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.

Coffee under the microscope

Inside Coffee Affair

There are many great cafés in London serving excellent coffee but inevitably a few stand out. One such café is Coffee Affair in Queenstown Road railway station which ‘inhabits’ a space that really encourages you to slow down and enjoy your coffee while just noticing the environment. An ex-ticket office that whispers its history through subtle signs on the parquet floor and in the fixings. The sort of place where you have to stop, look around and listen in order to fully appreciate it. And with a variety of great coffees on hand to sample, this is a café that is a pleasure to return to whenever I get the opportunity.

So it was that a few weeks ago, I happened to wander into Queenstown Road station and into Coffee Affair. That day, two coffees were on offer for V60s. One, an Ethiopian with hints of mango, peach and honey, the other, a Kenyan with tasting notes of blackcurrant and cassis. But there was an issue with them when they were prepared for V60s. The Ethiopian, “Gelana Abaya”, caused a considerable bloom but then tended to clog the filter cone if due care was not taken during the pour. The other, the Kenyan “Kamwangi AA”, did not degas so much in the initial bloom but instead was easier to prepare in the V60; there was not such a tendency to clog.

What could be going on?

So we had a look under the microscope at these two coffees. Each coffee was ground as if it was to be prepared in a V60 and then examined under the microscope. Was there any difference between the appearance of the Gelana compared to the Kamwangi? A first look didn’t reveal much. Magnifying both coffees at 5x, it could be said that the Kamwangi had more ‘irregular protrusions’ on the ground coffee compared to the smoother Gelana, but it was hard to see much more:

coffee under the microscope

The samples of ground coffee imaged under an optical microscope at 5x magnification. Kamwangi is on the left, Gelana on the right. “500 um” means 500 micrometers which is 0.5 mm.

So, the microscope was swapped to image the coffee in fluorescence mode. It was then that the cell structure of the coffee became clear. Here are the two coffees magnified 10x:

Fluorescence microscopy 10x, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Kamwangi, Gelana

Fluorescence microscope image of the two coffees at 10x magnification. Note the open structure in the Kamwangi and the more closed structure in the Gelana.

and at 20x

Kamwangi and Gelana coffee under the microscope

A fluorescence microscope image magnified 20x – not ‘um’ means micrometers (1/1000 of a mm), so the scale bar represents 1/10 mm.

So there is perhaps a clue in the cell structure. It seems as if the Kamwangi structure is more open, that somehow the cells in the Kamwangi break open as they are ground but the Gelana somehow keeps its cells more intact. Could this be why the Gelana blooms so much more?

Which naturally leads to a second experiment. What happens when you look at these two coffees in water under the microscope? Here the fluorescence images didn’t help as all you could see were the bubbles of gas in each coffee but the optical microscope images were of more interest.

optical microscope image in water

The two coffees compared under the microscope while in (cold) water. Magnfied 5x

‘Bits’ broke off the Kamwangi as soon as water was added but in comparison, there were far fewer bits of coffee breaking off the Gelana grains.

So what do you think has happened? If you remember our question was: when these two coffees were prepared with a V60, the Gelana bloomed a lot but then clogged in the filter (without extreme care while pouring the filter). Meanwhile the Kamwangi did not bloom so much but also did not clog the filter, what could be happening?

From the microscope images, it appears that

  1. Before adding any water, the cell structure in the Kamwangi is more open, the Gelana appears ‘closed’.
  2. When water is added, there are many more ‘bits’ that come off the Kamwangi whereas the Gelana does not show so much disintegration on the addition of water.

If pushed for a hypothesis, I wonder whether these two observations are linked. What is happening is that the cell structure in the Kamwangi is, for whatever reason, fairly fragile. So as soon as it is ground, the cells break up and a lot of the carbon dioxide is released. Consequently when water is added to it, the bits of broken cell quickly disperse through the water and it doesn’t seem to ‘bubble’ that much. In comparison, the Gelana cell structure is tougher and the cells only open up when water is added. I wonder if this means that the ground Gelana coffee will swell rather than break up and so ‘jam together’ as each grain tries to expand rather like trying to inflate many balloons in a bucket. They will push against each other and prevent water from easily percolating through the ground coffee.

Sadly, many more experiments would be required before we could see if there’s any truth in this hypothesis however that does provide a great excuse, were one needed, for many return trips to Coffee Affair. Meanwhile, what do you think? Do any of the images stand out to you and why? What do you think could be the cause of our V60 coffee mystery? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please let me know either here in the comments section (moderated and experiencing a lot of spam at the moment so please be patient), on Facebook or on Twitter.