Time to enjoy a Beethoven coffee

Portrait bust of Beethoven, Anna EG Hoffman, in the British Museum collection © Trustees of the British Museum

Portrait bust of Beethoven, Anna EG Hoffman, in the British Museum collection © Trustees of the British Museum

It is said that Beethoven prepared his coffee by counting, precisely, 60 beans per cup. Biographies of Beethoven certainly suggest that he had a significant coffee habit. Banned by his doctor from drinking coffee towards the end of his life, there are many references to him frequenting coffee houses in earlier years. Sadly, I have not found the source for the 60 beans story and so would not like to comment on its veracity. Nonetheless, it is a good story and it does link with coffee so, as today (17th December) is the 244th anniversary of his baptism (it is assumed that he was born the day before on 16th December 1770), it is “Beethoven day” on the Daily Grind.

To me, what lends some credibility to the 60 beans story is the fact that, as coffee lovers, we can be very particular about the way we prepare our brew. Some people, for example, weigh the amount of the coffee and the quantity of water and brew their coffee according to instructions from one of the various online brewing tutorials (see here for a good one from Hasbean). Personally, in the morning, I am far too bleary eyed to consider getting the kitchen scales out, nor would I count a certain number of beans. I do however count the number of seconds that I take to grind my coffee with my trusty burr grinder (always set to the same level of grind of course). Can counting the number of seconds for a quantity of grind possibly be a good way of measuring a specific quantity of coffee?

Did Galileo drop balls from the top of the tower?

Did Galileo drop balls from the top of the tower?

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) died before coffee was properly introduced to Europe. He is relevant to this story though owing to his work on clocks and timing devices. One way that Galileo measured time was to collect water in a jug over the measurement period. It seems that this is almost the reverse of my morning coffee ritual. To check that he was measuring time correctly however, he needed a second, independent method. Of course, Galileo couldn’t use a watch or pendulum because watches hadn’t been developed at the time and Galileo himself was doing the work needed to understand pendulums and make them useful for clocks. So what else could he use to measure time? There is a clue to another method that Galileo used in his experiments on falling balls. Although there are questions as to whether Galileo really did drop balls from the top of the Tower of Pisa, we do know that he did experiments which involved rolling bronze balls down a groove. Along the groove were marks where strings made from gut had been pulled across the groove such that they made a sound as the ball passed, perhaps like the sound of a harp being plucked. By adjusting the position of these strings, the interval between the sounds from different gut strings could be made to match a known rhythm. The time it took for a ball to fall down the groove was being measured by matching its descent to a known tune. This suggests that Galileo sang while he was making his key measurements and that it was this that allowed him to start to understand how bodies fell under gravity. Singing was Galileo’s (surprisingly accurate) method of measuring time.

Which brings me full circle back to Beethoven. Beethoven certainly knew the “mechanician” Mälzel who invented the metronome as we now know it. There are also indications that Beethoven was aware of early versions of Mälzel’s invention. In 1813, the Wiener Vaterländische Blätter wrote “…Herr Beethoven looks upon this invention as a welcome means with which to secure the performance of his brilliant compositions in all places in the tempos conceived by him, which to his regret have so often been misunderstood“.  It seems that in the two hundred years between Galileo and Beethoven, there had been so many improvements to clocks and timing devices that singing, which had started off as a way to measure time, was now itself being regulated by the clocks that singing may have helped to develop.

How many beans go to make your morning coffee?

How many beans go to make your morning coffee?

So how is a Beethoven coffee, assuming that there is any veracity to the legend? Sixty beans works out as 8-10g which, depending on the amount of water in the cup could be weaker (or stronger) than modern brews. In my cup, it was slightly weaker than I am used to. I enjoyed my “Beethoven coffee” while listening to his String Quartet Op 74, “Harp”. As I sipped the coffee while listening to the first movement, I could almost hear the gut strings of Galileo’s experiment being plucked as the balls rolled by. The coffee itself (Costa Rica, Finca Arbar El Manatial, Yellow Honey, Caturra/Catual) was very smooth and rich, as you would expect from a coffee from Has Bean. Described in the tasting notes as “….An amazing caramel and milk chocolate sweetness partnered with delicate peach and apricot acidity…” It was the perfect coffee to enjoy with the Harp quartet piece. Sometimes it is important to take time to go slow and enjoy the coffee.

So why not raise a mug today to Beethoven and savour a Beethoven coffee? Please leave any comments using the form below, especially if you know a reliable reference to Beethoven’s coffee habit or have suggestions as to how to improve my morning brew.

Further reading:

Quotes taken from “Thayer’s life of Beethoven”, Revised and Edited by Elliot Forbes, Princeton University Press, 1967

Information on Galileo and time: “Styles of Knowing, A new history of science from ancient times to the present”, Chunglin Kwa, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011

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