why an americano is more likely to spill than a latte

Coffee Damping

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a tea spoon

How often do you allow yourself to get bored? Or to sit in a cafe and take your time to enjoy your coffee properly, noticing its appearance, the smell ‘landscape’ of the cafe, pausing while you absorb the sounds of the cafe and playing with the feel of the coffee while you create vortices with your tea spoon?

If you regularly drink black coffee, you may have noticed how these vortices form more easily in the coffee once the crema has dispersed. Intuitively this may seem obvious to you, perhaps you wouldn’t even bother trying to form these vortices in a cappuccino, you’d know that they wouldn’t appear. The bubbles of the crema (or the milk in the cappuccino) quickly kill any vortex that forms behind the tea spoon (we’d technically call it ‘damping’ them). But even when we are aware of this, it is still surprising just how quickly the crema stops those vortices. Try forming a couple of vortices in a region of black coffee close to a region of crema. Indeed I thoroughly recommend ordering a good black coffee in a great cafe somewhere and just sitting playing with these vortices all the while noticing how their behaviour changes as the crema disperses.

latte art, flat white art

Latte art at The Corner One. Lovely to look at but not good for the vortices.

The damping caused by bubbles on the surface of a coffee is responsible for another phenomenon that you may have encountered in a cafe but, to be fair, are more likely to have noticed in a pub. Have you ever noticed that you are less likely to spill your cappuccino between the bar and your seat than you are your lovingly prepared filter coffee? Or perhaps, in the pub, you can get your pint of Guinness back to the table more easily than your cup of tea? (At least for the first pint of Guinness)

Back in 2014, a team investigated the damping properties of foam by controlling the size and number of bubbles on top of a liquid as it was vibrated (sloshed) about. They found that just five layers of bubbles on top of the liquid was enough to significantly damp the liquid movement as it vibrated from side to side. That is, five layers of bubbles suppressed the sloshing (try saying that after a couple of pints of Guinness). Much as I dislike emphasising the utility of a piece of science, this work has obvious implications for any application that requires the transportation of liquids such as the transport of oil containers. There is an obvious need to suppress the effect of liquid oil sloshing from side to side as it is transported by boat for example.

The foam on our latte or crema on our long black should indeed give us pause for thought as we sit in a cafe enjoying our coffee.