experiments you can do with 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)