Alchemy

Searching for the light at Alchemist, Singapore

Alchemist, Singapore, Raffles Quay coffee
Almost a hole in the wall. Alchemist in the Hong Leong building was a welcome break from the heat of Singapore.

Is coffee a diuretic? Perhaps it seems strange to start a review of a fantastic little cafe with such a question, but all will become clear. Or will it?

Alchemist coffee in Singapore’s Raffles Quay district was a serendipitous find. A small outlet, almost a deep hole in the wall (with bench seating) in the middle of a walkway through a building. The shady walkway is the sort of space in Singapore that you duck into in order to avoid the glare of the Sun and take brief advantage of the air-conditioning in the otherwise powerful heat. And yet, escaping into this passageway, I was immediately struck by the aroma of the coffee indicating that a speciality coffee store was nearby. On noticing the queue of customers coming out of the door, this was definitely marked as a cafe to return to at a quieter time.

Returning a bit later we noticed that, at these quieter times, it was possible to have a pour over of some locally roasted coffee. I tried the Kenyan with currant and hawthorn tasting notes as, although I forage for hawthorn in the autumn in the UK in order to make brown sauces, it is unusual to find it as a tasting note there. We watched as great care was taken to prepare the pour over (Kalita wave) and the barista took a small glass of the coffee to try before serving it to me in the pre-warmed cup. Which marked another point of interest in this small cafe, although you may expect such a small outlet to serve only take-away coffee, even for customers who want to sit on the two bench seats that line the sides of the shop, the coffee is in fact served in a proper cup, an excellent point to see. Alchemist is actually three cafes, the one that I tried in Raffles Quay and two others, with the larger branch at the International Plaza being where they also roast the coffee.

Alchemist inside coffee rack
Inside there is a rack of items for sale that include freshly roasted coffee and filters for the Kalita wave

A rack of items for sale featured filters for the Kalita wave as well as bags of the coffee roasted by Alchemist. And while initially this prompted thoughts of the differences in fluid dynamics between the Kalita wave (flat bottomed, ridged filters) and the Hario V60 (conical, flat walled filters), the reflections of the lights above in the coffee below turned this thought train in quite a different direction.

Like the cafe Alchemist, in some senses the discovery of the element phosphorus was an accidental affair. Accidental in the sense that Hennig Brand (~1630-92) who discovered it, was looking for something quite different: gold. Brand was an alchemist in the original sense of the word and, for whatever reason, thought that he may find a source of production of gold in urine.

Who knows how much urine he had to store and had to boil before he noticed its glow in the dark properties that were caused by the element phosphorus? Brand’s discovery occurred after the introduction of coffee into European coffee house culture, could its reputation as a diuretic have helped in the discovery of phosphorus? While entirely speculative, what is clear is that the name ‘phosphorus’ comes from the Greek and means the bringer of light (phos). The element phosphorus is used in many fertilisers as well as in matches.

Alchemist roasted coffee
Turning coffee into gold. This bag of Guatemalan beans has proved to be great in the Aeropress.

The name of the element “phosphorus” conjures up terms such as phosphorescence, fluorescence and luminescence. While we sometimes use the term phosphorescence to describe substances that glow in the dark. This is because phosphorescent materials absorb higher energy light (such as UV) and then re-emit it some time later (which can even be hours after being ‘excited’ by the higher energy light such as sunlight). Fluorescent materials on the other hand also emit lower energy light as a result of the substance absorbing higher energy light, but they do so fairly immediately. Strictly speaking however the ‘glow in the dark’ properties of phosphorus do not come from phosphorescence but chemiluminescence: it glows in the dark because it emits light as a result of a chemical reaction, in this case oxidation.

The lights on the ceiling in the Alchemist were of the fluorescent type and so we may think that our connections with Hennig Brand and the alchemists of old are limited to the speculations on the name. But we’d miss one detail were we to do so. Fluorescent lights can use a voltage to excite mercury vapour to emit light in the (high energy) ultra violet region. This UV then interacts with a coating on the inside of the glass tube of the light which then fluoresces to give the light that we see reflected on our coffee. The substance that provides the coating? What else but phosphorus.

From Germany to Singapore, alchemy to Alchemist, and even urine to coffee, the reflections, metaphorical and actual, between the chemists of old and the baristas of now, consist of more than just the name.

Alchemist (Singapore) is in the Hong Leong building (Raffles Quay that was tried here) as well as the International Plaza (where they roast the coffee) and the Khong Guan building.

Waiting for a green light at Alchemy, St Pauls

8 Ludgate Broadway, St Pauls

Alchemy Coffee

Alchemy, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination”, is certainly a cafe that lives up to the dictionary definition of its name. The branch, on Ludgate Broadway near St Pauls, is the outlet that ‘showcases’ the coffee of Alchemy Roasters. On walking into this cafe, I was presented with a menu of two types of beans for espresso based drinks or two different beans for filter/aeropress. Both sets of coffees came with tasting notes. After a brief chat with the friendly barista I went for the San Sebastian with aeropress. Notes about the origins of the coffee are dotted around this superbly sited cafe (its location is ideal for people watching). The coffee is directly traded (where possible) and, if lattes or cappuccinos are your thing, there are also details about the farm that produces the milk.

Although there were cakes on the counter, I had just had lunch and so had to pass on what looked to be a good selection of edibles. The coffee though was certainly very good and definitely an experience to be savoured. As, perhaps I should have expected, when the coffee arrived it came in a beaker reminiscent of chemistry laboratories. From my chair in the corner, I could watch the preparation of the coffee behind the counter, the people coming into the shop to order their coffee and the crowds passing by outside.

E=mc2 Einstein relativity in a cafe

Scales at Alchemy. Weights on one side, chocolate on the other, it can only mean one thing: energy-mass equivalence

Close to where I was sitting was an old style set of measuring scales. This see-saw balance had weights on one side and chocolate on the other. Perhaps this connection seems tenuous, but for me weights on one side of the scales and an energy bar (chocolate) on the other side could only mean one thing:

E=mc²

The equation relating energy and mass for a particle at rest derived, and made famous by Einstein. The equation comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity which states that nothing can be accelerated to faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). First set down in 1905, the theory has some very odd predictions, among which the best known is probably the twin paradox (details here). The idea is that a moving clock will be observed to run slowly by a stationary observer, a prediction that has been confirmed several times by experiments using atomic clocks (here).

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Coffee is served at Alchemy

Moreover, the equation states that mass and energy are equivalent and that a small amount of mass can produce an awful lot of energy, (details here). A detail which will bring this story of a cafe-physics review nicely back to the Alchemy cafe, to London and to the importance of slowing down. The connection is through a set of traffic lights in Bloomsbury. Back in 1933, Leo Szilard was waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights at the intersection of Russell Square with Southampton Row. Szilard had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and was spending his time as a refugee in London pondering different aspects of physics†. That September day, Szilard was thinking about a newspaper article featuring Ernest Rutherford that he had read earlier. In 1901  Ernest Rutherford, together with Frederick Soddy, had discovered that radioactive thorium decayed into radium. The changing of one element into another could be considered a type of modern day alchemy. However Rutherford did not believe that there could ever be a way of harnessing this nuclear energy. In the article read by Szilard in The Times, Rutherford had dismissed any such ideas as “moonshine”. Szilard was forced to pause his walk as he waited for the traffic lights to change. Those few moments of pause must have helped clear Szilard’s mind because as the light went green and Szilard was able to cross the road, a thought hit him: If every neutron hitting an element released two neutrons (as one element was transmuted into another), a chain reaction could be started. As part of the mass of the decaying atom was released as energy, it would mean that, feasibly, we could harness vast amounts of energy; E=mc².

This idea, a consequence of spending five minutes waiting for a traffic light rather than checking Twitter (not yet invented in 1933), proved to underpin both the nuclear fission which we use in electricity generation and the nuclear fission that we’ve used to develop weaponry. It makes me wonder what alchemy we could conjure in our minds if we stopped to enjoy the transformations of the coffee beans at Alchemy.

 

Alchemy (cafe) is at 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU

† A book that some may find entertaining is:

“Hitler’s Scientists”, John Cornwell, Penguin Group publishers, 2003. The book contains this anecdote about Szilard: As Szilard was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he fled Germany to Britain via Austria on a train a few days after the Reichstag fire of 1933. On the day he left, the train was empty. One day later, the same train was overcrowded and the people leaving Germany were stopped at the border and interrogated.  An event that prompted him, a few years later, to reflect “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people.” Something to reflect on in today’s refugee crisis perhaps.