droplets on coffee

Exploring the sound of coffee

coffee at Watch House

We’re used to thinking about the aroma of coffee and how it looks, tastes, even how it feels, but what about how it sounds?

How much attention do you pay to your brewing coffee? You know the aroma, how the coffee blooms, you anticipate the taste and feel the warmth of the steam rising off the brew. But what about the sound? Admittedly this depends on your brew method, but what about the sounds as you filled the kettle or prepared a pour over brew? It turns out that the sound of dripping water was the subject of a recent paper in Scientific Reports.

Perhaps take time to watch a tap dripping into a bowl of water. Or maybe use this as an excuse to make another coffee by drip brewing. Each drop falling onto the water (or coffee) below first deforms the water’s surface then, as far as we can see, rebounds up with a splash of a returning drop or droplets. The phenomenon of what causes the characteristic sound of the drip has been investigated for over 100 years but in 1959 it was established using high speed photography that there were four key phases to any drip sound. First, the drop fell on the liquid, then a cavity formed just under the water surface and an air bubble formed just under that. Finally the water surface recoiled leading to a jet of droplets returning from the surface. It has been thought that the sound, that ‘plink’ of the dripping tap, was caused by that trapped air bubble expanding and contracting as it moved through the water under the water’s surface¹. But this has now been confirmed, along with some other interesting, coffee related, observations using ultrafast video recording (30 000 fps for most of the work, 75 000 fps for some of the extra details).

lilies on water, rain on a pond, droplets

Like the sound of falling rain? What causes the dripping sound of a tap?

The authors of this recent paper describe what must have been a fun experiment to do, dripping water into a tank below. You can see some of the videos of the droplet entering the water by scrolling down to the “supplementary information” in the paper. Two microphones (one above, one below the water surface) recorded the sound waves coming from the dripping ‘tap’ simultaneously with the video recording so as to match the timing of the sound with what was happening in the video. The microphone above the water surface largely recorded the same sound waveform as the microphone under the water with one crucial exception. When the authors lined the tank with MDF wood, the underwater sound was ‘damped’ quite quickly, in comparison the bare tank amplified the sound and so the sound wave took much longer to decay. Above the surface however, it didn’t matter whether the tank was lined or not, the sound signal remained the same. This may sound somewhat insignificant, but it means that it cannot be the sound created by the wobbly bubble itself merely propagating through the surface of the water. If this were the case, the microphone above the water surface should show the same signal as the microphone under the water’s surface. Instead the authors suggest that the oscillating bubble causes the surface of the water immediately above it to vibrate (in the bit that is depressed owing to the droplet having fallen into it) and it is this that we hear above the water surface.

science in a V60

Droplets on the surface of a brewing V60 may also form owing to a temperature difference between the dripping drops of coffee and the coffee ‘bath’ underneath.

It is a beautiful set of experiments but how can it link to coffee (apart from with the dripping)? It is in the way that it gives us the chance to experience our coffee with experiments involving more of our senses than just smell, touch and taste. Firstly, the study emphasises the connection between the drop’s diameter and speed to the sound of the drip (the best sounds are for drops between 1mm and 5mm diameter). This suggests that by changing the brewing parameters (whether you prepare your V60 in a jug or a mug or change the filter paper to a metal kone for example), you may hear a change in the sound of the drips. Do you? Secondly, it has been suggested that the sound that is formed is dependent on the temperature difference between the dripping drop and the water bath underneath. A temperature difference between drop and bath would also explain an odd phenomenon I noticed in the V60 a while back. Do you notice a difference in the sound of the brewing coffee when you prepare cold brew pour over as opposed to a standard breakfast brew? Lastly, the authors of this study found that they could suppress the sound of the plink by reducing the surface tension of the water bath that they were dripping water into. In their case they added washing up detergent to the bath. This seems an awful waste of coffee but is it possible that something intrinsic to our coffee brew could do the same thing? Oil will also change the effective surface tension of the water and different coffees (and different roast strengths) change the oil content of the brewed coffee. Have you noticed any change in the sound of the drips of the coffee depending on how dark a roast coffee you use?

It may not make ground-breaking science but it does offer us an opportunity to pay even more attention to our coffee. Does the sound of your coffee reveal the beauty of the physics at work just under its surface?

¹ Some history of the investigation into the dripping sound as well as the experiments can be found in: Phillips et al., “The sound produced by a dripping tap is driven by resonant oscillation of an entrapped air bubble”, Scientific Reports, 8, 9515 (2018)

(Im)perfect reflections on coffee

science in a V60

Have you noticed droplets like these dancing on your drip-brewed coffee?

With the recent coffees from Hundred House and Quarter Horse, there have been many opportunities to observe the coffee brewing in the V60 in the mornings. The steam rising from the filter paper, the different ways different coffees bloom and out-gas, the droplets that skim the surface of the coffee and bounce off the walls of the jug and then, of course, the many different effects with light. Watching the dancing droplets (an explanation of why they may dance is here), it is perhaps not immediately obvious that you could form a connection between these, the light reflections and an insight into something you may have noticed while passing through customs. And yet the connection is definitely there.

The connection is formed through a technique called Raman spectroscopy. Named after Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970) who discovered the Raman effect in 1928. As the ‘spectroscopy’ part of the name suggests, it is a technique that offers a way to identify different chemicals, or components, in a substance. For coffee it has been used both as a non-destructive technique to determine the kahweol content of coffee beans and hence help as a test for identifying rogue robusta in arabica beans and as a way of analysing the brewed coffee. But what is it, how does watching a brewing V60 help to understand it and why would you want to know about Raman spectroscopy while travelling through an airport?

beauty in a coffee, coffee beauty

A collection of bubbles on the side of the coffee. What happens when one of the dancing droplets collides with a group of bubbles?

Generally, it helps to begin with coffee and the link is the way in which the droplets bounce off the side of the jug. Brew a coffee and watch them (if you are a non-coffee drinker, you could try dripping hot water through a filter paper into a jug). When one of these droplets hits the wall of the V60 container, it generally bounces back with a trajectory expected for an elastic collision. Given the relative masses of the droplet and the jug, the speed of the reflected droplet is essentially unchanged (even if its direction is reversed). This is similar to what we would normally expect for light. We are used to considering light as waves but because of the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics it is equally valid to consider light as a stream of particles called photons. As the photons hit a surface and are reflected off, they recoil with the same energy that they initially had, just like the droplets in the coffee. But now look more closely at the dancing droplets. Normally they hit the walls and not each other but just occasionally, they can hit either another droplet or a group of bubbles that have formed on the coffee surface. In these cases, rather than get reflected as before, the droplets transfer some of their energy to the collection of bubbles causing them to move and to wobble. And when the droplet is reflected back, it has a noticeably slower speed (and so we could say a lower kinetic energy) than when it initially danced into its collision. Where is the analogue with light?

When we think about a coffee bean, we probably think about something that is about 1cm oval, brown and quite solid. But if we zoom in, we find that it is made up of a collection of atoms bound together in molecules or, if we are thinking about a solid like salt, in a crystal structure. These atoms act as if they are balls connected by springs and so they wobble as would any structure of masses connected by springs. This is true whether the crystal is diamond or the molecule is caffeine, kahweol, cocaine or semtex (do you see where the customs part is going to come in yet?). Different crystal structures have different atomic arrangements meaning that they are effectively connected by springs of differing strength. If you build a mental model of masses connected with springs, you can see that changing the spring strength will change the vibration energy of the structure. So if now we think about the photons hitting such a structure, while most will bounce off as we saw with the droplet hitting the V60 wall, some photons will trigger a wobble in the crystal structure and bounce off with lower energy. It is a process analogous to the droplet hitting and bouncing off the collection of bubbles on the coffee surface.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

Sun dogs are caused by a different interaction between light and crystals. Rather than the inelastic scattering of Raman spectroscopy, Sun dogs are caused by the refraction of light by hexagonal platelets of ice crystals.

When a photon of light loses energy, it is equivalent to saying that the frequency of the light has changed (which is very closely related to what Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for in 1921). So a photon that creates a crystal vibration and is scattered off with lower energy has a lower frequency (or longer wavelength) than it had when it first hit the crystal. Importantly, the energy lost by the photon is identical to the energy gained by the vibrating crystal and so by measuring the frequency change of the scattered light we have a way of determining the energy of the crystal (or molecule) vibration. As this energy depends on the way that the atoms are arranged in the crystal or molecule, measuring the frequency shift offers us a way of identifying the chemical under the laser light: kahweol or cocaine.

It is not an easy technique as you can guess from the V60 analogy. Only around one in a million photons incident on a solid will be Raman scattered. You need some pretty decent optics to detect it. Nonetheless, it is a powerful technique because no two chemical structures are the same and so it can be used to identify tiny amounts of smuggled material completely non-destructively. It becomes easier to understand how this elegant technique has become useful for many areas of our lives from customs, through to pharmaceutical development and even into understanding how fuel cells work.

Although it is stretching the analogy too far to say that you can see Raman scattering by watching the droplets on your V60, it is certainly fair to say that watching them allows you the space to think about what is happening on a more microscopic level as your bag is hand-scanned at customs. What do you see when you look closely at your brewing coffee?