the Ethiopian goatherd, first discovered the coffee cherry in the rugged mountains of Abyssinia in the 6th century, he didn’t have the slightest inkling that modern man’s relationship to the bean would ever be……complicated.
Nice post! You should be writing for a magazine 🙂