Coffee in Singapore

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 the drop at Kurasu, Kyoto (Singapore)

Kurasu Kyoto Singapore, coffee Raffles City

The sign towards the entrance at Kurasu Kyoto, Singapore

Kurasu Kyoto, in Singapore, was recommended to me as a great place to experience pour-over coffee. Although they will serve espresso based drinks too, it is the pour over coffee for which they are famous. The Singapore branch is at the front of a shared working space in an office block. Entering from the street, you have to go up one level before the smell of the coffee will guide you to the café.

Ordinarily, coffee chains would not be featured on Bean Thinking. However, despite it’s name, this is a ‘chain’ of only two outlets, the original branch in Kyoto, Japan and this one in Singapore. The menu featured several coffees with their differing tasting notes together with a few other drinks. Coffee is shipped from Japan weekly as well as being locally roasted in Singapore. It is very much a place to enjoy your coffee while sitting on the comfortable chairs before getting back to work (or perhaps, a place to meet potential colleagues over a refreshing cup of coffee). And it is highly likely you will enjoy your coffee which is prepared for you as you wait.

coffee machine, V60 Kalita

The bar and some of the coffee equipment in the cafe space at Kurasu Kyoto Singapore

There is no hint of automation here. Each cup of coffee is prepared carefully and individually by the barista behind the bar. V60 or Kalita, it was somewhat mesmerising to watch the pour over being prepared, rhythmically, carefully, by hand. Indeed, automation seems almost alien to this place where the act of making coffee is truly artful. Once prepared, the coffee is brought to your table in a simple ceramic mug for you to taste for yourself and see how your tasting notes compare.

As I was watching, two thoughts occurred to me, the first of a directly scientific nature, the second more about our society. Firstly watching the barista slowly prepare the pour over, it is difficult not to be reminded of the pitch drop experiment.

You may remember the story from 2013 and then again in 2014. Two experiments that had been set up in 1944 and 1927 respectively finally showed results. The experiments were (indeed are, they are still going) very similar and concerned watching pitch (which is a derivative of tar) drop from a funnel. Pitch is used to waterproof boats and appears to us almost solid at room temperature although it is actually a liquid but with an extremely high viscosity. To put this into perspective, at room temperature coffee has a viscosity similar to water at about 0.001 Pa s, liquid honey has a viscosity of about 10 Pa s, but this tar has a viscosity of 20 000 000 Pa s. The experiments involved pouring this tar into a funnel and then waiting, and waiting, for it to drip. Both experiments seem to drip only approximately once a decade but until 2013 (and 2014 for the other experiment), the actual drop had never been seen. Both experiments are now building their droplets again and we await the next drop in the 2020s.

Imagine waiting that long for a drip coffee.

coffee Kurasu Kyoto Singapore

Apparent simplicity. The coffee at Kurasu Kyoto Singapore

But then a second thought, there is currently a lot of angst, particularly about automation and our environmental and/or political situations, as if they are something from outside ourselves being imposed upon us. To some extent it is true that we are not in control over many things happening around us. But in our feeling of powerlessness, are we resigning more than we ought to of our responsibility for the power that we do have? It was something that deeply concerned Romano Guardini in his essay “Power and Responsibility”¹. To use the example of automation and the pour over. Guardini argues that people become poorer as they become more distant from the results of their work (e.g. by automating the pour over coffee with a machine). And that the better the machine, the “fewer the possibilities for personal creativeness”¹ that the barista would have. For Guardini, this has consequences for the human being for both barista and customer. The barista clearly loses the element of their creativity when preparing a pour over with a machine but the customer too is affected by the loss of a personal contact, possible only through individually created things. Rather than celebrating each other as individuals we become consumers with tastes “dictated by mass production”¹ and people who produce only what the “machine allows”. To respond to the challenges of our contemporary society involves discovering where we each have responsibility and exercising it, no matter how small or large that responsibility seems (to us) to be.

Which is somehow resonant with the interview that one of the Kyoto based baristas at Kurasu Kyoto gave that was recently circulated by Perfect Daily Grind. Asked what was her preferred brewing method, she replied it was the V60 because of the control that the individual barista could gain over the flavour of the cup merely by tweaking some of the details of the pour. A knowledgable art rather than a technology. And it is precisely this knowledgable art that you can see carefully and excellently practised in the Singapore branch.

Kurasu Kyoto (Singapore) is at 331 North Bridge Road, Odeon Towers, #02-01

“Power and Responsibility” in “The End of the Modern World”, Romano Guardini. ISI books, (2001)


Old and new at Sarnies, Singapore

Sarnies, Telok Ayer St, CBD, Singapore

Sarnies, Singapore

It is just possible that the name ‘Sarnies‘ may suggest a speciality at this cafe in Telok Ayer St. Singapore. And the sandwiches are definitely very good (I happened to visit one lunchtime), but don’t let this deceive you, the coffee is very good too and indeed Sarnies has been listed as one of the top 10 cafes to visit when in Singapore. Sarnies operates from an old style ‘heritage’ building near the central business district in Singapore. This style of “shop-house” used to be ubiquitous in Singapore but as Singapore has developed so the tall buildings of the “CBD” now tower over these remnants of Singapore’s past. The authorities though are keen to preserve their heritage and so many of the buildings have been carefully restored so that the exteriors are fairly faithful to the original. The interior has plenty of table space for you to enjoy your coffee (and sandwich of course) and watch the goings-on around you. Complementary water is available at the bar while you wait for your coffee and sandwich to be brought over to your table.

air vent, natural air circulation, air conditioning

The old air vent system and the new air con unit inside Sarnies in Singapore

Inside, you can see how the demands of modern living have changed the architecture of the shop-house. Above the door, and along the window were a series of vertical timber railings.  These date from the construction of the house and were presumably to assist with air ventilation in a time before air-conditioning. They work because hot air rises and so by putting an opening – a vent – near the ceiling, the  hot air in the building will rise and leave the interior to be replaced by the cooler (it is never cool in Singapore) air from outside. Unfortunately, the temperature in Singapore during the day time is in the 28-33C region and so this method of cooling is not as efficient as air conditioning which is why the vents are now covered in glass. The air-conditioned interior also means that the door of Sarnies is kept closed at all times, ensuring that the air conditioning is as efficient and cool as possible (though seats are available outside should you want to sit in the heat).

coffee at Sarnies Singapore

At the end of the day, it’s all about the coffee

Air conditioning of course needs a lot of energy in order to work. The basics of air conditioning work on the same principles as those that cool your coffee: When a liquid evaporates into a gas it takes energy from its environment and thereby cools it (think about alcohol – or sweat – evaporating from your hand). The issue with air conditioners is that this is a continuous process. The liquid that is evaporated within the air-con unit cooling the room is compressed and re-condensed in the air-con unit outside the shop, in a process that consumes electricity and generates heat which is transferred to the environment outside the shop. The process uses a lot of energy (and therefore generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions), indeed one organisation in Singapore calculated that more than 60% of their energy consumption on one campus was due to air conditioning.

As cities use a lot of energy, clever design and engineering of the buildings in cities can be used to decrease the carbon dioxide emissions of cities and so help to mitigate the problems of climate change. The C40 is a group of more than 75 of the world’s largest cities that work together to find ways to use urban design to combat environmental problems. Perhaps it is in developing more energy efficient lighting systems or, in the case of the UWCSEA in Singapore, designing their new buildings so that they use air conditioning more efficiently and therefore less wastefully, both in terms of CO2 emissions and in economic terms.

As I was sitting enjoying my Sandwich and coffee in Sarnies, a customer coming into the cafe left the door open. As the hot and humid air started to blow in from outside, the woman sitting near the door closed it to keep the cold in. This small gesture, almost completely opposite to that which I experienced in winter in London last year, helped to ensure that the air conditioning unit did not have to work harder to keep the cafe cool. A small action but one that helps save energy and so the planet, even if just a little bit. If only more of us did this.

Sarnies is at 136 Telok Ayer St. Singapore.