Coffee Roasters

A Story with many layers, Clapham Junction

Story Coffee St John's Hill Clapham

The doorway to Story, or a story depending on how you look at it.

A “ghost sign” above the door to Story Coffee on St John’s Hill ensures that you know that you have arrived at the correct place. “Peterkin Custard, Self-Raising Flour – Corn Flour, can be obtained here”, only now it is coffee rather than custard that is sold in the shop beneath. The sign is an indicator to the many tales that could be discerned while exploring the coffee within. I had had a couple of attempts to visit Story Coffee (thwarted for a variety of reasons) before Brian’s Coffee Spot’s review appeared a couple of days after one of my attempted visits. Suitably re-motivated, another trip was attempted (address checked, closing times checked) and this time we were in luck. Although a pour over is listed on the menu, sadly this was not available on our visit and so I enjoyed a lovely long black instead (Red Brick, Square Mile) while looking at the cakes on offer. There was plenty of seating in which to shelter from the rain outside and many things to notice in this friendly café. In addition to the cakes and lunch menu, a box on the counter housed “eat grub” protein bars, protein bars made of cricket powder. Are insects the future for humans to eat protein sustainably?

glass jar at Story

Through a glass darkly?
The distortions produced by the refractive indices of air, water and glass and the shape of the glass produces interesting effects on our view through it.

The tables were well arranged for people to sit chatting while enjoying their beverages and it is always an excellent thing (from a personal point of view) to encounter a café with a no laptop (or tablet) at the tables policy. Complementary tap water was available in jugs placed on each table while it was also nice to note that Story branded re-usable cups were on sale from the counter. Many things we noted can be seen in the gallery pictures in the review on Brian’s Coffee Spot: the funky fans, the egg shaped light shades, the light introduced by the large glass window panes (though it was a much fairer day on Brian’s visit than on ours). Each had its contribution to a thought train, the way the glass water jar bent the light coming through, the concept of a Prandtl boundary layer in fluids (and its connection to both fans and coffee cups). Moreover there were hexagons, which for someone who has worked on the periphery of the graphene craze, are always thought provoking.

Apart from hexagons decorating the top of the stools, there were hexagons lining the counter made of cut logs, each showing the rings from the tree that was felled. Rather than a flat surface, these hexagons were made to be different thicknesses on the wall, rather like the hexagonal columns of the Giant’s Causeway. It is a subtle thing that may have implications for the space that is otherwise surrounded by flat, solid, walls. Such spaces can become echo-y and yet, the music and conversation in Story was not overly distracting presumably because features such as the uneven hexagonal wall reflected the sound waves such that they destructively interfered rather than echoed around the room.

every tree tells a story, but which story

A macroscopic crystal of hexagonally cut logs forms the side of the counter.

Each log in the hexagonal decoration was cut with its cross-section showing a number of tree rings. We know that we can age a tree by counting the rings (though each of these would be underestimated as they have been trimmed into hexagons post-drying), but what more do the tree rings, and the trees themselves have to tell us? The rings are caused by the rapid growth of large cells during spring followed by a slower growth of smaller cells as the year progresses. But this method of growth means that the cut logs have more to tell us than just their age. The spacing between the rings can tell of the weather the tree experienced during that year, were there many years of drought for example? Such clues, from the relative density of the tree rings, can help researchers learn about the climate in previous centuries, but conversely, reading the climate report in the rings can indicate in which year a tree was felled and so the age of a building for example.

coffee at Story

Many stories start with a coffee.

And then there is more, trees will grow at an average rate per year so that, as a rough guide, the circumference of a mature (but not old) tree increases by 2.5cm per year¹. There is therefore something in the idea that you can have a good guess at how old a tree is by hugging it. But this assumes that the tree is growing in its optimum conditions, far enough from any neighbouring trees so as not to be crowded into growing more slowly. So the absolute density of tree rings must also give a clue as to whether this tree was in a dense forest or an open clearing. Which is reminiscent of something else that living trees can tell you if you listen to them closely enough: trees will grow so that their leaves are exposed to the maximum amount of light. For us in the UK, this means that the crown of a tree will frequently tip towards the south (where the Sun is most often) and there will be more leaf growth (and consequently more branches) in a southerly direction². But again, we only see this if the tree has room to grow on its own, without the crowding, and competition, of too many neighbours. A solitary tree helps us to know which direction we are walking in.

empty coffee cup Story St John's Hill

While many coffees could also tell a story. It depends on how you read them.

Which all points to the idea that there are many stories being told all around us all of the time, the ones we hear depend on what we choose to pay attention to. So what about the story behind the ghost sign above the door? The Peterkin custard company was a venture by J. Arthur Rank in an attempt to start a milling company in the mould of his father’s (Rank Hovis McDougall, later bought by Premier Foods). The company failed and Rank went on to form the Rank Organisation that was responsible for many films made throughout the 40s and 50s as well as running a chain of cinemas around the UK. Truly a sign concealing many stories.

 

Story Coffee is at 115 St John’s Hill, SW11 1SZ

¹Collins complete guide to British Trees, Collins, 2007

²The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Tristan Gooley, Hodder and Stoughton, 2014

 

 

 

 

As quick as (a) Quarter Horse

Dog and Hat, Dog & Hat, Hundred House, Quarterhouse coffee

The package from Dog & Hat with Hundred House and Quarter Horse. Is it a particularly contemplative dog with the monocle?

Links with science can be found everywhere, from the café to the coffee roaster. A couple of weeks ago a delivery from Dog and Hat coffee gave me an opportunity to explore the random thought paths that may occur if you stop to ponder your coffee at home rather than in a café. The first coffee, an Ethiopian from Hundred House prompted thoughts on star gazing. But the second coffee, a Mexican from Quarter Horse coffee was equally thought provoking.

Finding time to prepare a V60 and sit with the SCAA “flavor wheel” as a guide, I was rewarded with a sweet, well rounded and perfectly enjoyable brew. I found fruity notes of blueberry and cherry/pineapple though the tasting notes on the packaging say “green grape, toffee and cocoa”. Sadly I missed the cocoa but this offers a good excuse for another slow brew with the coffee wheel at hand.

Thinking about the name of the coffee, I started to consider how you could quarter a horse. Perhaps not a literal horse given the ethical considerations but rather an irregularly shaped volume. How would you divide, into equal portions, an irregularly shaped object such as a horse? It seemed related to the question of finding the shortest route between two locations, how would you calculate the best route to take from A to B? In the 1950s a computer scientist called Edsger Dijkstra (1930-2002) came up with an algorithm to calculate precisely this problem. Originally designed to show the shortest routes between 64 cities in the Netherlands, Dijkstra’s algorithm is now ubiquitous in our lives.

Quarter Horse but how would you

A close up of the Quarter Horse Coffee Bag.

One of the ways in which we have started to rely on such algorithms is in car GPS devices or even on our phones trying to navigate to our destinations. Or at least, many of us do. London taxi drivers however have been shown to have developed a different brain structure from the general population that means that, for them, Dijkstra’s algorithm may be unnecessary. A few years ago, a study compared brain scans of people who had been driving London’s “black cabs” for a number of years to those of us in the general population. A follow-up study followed three sets of people over several years. A control group of people in the general population and a second group of people who studied the “Knowledge”, the navigational test that London taxi drivers have to pass in order to become cabbies. The Knowledge tests the driver’s ability to recall tens of thousands of London’s streets and the prospective cabbie can be asked to navigate between two points anywhere within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross. Typically it takes years to acquire the Knowledge and not everyone who starts on the Knowledge will pass (the pass rate is only about 50%). This means that this second group of people splits into two groups; those who studied and passed the Knowledge and those who studied but did not pass.

The studies proved illuminating. One particular part of the brain, the posterior hippocampus had a greater volume of “grey matter” (the brain processing cells) in taxi drivers who had studied, and passed, the Knowledge compared with the general population. Moreover, those that had been taxi drivers for longer, showed larger posterior hippocampi. The changes in the brain seemed to lead to the cabbies having not only better navigational ability than the general population but better memory for London based information. The study of the trainees moreover confirmed that these brain changes occurred as a result of learning the Knowledge, showing that our brains are adaptable and still able to develop well into adulthood. While the brains of all the study participants started off similarly, those that went on to pass the Knowledge had a larger posterior hippocampus than those who either didn’t study or studied but hadn’t passed. However it was not all good news for the cabbies. The growth of the posterior hippocampus seemed to occur at the expense of the anterior hippocampus in long serving taxi drivers (but not newly qualified ones). The improved memory for London based information shown by the taxi driving group was also accompanied by a poorer ability to learn other visual information/memory related tasks in those that passed the Knowledge compared to the general population.

taxi and motorcycle, London

London black cab drivers have been shown to have a larger volume of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus area of their brains, demonstrating that our brains remain adaptable well into adulthood.

Perhaps the ability of the cabbies to navigate quickly around London’s streets suggests a second connection with Quarter Horse. A Quarter Horse is a breed of horse that can sprint very quickly over short (less than a quarter of a mile) distances. Which goes faster, the cabbie with the Knowledge or us with our smartphones once we have plugged in our destination? We are reminded of the tale of the hare and the tortoise. But I think a different tale is more appropriate. A tale that in reality was only ever a snippet of an ancient saying but has been developed into tales by thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and Ronald Dworkin.

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog one important thing”.

What does this mean? It seems there is a connection here between coffee roasting and taxi drivers, between algorithms and personal development, between coffee science and writing about coffee science. Is this connection really there or is it a meaningless statement that leads us into blind alleys of coffee consideration? It may be time to stretch our brains, grow our grey matter a bit and contemplate. Am I a fox or a hedgehog and where do London cabbies and coffee roasters fit in?

Quarter Horse coffee is online at https://quarterhorsecoffee.com

You can find out more about the coffee subscription site Dog and Hat on their website https://dogandhat.co.uk

You can read more about the taxi driver study on the Wellcome Trust’s press release about it here.

Enjoy your coffee, have fun thinking, grow your grey matter.

 

 

Bee-ing positive at the Sugar Pot, Kennington

coffee and cake Kennington

Banana bread and coffee with a sugar pot in the background at Sugar Pot, Kennington

What is it that makes a great café? A space to slow down and think? Good coffee and cakes? A local business that forms part of its local community and gives back to that community in different ways? As I was looking around for a new café to try, I was reminded of Sugar Pot in Kennington. Their website suggested that it ticked all of these boxes and so I was eager to try it (so eager in fact that I didn’t note the opening times, they close at 3 on week-days which is a problem when you arrive at about 2.55). So a second attempt at trying Sugar Pot was arranged, this time safely before lunch. This time, in the morning, there were quite a few chairs and tables outside the café in a roped off area of the street. (We hadn’t noticed this on the first occasion we visited as they had all been piled up inside the shop by the time we arrived). Most of these tables were occupied indicating that it is clearly an attractive place for locals to meet and chat over coffee. Fortunately there were also a fair number of tables inside which suited us as a café often offers more to ponder inside than out (though outside offers a different perspective particularly for people watching).

Inside, each table has an individual character and one in particular offered several points to think about both in terms of physics and aesthetics (you will have to visit to understand). However, it was elsewhere that my attention was drawn that day. Coffee is roasted locally by Cable Bakery while the cakes are from John the Baker of the Kennington Bakery. Sugar Pot definitely gets a tick in the “allergy friendly” box because they answered confidently (and with required caveats about traces) my dreaded question “does it contain nuts?” So I was able to enjoy a lovely slice of banana bread with my coffee. Most of the usual espresso based drinks are available (but not listed on the menu) together with a French Press coffee for those who prefer a non-espresso brew.

Interior Sugar Pot, Kennington

Noticeboard, magazines and coffee counter at Sugar Pot in Kennington

The community feel of the café was immediately apparent with a notice board adjacent to the counter being packed with notices of different activities happening around the locality and within Kennington Park which is just opposite. Underneath the counter were books and magazines and an advert for volunteering with the local bee keeping and urban farming organisation Bee Urban. This is indeed another way that Sugar pot gets involved in its local community. The coffee grounds are donated to Bee Urban for use in their Kennington Park based composting facility. Bees of course have an Albert Einstein link with physics as he is alleged to have said

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollinators, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

I do not know if he really did say this but it is a sad reflection on our society that rather than address our environmental crimes we are researching pollinating with drones. However, it turns out the the bee has a much more exciting, almost shocking, link with physics and one that I only discovered thanks to the excellent book “Storm in a Teacup” by Helen Czerski¹. The bee is indeed a very positive creature.

ultra violet, bee, bumble bee

The world looks very different to a bee. Image © www.gardensafari.net

Whether or not they have a happy disposition, it seems that 94% of bees are, electrically speaking, positively charged². They pick up a static charge while flying through the air in a similar way to a balloon being rubbed on your hair. Flowers meanwhile have a negative charge meaning that in addition to colour, shape, scent and pattern, bees can recognise flowers by their electric fields. These fields in turn mean that pollen from the flower ‘jumps off’ and adheres to the bees fur before the bee has even landed, increasing the efficiency of the bee as a pollinator. But it turns out that there is much more to it. When the positive bee lands on the negative flower, there is a charge transfer that results in a change of the electric field around the flower for a duration of 100 seconds or so. By constructing artificial flowers held at different voltages containing either a sugar reward or a bitter centre, researchers at Bristol university found that bees could learn to recognise which ‘flowers’ contained the sugar and which were too bitter to be visited by sensing the electric field around the ‘flower’. It suggests that the changing electric field of real flowers provides a mechanism by which the bee can recognise if a flower has been recently visited by another bee and so been recently pollenated. This would mean that by ‘feeling’ the electric field of the flower, the bee may decide that it would be more rewarding to carry on to a differently charged flower. You can read more about the research in the paper here.

It seems to me that learning about how the bee senses its environment reveals even more about the amazing way that nature (and physics) works. And this offers a link back to Sugar Pot. On the shelf behind the counter back at Sugar Pot was a card that had the message “Keep safe, live to be”. What does it mean “live to be”? In the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges everyone to slow down and notice things such as the bee commenting that “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” He goes on “… when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously… True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data...”³ Which is one reason that in order to be, we may want to come back and take a closer look at those bees. Taking time to experience our coffee in a relaxing space such as Sugar Pot and to watch and ponder as the bee uses senses of which we are barely aware can never be a waste of our time. Indeed, it is possible that our world may depend on it.

¹Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski, Transworld Publishers, 2016

² Clarke et al., “Detection and learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees”, Science, 340, 6128, 66 (2013).

³The passages quoted are from paragraphs 215 and 225 respectively of Laudato Si which can be read online.

Sugar Pot can be found at 248 Kennington Park Road, SE11 4DA

Paradigm shifts at The Observatory, Marchmont St

lines on a table, parallax

An espresso using coffee from Redemption Roasters and a chocolate brownie. What more could you ask?

Many years ago, there was an aquatics shop on the site of what is now The Observatory, a combined photography gallery and coffee shop. Although there is plenty to see through this glass fronted café, you do not feel that you are in a goldfish bowl so much as that this is a space created for you to slow down and contemplate your surroundings. The large rooms and comfortably spaced tables do, of course, give the opportunity for people watching: when we visited, there were people working with their laptops on some tables while others were having business meetings. Then there are the photographs, currently (though only for a few more days), an exhibition of photographs from the 60s and 70s by John Bulmer.

The coffee is supplied by Redemption Roasters and I enjoyed a dark, toffee like espresso with a very good slice of a chocolate brownie (confidently nut free). Several types of milk are on offer for milk based coffee drinks as well as a selection of cold drinks, together with a wide variety of cakes. It is definitely a place to return to when in the area.

coffee the Observatory, TLR

Cakes on the counter at The Observatory. Note the twin lens reflex “camera” on the shelf behind the counter.

While waiting for my coffee, I noticed the grain of the wood in the table. Dark, almost parallel lines on a lighter wood. You can see it in the photograph. Looking around the café, such parallel lines were everywhere. Planks of wood lined the walls, vertical, parallel lines stretching up to the ceiling. In the room towards the back of the café, the ceiling also had parallel lines on it which, given I was viewing them from a distance, appeared to converge with the effect of perspective. It is difficult to know whether these effects were deliberate in a gallery/café so dedicated to an exploration of the visual but I like to think that the small twin lens reflex camera on a shelf (which sadly turned out to be a pencil sharpener on sale) was a nod to this idea shifting lines of sight and perspective.

By definition, two parallel lines are lines that will never meet, no matter how far the lines are extended. If they were to meet at any point, they would not be parallel. This offers a way of measuring the distance to stars as well as providing food for thought on our way of seeing our place in the universe. The idea is that of parallax. If you were to measure the relative position of a star against the background of stars at midnight in June, and then go back to measure the same star relative to the same background at midnight six months later in December, you may find that the star seemed to have moved. The amount it moves, its parallax, is determined by how close the star is to the earth (have a look at the diagram).

parallax and coffee

As the point of view moves around the Sun (represented here by a V60), the closest coffee bean appears to shift relative to the background coffee beans.
The lower two diagrams are an attempt to see things from the perspective of the Lego person separated by “6 months” distance.

Take as an example the star Sirius. Located relatively close to us at a mere 8.6 light year distance, Sirius has a parallax of 0.38 arc seconds or, equivalently, about 0.0002 of the angular diameter of the moon viewed from Earth¹. Stars that are further away are going to have an even smaller parallax until the parallax becomes so small as to be difficult to measure. Even for nearby stars such as Sirius, the small size of the effect meant that it wasn’t until 1838 that it was first measured. Which may be part of the reason that the theory of Aristarchus (310-230BCE) never caught on when it was proposed.

Aristarchus was an early proponent of the idea that the Earth went around the Sun (and not the other way around). The Greek’s realised that if Aristarchus was correct, there should be a parallax effect for the stars viewed at different times of the year (every 3 months)¹. Unfortunately, the Greeks also considered that the stars belonged to a thin shell, so effectively all the stars were at the same distance from the Earth. Consequently, the parallax effect that they looked for (if Aristarchus was correct) was for two stars on that shell to move first towards then away from each other as the Earth circled the Sun¹. They never observed this effect and so considered the heliocentric theory “inconsistent with observations”¹. Although we would now say that the fact that they didn’t observe any such shift is consistent with the huge distances to the stars (and therefore small shifts) involved, for the ancient Greeks it was a problem. As Archimedes commented, if Aristarchus’ theory had been true, it would mean that the universe was much bigger than they at that time thought.

Guardini has written about the effect on the human psyche of this changing idea of the universe and our own place in it (from the Greek’s idea of finite and limited, to finite with a God outside, to infinite and back towards finite but incredibly large). Do our ideas, our models, about the universe affect not only how we interpret the experimental evidence we see, but also our way of being, our behaviour towards our fellow humans and our planet?

Viewing things from a different angle, seeing the effect of a change of line of sight, it brings us right back to the photography in the gallery and the twin lens camera on the shelf. There are certainly many things to contemplate while enjoying a coffee at The Observatory. Which means a second espresso should definitely be a possibility.

You can view some street photography, including some photographed with a twin lens Microcord TLR camera on Artemisworks gallery here.

The Observatory is at 64 Marchmont St, WC1N 1AB

¹Astronomy, the evolving universe (6th edition), Michael Zeilik, John Wiley & Sons, 1991

 

Seeing the light at Redemption Roasters

Coffee Bloomsbury

Redemption Roasters Cafe on Lamb’s Conduit St.

At the top end of Lamb’s Conduit Street there is an unassuming café in a fairly modern building at the corner of Long Yard. In recent weeks I had been hearing a lot about Redemption Roasters and their café. First came the review by Double Skinny Macchiato, then various comments on Twitter, in Caffeine magazine and finally, an article in the FT. In an ideal world, it seems to me that cafés can act as seeds towards forming a better society. Local and independent, a friendly place where you can chat with the baristas (or café owners), and so where communities can form and develop. All that I had heard about Redemption Roasters café fitted, in some way, into this ideal which meant that it was not going to be long before I headed towards Bloomsbury and tried this new café.

Plenty of seating could be found inside the café, with tables of two or four and benches around the space. The counter was immediately in front of us as we went through the door and the friendly barista took our order (long black and soya hot chocolate, what else?) while we took our seats. There were a fair few staff in the café when we visited, so many in fact that we weren’t initially sure who were staff and who were customers. Nonetheless, their joviality transformed the café’s fairly austere decor more into the feel of the welcoming space of a living room.

blue shadow, hot chocolate

A layered hot chocolate? No, just the reflection of the saucer in the glass.

Having taken our seats and started to look around, we found that much could be said about the science in this café. From the SMEG refrigerator and individual radiators to the light reflection off individual sugar crystals in a glass on the table. Moreover, when our drinks arrived, the reflection of the (blue) saucer in the hot chocolate glass made it appear as if the hot chocolate were layered. In fact it was an optical illusion caused by the way our minds process the colour blue in shadows, more on that in this great article about colour, Goethe and Turner. But it was to a different lighting effect that my thought train eventually turned. Above the counter are a series of hanging lights with angular shades over them. Above our table were LED bulbs inset into the ceiling.

The way that the LEDs above us had been placed produced two shadows from the spoon on the saucer of my cup. A dark shadow and a light shadow at a slightly different angle. One reason that LEDs have caught on as a light source is that they are more efficient and so better environmentally and cheaper financially. So you may think that LEDs are one way of reducing our (collective) environmental footprint. But does this work? According to a study that measured the outdoor light levels around the world from 2012 to 2016, the answer is no. It would appear that while on a local level, people are enjoying cheaper lighting, on larger scales (nationally, globally), this decreased cost is leading to us installing more lights. Consequently, on the global scale, the area of land that is lit has increased by 2.2% per year with very few countries showing a reduction or even a stabilisation of the amount of outdoor areas that are lit.

shadows from a coffee Redemption Roasters

Determining a presence by noticing an absence. The two shadows of the spoon came from the light bulbs inset into the ceiling.

Does this matter? Well, it is something that is affecting us, the way we view our world and the wildlife that we share our planet with and so it is something that we ought to be thinking about. In brightly lit areas of the UK, trees have been shown to produce buds up to 7.5 days earlier than in darker areas. Artificial light is causing problems for nocturnal insects and animals, with knock on effects for crop pollination. And when was the last time you looked up at the sky on a clear night and saw seven of the Pleiades let alone the Milky Way? How does it change our psychology and philosophical outlook when we can no longer gaze at the night sky with wonder and without the glow of streetlights?

Some astronomers have called for increased shielding of street lighting as a way for us to both enjoy well lit streets and be able to enjoy looking up at the night sky. Shielding such as that over the lights over the counter at Redemption Roasters café, where the light is efficiently directed downwards rather than be allowed to escape into the sky. Small steps that can make a big difference. It is interesting to notice that around central London at least, many newer lampposts are more efficiently shielded than older ones. Pausing for a coffee in Redemption Roasters café is a great moment to consider this problem and your reaction to it. Have you stopped to gaze at the night sky recently?

After leaving the café, I realised I had lost an opportunity to notice something else. Frequently, after visiting a good café, I will look up the area in my London Encyclopaedia¹ to see whether there is anything of interest historically in the area of the café. As expected, Lamb’s Conduit St was named after a conduit made from a tributary of the river Fleet restored by one William Lamb in 1577. But Lamb also donated 120 buckets for poor women of the area to use for collecting their water, which explains the statue of a woman with an urn at the top of the street. However what was also mentioned was that at the entrance to Long Yard (ie. very close to Redemption Roasters) there is an ancient stone inset into a wall with a description about the Lamb’s Conduit. Somehow I missed this though Double Skinny Macchiato evidently found it. So if you do visit Redemption Roasters café, and I would very much recommend that you do, as well as taking some time to savour the coffee and to notice the surroundings, please do look out for this elusive stone and if you find it, do let me know.

¹The London Encyclopaedia, Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay and Keay, MacMillan, 2008

Redemption Roasters Cafe is at 84 Lamb’s Conduit St, WC1N 3LR

Focussing the sound at Spike and Earl

soya latte ginger beer

Soya latte and a ginger beer at Spike and Earl.

A few months ago, news came that the coffee roasting company Old Spike had opened a new café, Spike and Earl, down in Camberwell. Operating on similar principles to Old Spike, Spike and Earl aims to serve excellent coffee (and food and cocktails) with a social conscience. By employing those who have previously been homeless, Spike and Earl offers an employment (and training) route for people who may not easily otherwise have the opportunity. So although Camberwell is a bit of a trek, I was looking forward to trying this new place. As it was a late afternoon in November and the menu suggested that the dairy alternatives were only soya or oat, I decided to try a soya latte. (For any reader with a nut allergy, the current fashion of using almond milk means that you should always ask first if your cappuccino contains nuts). The baristas were friendly and confident in assuring me that they do not use almond milk (no danger of nut-cross contamination) but that their brownies did contain nuts (so I sadly had to pass on the brownie opportunity). My partner in these café reviews opted for a ginger beer.

There were a series of high tables with stools on the left hand side of the café. Presumably many people can therefore be accommodated when it gets crowded. However, at the time of our visit, it was fairly empty and we made our way to the rear of the café. Behind us, and behind closed glass doors, was a coffee roaster that we later discovered was part of the Old Spike roasting expansion. It’s always a nice touch to see coffee roasting happening as you drink but perhaps we needed to arrive earlier for that.

Bricks with holes Spike and Earl

Holes in bricks at Spike and Earl. Just a foot-hold or a suggestion for a great piece of engineering?

Drinks arrived together with complementary water and the soya latte was very smooth. Almost caramel like in the sweetness and very drinkable. It makes a pleasant change to have a latte once in a while. Light was playing tricks around the room as the sun was setting and the inside lights were becoming more prominent. But the striking thing about Spike and Earl was that the bricks used to support the tables and line the walls all had holes in them. On the wall running along the side of the café, (windows were on the other side), pot plants were placed in the holes giving the impression of the beginnings of a green wall. The holes in the bricks supporting the table meanwhile made an excellent footstool and were complemented by holes in the stools. A latte of course is largely made up of holes, or at least bubbles. The foam structure consisting mostly of air. How is it that some structures can be made better owing to what they don’t contain rather than what they do?

For example, if you imagine the difference between a latte and a cappuccino (but made out of metal rather than milk) that can be the difference between a successful tooth implant and a failure. We know from our coffees that bubble size can have a significant structural effect. But how about more fundamental properties, can the holes in bricks change things such as the way sound propagates?

Interior wall at Spike and Earl

More bricks with holes at Spike and Earl, this time with some plants escaping from them. The start of a green wall?

You may have heard about how different structures can be engineered to make materials “invisible” to certain frequencies of light. Imaginatively named “invisibility cloaks” are made by designing materials with patterns on them that change the path of an incident light beam. Because the effect on the light beam is due to the structure in the material rather than purely from the material itself, these materials have become known as ‘meta-materials’. When you remember that microwaves are a form of light, it is perhaps easy to see some of the applications of this research and one reason that it has attracted a lot of funding.

However there is an acoustic type of metamaterial that is far more similar to the bricks in Spike and Earl and that may find applications in medical imaging (ultrasound). Earlier in 2017, a team from the universities of Sussex and Bristol published a study about acoustic metamaterial ‘bricks’. Each brick had a differently shaped hole through the centre of it which delayed the incident sound wave by a specific phase interval (you can say it ‘slowed’ the wave). In order to work efficiently, the brick had to be of a height equal to the wavelength that the researchers were interested in and a width equal to half that wavelength. As they were investigating ultrasound, the bricks were therefore about 4.3mm square and 8.66 mm high.

By assembling the bricks together, the researchers found that they could steer a focussed beam of sound or even change the shape of the sound beam. This would have applications as diverse as targeting cancer cells with ultrasound to levitating a polystyrene bead. You can read more about their research here (or, if you have access to Nature Communications, their paper can be downloaded here).

soya latte Spike and Earl

Layering at the end of my soya latte. What would you think about?

Just for fun, assuming that the bricks supporting the table at Spike and Earl could be similarly turned into acoustic metamaterials, we could calculate the musical note that they would best work with. Estimating the brick at about 15cm square and remembering that is approximately  half the wavelength (λ/2) and using the speed of sound in air to be 330 m/s, we can calculate the frequency to be:

f = c/λ

f = 330/0.3 = 1100 Hz

Which is the musical note C#6 (with an explanation of nomenclature here).

As I finished my soya latte, strata of milk lined the cup. Reminiscent of the Earth’s layers or perhaps, metaphorically, our strata of understanding, there is certainly plenty more to ponder at this interesting new(ish) addition to the London café scene. So next time you are in Spike and Earl, do let me know what you end up thinking about, you never know where these thought trains may take you.

Spike and Earl is at 31 Peckham Road, SE1 8UB

 

Chemical extraction in a V60

chromatography, paper chromatography, V60

Brewing a coffee, insight into analytical chemistry

Ever considered the connection between your morning brew and a century old technique that, it is fair to say, revolutionised analytical chemistry?

Last week, a new coffee arrived in the post from the Roasting House coffee club, followed shortly by an email with details about that week’s coffee. This is not unusual, the coffee club means that a different coffee arrives every two weeks. What was slightly unusual was the email which started:

“There are some brief tasting notes on the bag of coffee we sent you, but before you go on and read the more detailed description, have a good taste of the coffee yourself….”

The opportunity to do so finally arrived and I prepared a V60. First measuring out the freshly ground beans, rinsing the filter, watching the bloom, then slowly pouring the remaining freshly boiled water onto the grounds, all the while noting the aroma.

Taking this opportunity to slowly prepare (and appreciate) a coffee, I noticed that some of the soluble elements in the coffee climbed the filter paper during the pour. A few hours afterwards, the paper had gained a circular rim of coffee solubles around the top of the paper. Although in many ways quite different, this effect was very reminiscent of the technique of chromatography.

Roast House coffee, tasting chromatography

The coffee in question. What tasting notes would you get if you slowed down and tried this one?

The biggest difference between the behaviour of the V60 filter and “paper chromatography” is that in the former, the bottom of the filter paper is continuously immersed in both the sample (coffee) and the solvent (water). In chromatography on the other hand, a drop of the sample (e.g. coffee or ink) is put onto the filter paper which is then placed in a solvent (e.g. water, ethanol). Different components within the sample travel different amounts up the filter paper depending on how soluble they are in the solvent and how they interact chemically with the filter paper. So different components will travel different distances up the filter paper before they get stuck while the solvent continues to travel up the paper. All else being constant, each component always travels a certain distance relative to the solvent and so this provides a way of separating chemical components ready for further analysis or identification.

Perhaps you remember using chromatography to separate the colours in an ink pen at school? The ink was spotted onto a piece of filter paper and then immersed in water. We watched as it separated into various colours illustrating the number of different dyes that had been used to make up the ink. When used professionally though, the chromatography technique can be used to investigate trace impurities in soil, air, drinking water etc. It has even been used to analyse the components in coffee. From something that can be done in school science, it is an incredibly powerful chemical technique.

What was surprising was that the technique of chromatography was not invented until 1903, while the idea of using paper in chromatography only came about in 1944¹. Those who first used chromatography as a method to identify chemicals (in plants), did so using columns of powder rather than paper. Paper chromatography was invented to investigate the separation of amino acids and specifically was used to understand the composition of the antibiotic tyrocidin¹. Just as the ink in our school experiments separated into different dyes, so the chemicals that they were investigating would separate into different components, different chemicals would stay at different heights on the filter paper.

Since its invention, the technique had been extended to include gas chromatography rather than just liquid and has been developed to be extraordinarily sensitive. It is now possible to analyse chemicals with a mass of just 10^-15 grammes, a quantity which is too small to even easily imagine. Even just a couple of decades after the invention of the technique it could be said:

“Amino acids… could now be separated in microgram amounts and visualised…. (Paper chromatography) would allow one within the space of a week [to do some analysis]… which until then could very well have occupied the three years of a Ph.D….”¹

V60 chromatography chemistry kitchen

A few hours later and the coffee had travelled up the filter paper with the solvent (water).

However, to return to the coffee. Through tasting rather than chemistry, I obtained a toffee aroma, with earthy notes and hints of redcurrant that evolved as the coffee cooled into a sweet toffee taste. The tasting notes further down the email on the other hand said:

“There’s a rich chocolate base, a kind of woody pine taste, sweet summer fruits, even tobacco. Remember, taste it before you judge it! Tobacco notes and woody pine don’t sound particularly appealing and maybe you don’t taste them at all!”

Much more descriptive than my effort. It seems I need to return to my V60 and improve my tasting ‘chromatography’. There are so many ways to slow down and appreciate a good coffee, what do you notice in yours?

A ‘coffee tasting wheel’ can be found here if you, like me, would like to improve your coffee tasting ‘chromatography’.

¹Chapters in the evolution of Chromatography, Ed. John V Hinshaw, Imperial College Press, 2008

Coffee under the microscope

Inside Coffee Affair

There are many great cafés in London serving excellent coffee but inevitably a few stand out. One such café is Coffee Affair in Queenstown Road railway station which ‘inhabits’ a space that really encourages you to slow down and enjoy your coffee while just noticing the environment. An ex-ticket office that whispers its history through subtle signs on the parquet floor and in the fixings. The sort of place where you have to stop, look around and listen in order to fully appreciate it. And with a variety of great coffees on hand to sample, this is a café that is a pleasure to return to whenever I get the opportunity.

So it was that a few weeks ago, I happened to wander into Queenstown Road station and into Coffee Affair. That day, two coffees were on offer for V60s. One, an Ethiopian with hints of mango, peach and honey, the other, a Kenyan with tasting notes of blackcurrant and cassis. But there was an issue with them when they were prepared for V60s. The Ethiopian, “Gelana Abaya”, caused a considerable bloom but then tended to clog the filter cone if due care was not taken during the pour. The other, the Kenyan “Kamwangi AA”, did not degas so much in the initial bloom but instead was easier to prepare in the V60; there was not such a tendency to clog.

What could be going on?

So we had a look under the microscope at these two coffees. Each coffee was ground as if it was to be prepared in a V60 and then examined under the microscope. Was there any difference between the appearance of the Gelana compared to the Kamwangi? A first look didn’t reveal much. Magnifying both coffees at 5x, it could be said that the Kamwangi had more ‘irregular protrusions’ on the ground coffee compared to the smoother Gelana, but it was hard to see much more:

coffee under the microscope

The samples of ground coffee imaged under an optical microscope at 5x magnification. Kamwangi is on the left, Gelana on the right. “500 um” means 500 micrometers which is 0.5 mm.

So, the microscope was swapped to image the coffee in fluorescence mode. It was then that the cell structure of the coffee became clear. Here are the two coffees magnified 10x:

Fluorescence microscopy 10x, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Kamwangi, Gelana

Fluorescence microscope image of the two coffees at 10x magnification. Note the open structure in the Kamwangi and the more closed structure in the Gelana.

and at 20x

Kamwangi and Gelana coffee under the microscope

A fluorescence microscope image magnified 20x – not ‘um’ means micrometers (1/1000 of a mm), so the scale bar represents 1/10 mm.

So there is perhaps a clue in the cell structure. It seems as if the Kamwangi structure is more open, that somehow the cells in the Kamwangi break open as they are ground but the Gelana somehow keeps its cells more intact. Could this be why the Gelana blooms so much more?

Which naturally leads to a second experiment. What happens when you look at these two coffees in water under the microscope? Here the fluorescence images didn’t help as all you could see were the bubbles of gas in each coffee but the optical microscope images were of more interest.

optical microscope image in water

The two coffees compared under the microscope while in (cold) water. Magnfied 5x

‘Bits’ broke off the Kamwangi as soon as water was added but in comparison, there were far fewer bits of coffee breaking off the Gelana grains.

So what do you think has happened? If you remember our question was: when these two coffees were prepared with a V60, the Gelana bloomed a lot but then clogged in the filter (without extreme care while pouring the filter). Meanwhile the Kamwangi did not bloom so much but also did not clog the filter, what could be happening?

From the microscope images, it appears that

  1. Before adding any water, the cell structure in the Kamwangi is more open, the Gelana appears ‘closed’.
  2. When water is added, there are many more ‘bits’ that come off the Kamwangi whereas the Gelana does not show so much disintegration on the addition of water.

If pushed for a hypothesis, I wonder whether these two observations are linked. What is happening is that the cell structure in the Kamwangi is, for whatever reason, fairly fragile. So as soon as it is ground, the cells break up and a lot of the carbon dioxide is released. Consequently when water is added to it, the bits of broken cell quickly disperse through the water and it doesn’t seem to ‘bubble’ that much. In comparison, the Gelana cell structure is tougher and the cells only open up when water is added. I wonder if this means that the ground Gelana coffee will swell rather than break up and so ‘jam together’ as each grain tries to expand rather like trying to inflate many balloons in a bucket. They will push against each other and prevent water from easily percolating through the ground coffee.

Sadly, many more experiments would be required before we could see if there’s any truth in this hypothesis however that does provide a great excuse, were one needed, for many return trips to Coffee Affair. Meanwhile, what do you think? Do any of the images stand out to you and why? What do you think could be the cause of our V60 coffee mystery? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please let me know either here in the comments section (moderated and experiencing a lot of spam at the moment so please be patient), on Facebook or on Twitter.

How compostable is compostable?

the cup before the worm bin

“Completely compostable”
But how compostable is it?

So we’re trying to do our bit for the environment and ensure that we always get a compostable cup for our take-away coffee. But have you ever stopped to wonder, just how compostable is compostable?

It is a sad fact that most items that are described as ‘compostable’ do not compost as you or I may expect. Throw a ‘compostable’ cup in a compost bin (or wormery) and you may be surprised at how long it takes to disappear. The reason is that the legal definition of compostable generally refers to industrial composting conditions. In contrast to the worm bin, or the home-compost heap, an industrial composting facility is kept at (58±2)ºC. In these conditions, something defined as ‘compostable’ by the EU regulation EN 13432 or the US based ASTM D6400 needs to have completely disappeared within 6 months but have 90% disintegrated to fragments smaller than 2mm by 12 weeks.

Perhaps it is not hard to see why the legal criteria are defined this way. How would you define common criteria for home composting? Although there is a (Belgian led) certification called “OK compost” by Vinçotte, there are as yet no widely agreed definitions for home composting. However, some companies do try to seek out truly home-compostable packaging. In the case of coffee specifically, one coffee roaster trying to keep their environmental impact to a minimum is the Nottingham based Roasting House. Although most of their packaging is paper, (recycled and recyclable), they needed something less permeable for transporting pre-ground coffee by post. Apparently this took quite a search as many bags that said they were home-compostable turned out not to be. Eventually however they chose Natureflex, a packaging that provided a good moisture and air barrier to protect the coffee but that also broke down in a home composting environment.

But how quickly would it disappear in a worm-composter? On the 6th May 2017 my coffee from Roasting House arrived double packed. First in a Natureflex compostable bag and then in the standard (recyclable) paper bag/envelope. It was ready to be placed in the worm bin on the 8th of May 2017.

See the video below for how long it took to be eaten by the worms:

Seventeen weeks later, on 4th September, it was time to declare the bag composted. After 17 weeks, the bag had started to become indistinguishable from other items in the worm bin (such as garlic skin) and when I picked up what bits seemed to remain, they quickly disintegrated in my hand. It seemed time to declare it over for the bag. A truly home-compostable bag, but how does it compare to the ‘OK Compost’ label of Vinçotte.

Coffee bag genuinely home compostable

How it started.
The Roasting House bag before it went into the worm composter.

The definition used by Vinçotte is not for a worm-composting bin but a standard home-compost heap. Ignoring this fact for the time being, the certification requires that a compostable item disintegrates to pieces less than 2mm within 26 weeks and has fully gone within 365 days when held (in a compost bin) between 20-30ºC. Within these criteria, the packaging from Roasting House is certainly “home compostable” as determined by the worms. Although there were bits of greater than 2mm after 17 weeks, just handling them reduced their size to bits in the mm range. And that was only after 17 weeks, well within the 26 specified by the criteria used by Vinçotte.

So now we’re just waiting for the coffee cup. That went into the worm bin on the 20th April 2017 and is still going, 21 weeks later. Will it be home-compostable? Will the lining that’s needed to keep the coffee from leaking out prevent the worms from breaking it down? You’ll find out here! Make sure you sign up to the BeanThinking newsletter or follow @thinking_bean on Twitter or Facebook to be one of the first to find out when the coffee cup has finally gone.

In the meanwhile, if you’re looking for an environmental solution to your take-away coffee cup habit, it is worth investing in a re-usable cup. Most councils at the moment do not provide industrial composting facilities. Moreover, it is not safe to assume that compostable items will eventually compost in a landfill as modern landfills are water-tight and air-tight. As they say here, the modern land fill is not designed to mulch as much as to mummify. So,if you want to avoid green-washing, you may want to invest in a re-usable cup, for a review of these see Brian’s coffee spot here.

 

 

Cobwebs, Crows & Coleman Coffee, Lower Marsh

filter, Brazilian or Guatemalan, V60, rainbow, glass, Coleman Coffee, Lower Marsh, Waterloo

There’s a lot of physics in this glass cup of coffee, enjoyed at Coleman Coffee, Lower Marsh.

Coleman Coffee on Lower Marsh, Waterloo, is a surprisingly relaxing place. Surprising because the frontage gives little away. A door with windows on either side revealing a small wooden bench on the right and a larger table on the left. A food menu is on the left, the coffee menu in front of you (above the counter) and a note about how the coffee is roasted on a black board on your right. The space feels open and welcoming but it is the garden at the back that I think shifts Coleman Coffee from being a lovely little café to a great spot at which to just spend time and notice things.

My first visit was on an incredibly hot day in early July. For some reason I didn’t see the filter coffee option on the menu and so chose a long black to enjoy outside. The shade of the trees was a welcome respite to the hot Sun and the contrast created by the light provided much to dwell on with the inadequacies of my phone’s camera. Berries had formed on the tree growing up the wall of the café. After my visit I read the review of the café on Brian’s Coffee Spot and realised that these berries were mulberries. The other trees providing the shade were a Jasmine and a Pomegranate. I also found that I had missed the filter option and so a return visit was obligatory! How easy it is not to notice things.

ditch the plastic straw, enjoy a paper one

Chocolate milk and a paper straw.

A second visit sadly revealed the restricted opening hours of Coleman Coffee. Arriving at about 2.58pm, we were told it was take-away only as they were closing at 3pm. However the third visit was worth the wait. By this time the weather had turned and it had been raining, but the garden was still calling. The filter coffee on offer (V60) was either a Brazilian or a Guatemalan. Opting for the nuttier of the two (an allergy to actual tree nuts does not prevent my enjoying nuttiness in coffee!), we took a couple of glasses of water through to the back and awaited our drinks. When they arrived, it was interesting to find that the nutty coffee was truly nutty. A lovely flavour and mouthfeel to enjoy. It was also great to notice that the straw in the chocolate milk seemed to be an old-fashioned paper straw (rather than the environmentally problematic plastic straws). As it had rained, the stools outside were a little wet, even though they had been largely sheltered by the same trees above the garden. This time, the mulberry tree seemed mulberry-less, apart from the one berry lying sorrowfully on the floor. The red of the berry being squished (accidentally) underfoot leaving it lying and injured in the style of Pyramus and Thisbe. Across the other (wetter) side of the garden, three spiders were busy weaving new webs, ready to catch whatever flies came their way. It would have been easy to watch those spiders for hours but I think a good café can linger in the memory long after your visit has ended and so the spiders are still spinning their webs in my mind now.

garden spider at Coleman Coffee Waterloo

Spider on the table. What could be better than time spent contemplating their webs?

Photos of spiders webs glittering with dew drops are common place but somehow strangely attractive. Beads of dew gather at various points on the web leading to descriptions of cobwebs as being laden with jewels. A few years ago, a scientist contemplating spider’s webs asked why it was that water collected like jewels on the webs? Why didn’t it collect similarly on your hair? (You can read more about his story here). The team looked at the webs of one particular spider with an electron microscope. Electron microscopes can magnify things far more than optical microscopes (for images of coffee under an electron microscope click here) and so the scientists were able to observe how the hydrophilic (wet-able) fibres in the web turned from ‘puffs’ to ‘knots’ as they got wet. Water falling on the web was then attracted to these knots, partly due to an effect caused by the knot shape and partly due to the surface tension gradient of the water along the fibres. The results of the study can be found here.

Although it took five years of investigation after the initial contemplation, this study of spider’s webs could lead to tools that could be used for water collection or in devices to aid chemical reactions. Which brings us to the other ‘C’ of the title: crows. Sadly there were no crows in the garden on either of my visits to Coleman Coffee. Nonetheless there is a link. My first visit had been cut a little short as I was headed to the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Apart from the fact that it was baking hot inside the Royal Society, this science outreach event had a good mix of science/experiments for adults and for kids, it was great to wander around and learn a large number of new things. So many exhibits caught my eye but the one that connects with Coleman’s and cobwebs was the exhibit on tool making crows.

Spider and web, Coleman

Spider building a web at Coleman Coffee

Crows have been shown to be great tool users. Particularly the New Caledonian Crow which has been shown to even make hooks out of twigs in order to fish out insects from their hiding places. While thinking about what it was that led to this species of crow becoming adept at tool use (and therefore perhaps an explanation of human tool use), it became apparent that the two particularly good tool using crow species lived on remote islands without predators. Not only did they have the physical ability to create tools (a straight beak for crows, a thumb for humans), they lived in a place where they could have time to explore and to create, to develop tools to enable them to get the most tasty bug.

Just as the scientists had needed time to watch, to investigate and to think about spiders webs in order to create new tools, so crows may have needed that time to explore their tool use. Perhaps it’s worth pushing the analogy to inner-city London (or indeed wherever you are). The more we spend time out, contemplating and enjoying nature, the more productive we can be. But to develop, we need to slow down, to think, to contemplate, and to enjoy great coffee in surroundings as special as at Coleman Coffee.

Coleman Coffee is at 20 Lower Marsh, SE1 7RJ