espresso

Notes from Berlin

What a cinnamon bun! Refinery coffee, Berlin
What a cinnamon bun! Coffee and bun at Refinery Coffee, Albrecht Strasse, Berlin

Cinnamon buns, doughnuts and plenty of coffee.

There is a very vibrant speciality coffee scene in Berlin with plenty of excellent cafes offering an interesting variety of coffees and pour overs. A city break of just a couple of days is nowhere near enough to even start to scratch the surface of the city. Coupled to that, we arrived during the Berlin coffee festival so many cafes were participating in public cupping and tasting events. So much to explore. But if you are rushing around, can you really stop and notice things?

How can you experience a place when you travel? Carl Jung pondered this very point when thinking about Rome, he wrote:

“I have travelled a great deal in my life, and I should very much have liked to go to Rome, but I felt that I was not really up to the impression the city would have made upon me…. I always wonder about people who go to Rome as they might go, for example, to Paris or to London. Certainly Rome as well as these other cities can be enjoyed aesthetically but if you are affected to the depths of your being at every step by the spirit that broods there, if a remnant of a wall here and a column there gaze upon you with a face instantly recognised, then it becomes another matter entirely.”*

We may not all have the sensitivity of Jung towards visiting a place but it can nonetheless be illuminating to reflect on the sentiment. This is particularly true of a city like Berlin where the remnants of walls are an ever present reminder of the dangers of ideologies, as well as the ease with which they can seize us.

pour over, Roststatte, Berlin
Pour over at Roststatte, spoilt for choice for coffee in Berlin.

How do you visit a cafe so that you can appreciate the space beyond the aesthetic? We visited several cafes including Brammibal’s Donuts, Common Ground, Oslo Kaffeebar, the Refinery and Roststatte. We also attempted a visit to The Barn (Mitte) but it was sadly too crowded on our visit. Each cafe revealed something unique and each was memorable for its own reasons. The lovely pour-over at Roststatte, the long black with character at the Refinery, the vegan doughnuts during a heavy rain shower at Brammibals. And yet we know how many cafes we missed (as you can see in this guide here or here).

And yet, what stood out as something to stop you in your tracks? What can you sit and dwell with as you savour your coffee? In hindsight, it is interesting that the connections at Oslo Kaffeebar were both very much connected with nature. It was not the wood lining of the cafe and the plentiful wooden furniture around the cafe but the spiders web style tiles on the table and something we saw at the window.

tiled table, Oslo Kaffeebar, Nordbahnhof, Berlin
The spider-web tiled table at Oslo Kaffeebar, near the Nordbahnhof in Berlin

The tiles on the table at the Oslo Kaffeebar were a regular array of spider’s webs. Each identifiable immediately as a web and striking for its regularity. The surprising uses of spider’s silk have featured on Bean Thinking before in a cafe that sadly no longer exists, but it was the regularity of the webs that prompted thoughts about the effect of different drugs, sadly including caffeine, on the behaviour of spiders. But it was a visitor to the outside of the cafe that struck us. A bird, silhouetted against the light, was perched on the (vertical) brick wall outside the cafe. What was it doing there? After it flew off, it was back, again in the same awkward perch but then it darted into the corner that the window made with the brick wall exterior to the cafe, could there be a nest there? The decline of bird species in our world as industrial scale farming has replaced hedgerows with monotonous fields of crops is well documented. But there is more to the bird-human interaction than that. Some bird species have adapted to the way we have traditionally built our houses, the problem being that modern building methods and renovations can threaten their ability to share our space. Other bird species have evolved to adapt to the way humans want to interact with birds with Great Tits for example apparently evolving longer beaks to make it easier for them to access the food put in bird feeders. What do these considerations reveal about evolution and our place in the world?

Oslo Kaffebar, Berlin
View from inside the Oslo Kaffeebar. To what extent does our culture influence our architecture, decoration and even our science?

On the other side of the Tiergarten, the pink tiling of Brammibal’s Donuts contrasted with the teal tiling that had been ubiquitous on the U-bahn line 5. The teal tiling somehow highlighted how even strictly utilitarian architecture nonetheless evokes an emotional response. In addition to considering how this challenges our understanding of architecture as representative purely of form, it can prompt a question: is a utilitarian philosophy consistent with an environment that allows science, (and the pursuit of knowledge for curiosity’s sake) to flourish**? (a question with repercussions for our own, consumerist and atheistic society). To what extent is our scientific development dependent on the prevalent attitudes of our culture? To be somewhat hyperbolic about it, is it possible to continue to do science, as we have traditionally understood it, in a consumerist society that demands constantly new entertainment (itself a form of consumerism)? Do we not replace ‘science’ with ‘technology’ and replace those questions that ask about our place in a world of reality and truth with questions that ask how we can better manipulate our world (where truth and reality as such no longer matter)? And what, in turn, does that do to our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe and so back to our cultural outlook?

We are then left with a couple of questions for ourselves. When travelling, can we allow the space to affect us with, as Jung says, “the spirit that broods there”, or do we take ourselves, imposing our own lens on another space? Can we open ourselves to encounter and is it not urgent, lest walls arise in our minds as well as our countries? I do not have any answers to such questions, but the cafes of Berlin, of London, and of many other places around the world would be a great place to ponder them.

*C.G. Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” Fontana Press, 1961 and reprint editions.

**The question really is, if we consider that the best thing for society is to maximise the happiness of the maximum number, this could tend to promote the sort of science that produces results, technology or devices quickly. This short-term investment in science is contrary to the ideal of funding science for the sake of knowledge and arguably against the idea of being able to investigate the world as it is as opposed to merely developing the technologies that we can use. Is this true? Does it matter?

Like clockwork at Doctor Espresso, Putney Bridge

Doctor Espresso Putney Bridge

There is a lot of physics in this photo alone, but there is even more to be seen if you visit this lovely little cafe.

“Isn’t it a thing of beauty?” So wrote Brian’s coffee spot review of the 1956 Gaggia Tipo Americana espresso machine found at the Putney Station branch of Doctor Espresso. And it is only possible to answer this question in the affirmative. There is something about a mechanical piece of equipment (particularly if it is shiny and has levers) that ignites a feeling of awe. Perhaps it is the awareness of the complexity of the tasks that, when traced through the machine, are revealed to be the result of a series of simple, but ingenious steps. Perhaps it is the feeling that it is possible for someone, one individual, to know inside out how the piece of equipment works and, if necessary, to build it. Perhaps it is because it is shiny. Nonetheless, I had been itching to go and try The Caffetteria, the Doctor Espresso café opposite Putney Bridge station for ages, since I chanced upon its review in Brian’s Coffee Spot. Trundling through the hot streets of London in a bus in this recent heatwave nearly made me reconsider and yet we ploughed on, finally arriving in this shaded spot in the mid-afternoon.

There is very little seating inside but the shade outside enabled us to take a seat by the window. A perfect location to watch people coming and going to and from Putney Bridge Station: who will pick up that 5p on the floor? Will anyone notice? There are a few more chairs and tables across the pavement next to the tree. Several cakes tempted us but we resisted, instead I enjoyed a (single) espresso, Italian style, very drinkable. There is something very relaxing about enjoying an Italian espresso in an independent (or at least very small chain) café. The café aims to “provide a tranquil environment for customers to relax and converse” and it would certainly appear to do so with odd pieces of decor and posters prompting different bits of conversation. The barista was very friendly and trusted us to enjoy our coffee outside before coming back in to pay. Perhaps this seems a small thing, but trust helps to build societies and small gestures of good, repeated, have a ripple effect on our world¹. A nice touch.

espresso Doctor Espresso Putney

The result.
A single espresso ready for enjoying.

Brian’s Coffee Spot describes the process of ‘pulling’ an espresso using this lever machine (the oldest working espresso machine in London apparently). The machine combines the beauty of the mechanical with the skill of the barista to produce a great coffee. This is not human vs machine but human working with machine to create something that others appreciate. A similar respect for the machine was expressed by the clock maker John Harrison about three centuries ago. Harrison had just made a clock that was able to keep time accurately over many weeks while at sea. His task was necessary because having a clock that accurately kept the time at the departure port  would enable a ship’s navigators to calculate their geographical position based on a comparison of this port time to the local time experienced by the ship. He was trying to solve the problem of ‘longitude’. Harrison had taken 19 years to develop his H3 clock which could keep time accurately at sea despite changes in temperature, humidity or rough conditions but within a few more years he’d produced the H4 (which can now be seen in the National Maritime Museum). Significantly smaller than the H3, Harrison said of it:

“I think I may make bold to say, that there is neither any other Mechanical or Mathematical thing in the World that is more beautiful or curious in texture than this my watch or Time-keeper for the Longitude…”²

Enjoying coffee in the company of posters

A conversation piece? The physics of buoyancy or the deceptions of marketing. You could spend a long time at Doctor Espresso thinking about these things.

Harrison lived before espresso machines were invented. Self-taught, Harrison designed and built his own clocks. How many of us would be able to do that? Although we wear watches, how many contain batteries and other components that produce a simple action (showing the time) by complex means. The opposite of what we admire in the lever operated espresso machine. Each individual element may be elegant, but as a composite it can be ugly, however aesthetically satisfying. Harrison built his first clock before he was twenty years old and almost entirely out of wood. Working on the basis of a pendulum, he ensured that the cogs did not wear down as they may be expected to do by utilising the grain of the wood and by using only fast growing oak². Why would this make a difference? Trees that grow fast will have well separated growth rings. As the ring is an area of weakness in the wood, a fast growing tree would have a lot of solid wood compared to a relatively small number of rings, thus affecting the structural properties of the cogs. Moreover Harrison’s wooden clocks did not need oiling because those bits that needed oiling were carved from a tropical hardwood that exuded its own grease. In later clocks Harrison was to overcome the problem of the varying temperature experienced at sea by inventing the bimetallic strip. Two metals of different thermal expansion coefficients placed on top of each other, this simple piece of kit is essential for all sorts of modern machinery including, probably, the espresso machine sitting beautifully at Doctor Espresso.

A warm afternoon in a café of such elegant machinery offers plenty of opportunities to ponder the world of clockwork and levers. Do we understand how having a clock would allow us to calculate our geographical position? What about latitude? How many of us could do this for ourselves? And as we check the time while finishing our espresso, how many of us can appreciate the simplicity that leads to complexity and build our own?

 

¹A bit of cod-philosophy formed by combining bits from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ with Paddington 2.

²Quoted from “Longitude”, Dava Sobel, 1995

Doctor Espresso’s Caffetteria is at 3 Station Approach, SW6 3UH