Monthly Archives: January 2016

Coffee as an art at Briki, Exmouth Market

exterior of Briki coffee London

Briki London on the corner of Exmouth Market

Traditionally made coffee always appeals to my sense of coffee history. Coffee made its way out of Ethiopea via Turkey and the method of brewing the finely ground coffee in a ‘cezve’ or ‘briki’ is one that goes back a long way. It’s therefore always interesting when a new cafe arrives on the scene that offers “Greek” or “Turkish” coffee on its menu. Briki, in Exmouth Market, opened in May last year and so it was only going to be a matter of time before I visited to try it out. Aesthetically Briki appealed to me as soon as I walked through the door. Spacious and with the bar along one wall, there are plenty of seats available at which to slowly enjoy your coffee. The cafe itself is almost triangular and the other two walls have windows running all along them. What better way to sit and enjoy the moment (and your coffee) than to gaze out a window? Still, given that I had gone to a cafe called ‘Briki’ and that it advertised “Briki coffee” on the menu behind the bar, it was obvious that I had to try the briki coffee. The coffee was rich, flavoursome and distinctive, well worth the time taken to savour it. There was also an impressive selection of food behind the counter and the dreaded “does it contain nuts” question was met with a friendly check of the ‘allergen’ folder. I was therefore able to also enjoy the lovely (nut free) chocolate cake. Briki definitely gets a tick in the “cafes with good nut knowledge” box on my categories list.

image from British Museum website

Folio 109b from an album of paintings showing Turkish sultans and court officials. Kahveci. A youth who serves coffee. He is holding a cup in each hand, circa 1620.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

However as I realised later, the coffee was not brewed in the traditional way but in a Beko coffee maker – a coffee maker specifically designed for optimising the brewing of Turkish coffee. The idea of the Beko is that it carefully controls and automates the entire brewing process so that you get a perfect coffee each time. But just how do you make a ‘perfect’ Turkish coffee?

A quick duckduckgo (it’s a mystery to me why has this verb failed to catch on while ‘to google’ is used so frequently) revealed two sets of instructions on how to make Turkish coffee. The first set, (including some otherwise very good coffee brewing websites) suggested ‘boiling’ the coffee repeatedly in the pot (cezve/briki). The second set, which seemed to be more specifically interested in Turkish coffee (as opposed to interested in coffee generally), were much more careful, even to the point of writing, in a very unsubtle way, “NEVER LET IT BOIL“. According to this second set of websites, the coffee in the cezve should be heated until it starts to froth, a process that begins at around 70C, far below the 100C that would be needed to boil it. Warming the cezve to 70C produces these bubbles and the lovely rich taste of the traditionally made coffee. Heating it to boiling point on the other hand destroys the aromatics* that form part of the flavour experience of coffee and therefore makes a terrible cup of coffee.

The contrasting instructions however led me to recall a discussion in Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature. Perhaps we all remember from school being taught how thermometers need two fixed points to calibrate the temperature scale and that these two fixed points were the boiling point and the freezing point of water. Perhaps this troubled you at the time: Just as with making coffee in a cezve, just how many bubbles do you need in order to say that the coffee (or water) is ‘boiling’? How were you supposed to define boiling? How much did it matter?

Cezve, ibrik, Turkish Coffee Creative Commons license

Cezve, image ©

It turns out that these questions were not trivial. There is a thermometer in the science museum (in London) on which two boiling points of water are marked. The thermometer, designed by the instrument maker George Adams the Elder (1709 – 1773) marked a lower boiling point (where water begins to boil) and an upper boiling point (where the water boils vigorously). The two points differed by approximately 4C.  So how is it that we now all ‘know’ that water boils at 100C? And what was wrong with Adams’ thermometer? The Royal Society set up a committee to investigate the variability of the reported boiling point of water in 1776. Careful control of the heating conditions and water containers reduced the temperature difference observed between different amounts of boiling. However, as they experimented with very pure water in very clean containers they found that things just became more complicated. Water could be heated to 120C or even higher without ‘boiling’. They had, unintentionally, started investigating the phenomenon that we now know as ‘superheating‘. Superheating occurs when water is heated to a temperature far above its boiling point without actually boiling. What we recognise as boiling is the escape of gas (which is usually a mix of air and water vapour) from the body of the water to its surface. In order to escape like this, these bubbles have to form somehow. Small bubbles of dissolved air pre-existing in the water or micro-cracks in the walls of the container enable the water to evaporate and form steam. These bubbles of gas can then grow and the water ‘boils’. If you were to try to calibrate a thermometer using very pure water in very clean containers, it is highly likely that the water would superheat before it ‘boiled’, there just aren’t the ‘nucleation’ sites in the water to allow boiling to start. The Royal Society’s committee therefore came up with some recommendations on how to calibrate thermometers in conditions that avoided superheating which meant thermometers were subsequently calibrated more accurately and superheating (and improved calibration points) could be investigated more thoroughly.

Perhaps viewed in this way there are even more parallels between Turkish coffee and physics. It has been written that “making Turkish coffee is an art form“. It is a process of practising, questioning and practising again. The Beko coffee machine automates part of the process of making Turkish coffee. When it’s done well though, Turkish coffee is far more than just the temperature control and the mechanics of heating it. There is the process of assembling the ingredients, the time spent enjoying the coffee and the atmosphere created by the cafe in which you drink it. Coffee as art in Briki is something that I would willingly spend much more time contemplating.


Briki is at 67 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL

“Inventing Temperature”, by Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2004

*Although these aromatics are part of what gives coffee such a pleasurable taste, they decay very rapidly even in coffee that is left to stand for a while, it is this loss of the aromatics that is part of the reason that microwaving your coffee is a bad idea. A second reason involves the superheating effect, but perhaps more on that another day.


Caustic Coffee

A post that applies equally to tea, just swap the word “tea” for “coffee” throughout!

A cusp caustic in an empty mug of coffee

Have you seen this line?

Look deep into your coffee. Do you see the secrets of the cosmos being revealed? Well, neither do I usually but there is something in your coffee that could be said to have ‘cosmic implications’ and I’m sure it’s something that you’ve seen hundreds of times.

Now, admittedly it is easier to see this effect if you put milk in your coffee. Imagine drinking your (milky) coffee with a strong light source (the Sun, a lightbulb) behind you. You see that curved line of light that meets in a cusp near the centre of the cup? You can see various photos of it on this page. Yes, it is indeed the reflection of the light from the curved mug surface but it is far from just that. It is what prompted a professor at Duke University to say “It’s amazing how what we can see in a coffee cup extends into a mathematical theorem with effects in the cosmos.” To understand why, perhaps it is worth reflecting a bit more on our coffee.

The shape of the curve is called a ‘cusp’  and the bright edge is known as a ‘caustic’. It is fairly easy to play with the angle of the cup and the light so that you can see the first cusp curve but you can go further and create caustics that are the result of multiple reflections. Such multiple reflections can give heart shaped curves or “cardioids” so, in a certain sense adding milk to your coffee is good for (seeing) the heart.

caustic in a cup of tea or coffee

A cusp reflection is just visible in a cup of (soya) milk tea

Caustics were first investigated by Huygens and Tschirnhaus in the late 17th century. Mathematically, the cusp curve is termed an epicycloid, you can draw one by tracing the shape made by a point on the circumference of a circle rotating around a second circle, as this graphic from Wolfram mathematics demonstrates. There is a lot of maths in milky coffee. But just how is it that these curves reveal the “Cosmos in a cup of coffee“? It turns out that once you start to see caustics you start to see them everywhere. Caustics are not just going to be formed on the inside of your coffee mug, they can be formed by light waves getting bent by ripples on the surface of a stream or even by gravity, in a phenomenon known as “gravitational lensing”.  Gravitational lensing is when a massive object, such as a black hole or a galaxy, bends the light travelling past it so that it acts analogously to a lens in optics (but a very big one). It is this last type of caustic that prompted the headline quoted above. In a series of papers published in the Journal of Mathematical Physics, Arlie Petters of Duke University and coworkers calculated how light from distant objects was focussed through gravitational lensing and the effects of caustics. Their predictions (and in particular any exceptions to their predictions) could lead to a new way to search for the elusive dark matter, which is thought to contribute to much of the Universe’s mass. They are now waiting for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) to start mapping the sky in order to test their theories.

multiple caustics from multiple LEDs

Multiple light sources are being reflected in this cup.

Before concluding this discussion of cosmic coffee, it is worth taking another look at the mathematician Tschirnhaus. As well as maths, he was known for his philosophy and his chemistry. In fact, it seems that he was responsible for the invention of European porcelain. As noted elsewhere, it has been argued that it was the ability of Europeans to start making their own porcelain that explained the rapid rise in consumption of tea and coffee during the eighteenth century in Europe. Interestingly, one of the tools that allowed Tschirnhaus to succeed in manufacturing porcelain in Dresden where others elsewhere failed was his use of “burning mirrors” to focus the heat and to achieve higher furnace temperatures than were otherwise available. He was using those caustics that he and others had so thoroughly studied mathematically in order to produce the type of cup in which we most often encounter the easiest caustics. A lovely little ‘elliptical’ story on which to end this Daily Grind.

In order to see the caustics in your coffee, it is necessary that the coffee reflects the light incident on it. Meaning, you need to add milk to your coffee. I knew there had to be a good reason to add milk to coffee at some point. Please do share your photos of caustics in your coffee either here or on Facebook or Twitter.



Planet Earth is blue (or is it) at Ground Control, Clerkenwell

Ground Control, outside the cafe

Ground Control on Amwell St

Ground Control is a small little cafe on Amwell St. If you are in the Angel/Clerkenwell area it is well worth stopping by this interesting cafe which serves a variety of Ethiopian coffees. Of course they offer the normal espresso, Americano etc. type drinks but if you want to sample their coffee properly, I think it best to try one of their coffees prepared with a V60. Tasting notes are shown on the menu on the wall. Being fairly small, there aren’t that many tables, however if you are lucky enough to get one of the two tables at the window, you will find plenty around you to look at without resorting to checking your phone while you enjoy your coffee. Behind one of the tables at the window is a set of shelves with coffee beans (presumably for sale). Behind the other table is a picture of a lady holding a jug and a basket. Vibrantly coloured circular patterns form the backdrop behind her.

coffee mosaic, colour perception

The coffee mosaic at Ground Control

The picture (shown on the left) has a flow to it, you are almost drawn into the movement of the picture. This movement comes from the many, differently coloured, coffee beans that have been used to make the picture. Each bean is orientated slightly differently so that the lines through the bean flow with the picture, rather than the beans being mere individual pieces of a mosaic. The circular patterns, the lines of her shirt, all of these are produced by orientating coffee beans this way or that. The mosaic is also richly colourful. Many of the colours stand out, but some, arranged next to each other, appear more subdued. How do we see the colours of a picture? How much of our colour perception is due to the pigment of the paint, how much due to the lighting, and how much is due to the individual colouration of the neighbouring beans?

An artist known for his unusual use of colour was Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Seurat developed the technique of pointillism in which small dots of varying colours are painted next to each other. Viewed from a distance, the colour seen by the viewer may be quite different from the multitude of differently coloured dots perceived close up. As with the coffee bean mosaic, direction was given to Seurat’s work through the orientation of the painted dots. Seurat had based his technique on the state-of-the-art science of the day. One of the scientists whose work on colour theory influenced Seurat’s artistic development was Ogden N. Rood, a physicist who’s 1879 book “Modern Chromatics” he seems to have read (in its French translation)*. Rood had carefully distinguished between two types of colour mixing, that of mixing coloured lights and that of mixing pigments. Mixing pigments had been used by all of the old masters. It is the process by which paints are mixed to produce a new paint colour. Rood however showed that if small dots of colour were painted adjacently, when the painting is viewed from a distance such that the eye cannot distinguish the two dots individually but rather mixes them in the eye, the colour produced is that of mixing coloured lights, not coloured pigments. As he explained, colour mixing through adding light of different colours was an additive process, colour mixing through combining pigments was subtractive. More about colour theory and colour mixing can be found here.

Pointillism Seurat

Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891
The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe
1890, Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Bought with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1995, NG6554

In the late 1880s, Seurat was criticised for relying “unduly on scientific formulae”, though he himself seems to  have viewed his use of science merely as a guide, a way to help control the colour and light seen by the viewer*. The colours that we perceive can be affected by the colours they are adjacent to, as evidenced by many optical illusions. Yet even when everybody is looking at the same photo, we do not necessarily all see the same colour (I saw it as white and gold).

There is indeed a lot to the science of colour perception and some great fun that can be had with it. Seurat was aware of some of this and used science to understand how to best paint his paintings. Note how the (pointillist) border of the Seurat painting pictured on the right is a different colour at the top, do you think that affects how your eye perceives the top compared to the bottom of this painting?

Starting tomorrow, light and colour are to be combined in a three day “Lumiere festival” across London. The event looks as if it will take full advantage of the effects of different methods of colour mixing. If you are outside London, sorry! If you are lucky enough to be in London over the weekend, more details of what looks to be a fascinating science/art/experience event can be found here.


Ground Control is at 61 Amwell Street, EC1R 1UR

*”Seurat and the Science of Painting” by William Innes Homer was published by MIT press in 1964

Ordinarily I would have left the title of this post as a type of puzzle to see if anyone got the link (some posts on the Daily Grind have such puzzles, I’ve no idea whether I’m the only one who understands some of them). However, given that he passed away two days ago, here’s a rendition of David Bowie’s Space Odyssey (which is referenced in the title) sung by Cdr Chris Hadfield:


Bouncing Coffee

floating, bouncing drops

Water droplets ‘floating’ on a bath of water (actually they bounce rather than float).

Perhaps you remember the video about how to ‘float’ coffee droplets on water posted on the Daily Grind a few weeks ago? The video featured an experiment that you could do at home in which droplets of water (or coffee, or even, if you were feeling adventurous, tea) could be made to stay as spherical droplets on the surface of a shallow dish of water for minutes at a time. Of course there were a few tricks: The water had soap added to it (10ml of soap to 100ml of water) and the shallow dish was on a loudspeaker which was playing music at the time. The whole experiment was very pretty. But hopefully as well as appreciating the aesthetics, you were asking ‘how’ and ‘why’? Why does the addition of soap mean that these globules of liquid appear to float on the liquid surface? And is the rumour you have heard about a connection with quantum physics true?

Well it turns out that people have known about these floating droplets for over a hundred years but why they behave as they do is still being investigated. It is another case of cutting-edge science appearing in your coffee cup*. So it’s worth taking a look at what is going on and why we needed to add soap and vibration for the droplets to remain stable on the water surface.

lilies on water, rain on a pond, droplets

When it rains, the rain drops don’t float on the pond

It seems to appeal to common sense and to everyday experience that if we drop a droplet onto a bath of water, the droplet will merge with the water and become part of the bath. After all, when we bring two drops that we have dripped on a table close to each other, at a certain distance between the two drops, they appear to touch and then rapidly merge into one big droplet (try it). And when it rains onto a pond, we don’t see lots of spherical droplets hovering over the surface of the pond! We know that it is the attractive van der Waals forces that bring the two drops together and then the effects of surface tension that minimise the surface area of the drops so that they become one big drop. So how is it that we can get a droplet to remain, as a droplet, on the surface of a bath of water?

How to bounce water droplets on a water surface

It could be said that the answer can be pulled out of thin air: Before the drops can merge, the air that separates them has to escape from the area between the droplet and the water bath. If the droplet can somehow be made to bounce back upwards before the air separating the droplet from the bath becomes thin enough for the two liquids to combine, the air could be made into a cushion to keep pushing the droplet upwards. This is why the experiment needs to be done with a vibrating dish of water, each time the surface vibrates upwards it is providing the drop with an acceleration upwards that overcomes gravity, like a miniature trampoline: The droplet is not floating, it is bouncing.

So why soap? We all know that the addition of soap decreases the surface tension of the water. But that is not why the addition of soap helps to stabilise the drops in this instance. No, soap has another effect and that is to increase the surface viscosity (and surface elasticity) of the water. Think about the air between the droplet and the dish. As the droplet bounces down (ie. the distance between droplet and water becomes a minimum), the air gets squeezed out of the layer between the droplet and the bath. On the other hand, as the droplet reaches its peak height, air will rush into the gap between the drop and the bath. If the liquid is not very viscous (eg. water), as the air rushes in (or gets squeezed out), it will combine with the liquid and form a turbulent layer on the surface of the droplet. If the viscosity is increased, the air cannot ‘entrain’ the liquid as the droplet bounces and so the drop keeps its shape more easily and is more stable. Soap increases the surface viscosity of the droplet and so helps with this effect. However soap also increases the surface elasticity and makes it harder for the air to flow out of the layer separating the drop from the bath. It is because soap does multiple things to the water (or coffee) that more recent studies have focussed on liquids with controllable viscosity but minimal surfactant effects, i.e. silicone oils. It is just that if you want it to work with coffee, it is easier to add the soap to get the experiment to work.

An “un-cut” video of coffee on water shows how tricky it can be to actually get these drops to be stable on the surface of the water.

Which leaves the quantum link. The experiment shown in the videos show single droplets (or droplet patterns) stabilised by vibrations caused by music. If instead of music you use fixed frequencies to excite resonances through the speakers, it is possible to get the droplet to resonate in a controlled way and, at a certain point, it will move. As the droplet moves, it appears to be guided by the vibrations of the liquid underneath the drop, it is a particle guided by a ‘pilot wave’. It turns out that such walking droplets show behaviour reminiscent of the ‘wave particle duality‘ found in quantum physics where particles (such as electrons and other sub-atomic particles) can be described both as particles and as waves. You can find a video describing the similarities between these bouncing droplets and quantum effects here.


* Ok, so you may not want to add soap to your coffee to see this effect but actually I first observed it in a milky tea. Adding milk to the coffee/tea would increase its viscosity which makes the observation of the bouncing droplets more likely. The ‘milk’ used in the video was actually soya milk which did not appear to increase the viscosity sufficiently to allow the droplets to bounce on the surface without soap.