Thought bubble

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain
A problematic inversion with the Aeropress. This brew method offers plenty of physics connections for those who look.

The Aeropress is not a brewing technique that creates many bubbles on the surface of a coffee. Unlike the crema of an espresso or the iridescent bubbles on top of a black coffee prepared using a cafetiere, the surface of an Aeropress coffee could be thought of as a bit, well, dull. The paper filter within the Aeropress removes many of the oils while this calm brew method generally does not create the turbulence needed to produce bubbles that cling to the side of the resultant cup. Yet it is this brew method that can provide a bubble link to climate change and coffee roasting, and to see why, we need to pay careful attention to our brew.

Although there are many techniques for brewing with the Aeropress (you could try the guide here or here), one step common to most brew guides is that you will need to rinse the paper filter in the basket before you brew. The rinsing step removes a potential paper-y taste from the filter as well as helping it to stay fixed in position (the reason for this could be the subject of another post). Importantly for this particular post though, it also traps air within the holes of the filter, which you can see in the photograph.

The bubble is trapped owing to the strong surface tension of the water dripping from the basket. You could perhaps test this by adding soap to your brewing water in order to reduce the surface tension and watching to see if the number of trapped air bubbles you produce decreases. Or perhaps there are limits to what you are prepared to do with coffee in order to see some physics. Whichever way, the fact that the bubble is there at all can lead us down several thought alleys.

Perhaps we start to think about air that is trapped within water. In a way, this air is characteristic of what is around us now: the pollutants, the oxygen level etc. Which, while it may seem an obvious statement has an immediate consequence. Air that is trapped in water that is then frozen remains as a record of the composition of the air at the exact point of time that it was trapped. So if layers of ice form trapping layers of bubbles of air, and this happens for many years, we can analyse the composition of the trapped air bubble to discover what the atmosphere was like 100, 1000 or 100 000 years ago. This offers a way of understanding how concentrations of carbon dioxide, for example, have varied over the millennia.

An example of air bubbles within the Aeropress filter. In addition to the long bubble caused by incorrect filter placement, you can see two air bubbles in the hollows of the plastic basket under the paper filter (circled with a dotted red line).

But maybe your mind stays with the coffee: what about air bubbles within a coffee bean? In order to turn the green coffee bean into the aromatic substance that we all appreciate, it needs to be roasted. Roasting coffee is a fantastic mix of science and art: using the knowledge of what happens during roasting and applying (and playing with) that knowledge to produce great tasting coffees. At its core, the roasting process involves heating the beans for a certain amount of time in order for the water to come out of the green bean, the sugars to turn in the Maillard reactions and for the various aromatics to develop chemically. The green bean also undergoes physical changes. The colour is altered, the bean expands and the internal gases (first water, then carbon dioxide) build up pressure within the bean and then crack open some of the cell structures during roasting. And while this sounds fairly simple, there are ‘arts’ involved in roasting: how long do you let the beans dry? How fast do you take the bean through the Maillard processes? Do you let the beans cool slowly or cool them really fast to stop any further chemical reactions immediately? Each of these has effects on the final flavour of the bean, some which are fairly similar across the industry, some which rely much more on the creativity and discernment of the roaster.

There are obvious analogues to materials physics and materials chemistry. In order to make the different materials that are studied, raw materials are often heated to a high temperature and left for a significant time before either being cooled slowly or suddenly, by quenching. There is the science: the temperature at which different reactions occur and the way that materials form together in order to produce grains that get larger as they are heated for longer. And then there is the art, how fast to heat, how long to leave it for, whether to cool or quench, even what gas should be used to flow over the forming compounds. Small differences in how the materials are heat treated can have large consequences on the applicability and strength of the final material, with applications from gear cogs to airplane engines.

Kamwangi and Gelana coffee under the microscope
A fluorescence microscope image magnified 20x of two types of coffee after roasting. The microstructure (including pore development) will depend on the type of coffee as well as the style of roasting.

To return to the coffee roasting, the effect of the temperature has a similar marked effect on the microstructure of the resultant bean which will have consequences for how the roast ages. For example, a study about 20 years ago showed the differences between coffee beans roasted to an equivalent level (measured by moisture loss and colour analysis of the roast) at two different temperatures. The physical properties of the final roasted beans were very different. Not only did the higher temperature (260C) roasted beans show a larger volume increase compared to the low temperature (220 ) roasted beans, the pore structures of the beans were also different. For the higher temperature roasts, larger micropores had opened up within the cell walls of the roasted coffee. These pores connected to regions deep within the bean that would otherwise be cut off from the air: trapped bubbles within the bean that, with the higher temperature roasting, now have a way of escaping to the outer surface. Indeed, one day after roasting, the authors of the study saw, under a microscope, many tiny spots of coffee oil seeping from the interior of the higher temperature roasted bean and to the surface.

This has consequences for how the bean will age after roasting and so how we as consumers will appreciate the drink. Roasting is a dark art indeed, and one that I’m grateful for the many skilful practitioners that we now have around. Roasters who help us to appreciate the flavour of our coffee, as well as the directions of thought it takes us on.

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