Allergy friendly Coffee review Observations Science history slow Tea

Creating an impression at 2Love Coffee House, Clapham Junction

coffee, cake menu, Clapham Junction, monmouth coffee
The menu at 2Love in Clapham Junction and some of the coffee making equipment in the window.

There is a lot of coffee paraphernalia on display in the windows at 2Love Coffee House on St John’s Road near Clapham Junction. Reusable cups, filters, moka pots, Chemex’s etc. Stepping inside, a piano greets you while the counter is on the left. The wall behind the counter is lined with jars of different sorts of tea while the coffee menu is on a blackboard close to the window. Coffee is roasted by Monmouth and is also available to purchase for brewing at home. Moreover, the number of re-usable cups on display meant that I have to admit to a touch of reusable cup envy when I saw the variety of glass cups on sale, have I used my cup enough to justify a second*? One great feature about this café was the care that they have taken to specify the allergens in their cakes on the blackboard, it is a considerate touch for people with allergies. Although we didn’t enjoy a cake on this occasion, it is great to know that I can!

There is definitely a musical feel to the café, with statues of musicians on shelves around the shop and pictures of different singers on each of the walls. Although we managed to find a table, it was rather crowded with the amount of chatter and distractions in the café initially challenging my assumption that all cafés can offer a space to contemplate and consider connections. However, this brief doubt in the idea behind Bean Thinking did not last long. The change in direction started with our discussion over an Americano and a fruit juice: can there be a justification for not eating certain meats if you are not already vegetarian/vegan and if so, what is it? This didn’t seem to go down too well with the table adjacent to us. On the wall behind our table was a metal picture of a horse drawn cart where the figures had been raised out of the picture to form a 3D image. It was reminiscent of the patterns given for stone rubbing as a child. But it was also reminiscent of something else, something that shines a light on an area of manufacturing as well as, perhaps, our conversation about the ethics of meat eating.

Not quite a mirror at 2 Love
3D Metal picture, musician statue and poster at 2Love Coffee House, who is the fairest of them all?

It concerns Chinese (or Japanese) magic mirrors. Known about for millennia (and not just in China, Aulus Gellius (c125 – approx 180 AD) wrote of them in the second century¹), they are slightly convex mirrors made of bronze. One surface appears to be an ordinary mirror but on the reverse surface, images of mythology or special Chinese characters are cast in relief. A Nature paper of 1879 describes why they were considered ‘magical’:

“If a polished surface is looked at directly, it acts as an ordinary mirror, reflecting the objects in front of it, but giving, of course, no indication whatever of the raised patterns on the back; if however a bright light be reflected by the smooth face of the mirror onto a screen, there is seen on this screen an image formed of bright lines on a dark background more or less perfectly representing the pattern on the back of the mirror, which is altogether hidden from the light”.¹

You can see photos of such mirrors and their reflections here but how would such an image be produced? Apart from magic, the first explanations for the effect focussed on it being trickery on the part of the makers of these mirrors. Perhaps the image was patterned onto the front of the mirror using more dense (or less dense) material, covered with a thin layer of lead or tin and highly polished so that you would never notice it by looking at your reflection only by shining light at it? Maybe there was other trickery involved on the part of the mirror makers to deceive us into thinking we could see through the mirror to the back. Later researchers wondered if these mirrors really existed at all as few could be found when they searched for them amongst Japanese mirror workshops. And yet a few mirrors with this magic quality were found and subject to study in the late nineteenth century.

window display 2Love
How much is that cup in the window?
Some of the reusable cups on sale at 2Love coffee house.

The results showed that the image was not formed if projected too close to the mirror but only if the screen were held some distance away from the mirror’s surface. Moreover careful optical experiments showed that the image was formed by the surface of the mirror having thicker regions that were less convex than the rest of the mirror so that these reflected the light differently². Although the image at the back of the mirror had been cast and not stamped on the back, the stresses and strains formed by the pattern on the metal somehow propagated through the (thin) mirrors and produced distortions on the surface of the mirror. Even when highly polished, these minute distortions in curvature remained causing the reflection of the ‘magic’ image under certain lighting conditions.

The theory describing the optics behind the magic mirrors was described as a ‘beautiful fact’ in a fairly recent mathematical description. But exactly how the stress of the pattern at the back gets transferred to the surface of the mirror remains to be understood³. Nonetheless, the fact that imperfections on one side of a material can be revealed by the projected reflections from the surface of the other, a process known as “Makyoh imaging”, is now used to check the integrity of semiconductor wafers before they are used in the manufacturing of devices. A piece of physics based neither on magic, nor on trickery, that is useful for our computer based lifestyles.

When faced with something that seemed improbable, it is interesting that our first explanations were based on magic, deceit on the part of the one who made it or distrust of the phenomenon altogether. It was only by carefully studying something that was too easily dismissed that the beautiful physics and industrial relevance of the property was revealed. For me this has pertinence to the question of our own investigation into what we think about the world. Do we place too much weight in our judgement of what we do not understand merely based on our own experience of how things are? Do we need to look more carefully at what we thought we knew? Great pondering points for a visit to a café and confirmation that, provided you have good coffee and a nice chair to sit on, contemplation directions can be found no matter how popular the venue.

2Love coffee is at 89 St John’s Road, Clapham Junction, SW11 1QY

¹ “The Mirror of Japan and its Magic Quality” Nature, April 10 1879, p 559

² “The Magic Mirror of Japan, Part 1”, WE Ayrton and John Perry, Proc. Royal. Soc, 28, 127 (1878-79)

³ “Oriental Magic Mirrors and the Laplacian Image”, MV Berry, Euro. J. Phys. 27, 109 (2006)

*Although there are differences depending on what you take into account, lifecycle analysis done here, here and here suggest a break-even point of disposable to reusable cups from 15 to 100 re-uses. However, if you consider that part of the solution to our environmental problems involves breaking the consumerist mindset then perhaps, if it ain’t broke, no need to replace it.


Coffee review Observations slow Tea

Hundred House: Wonder what they are?

Dog and Hat, Dog & Hat, Hundred House, Quarterhouse coffee
Look what arrived! The package from Dog & Hat with the distinguished logo.

What would happen if, rather than five minutes taken noticing the surroundings of a café, you were to look closely at the coffee you brewed in the morning? Different roasters, different coffees, an opportunity to notice something new in each brew. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago a package arrived in the post from the coffee subscription site “Dog and Hat“. Together with a note (in answer to a question I had sent them) ‘Recycled box, paper, mail bag’, came two coffees. An Ethiopian honey processed coffee from Hundred House and a Mexican washed coffee from Coatepec via Quarter Horse coffee.

Each time I moved the bag from Hundred House, a lovely aroma was released. So I moved it around quite a lot. While brewing a V60 with it, the morning light poured through the window producing beautiful lensing effects through the bubbles on the coffee surface and reflections from the coffee itself. The brewed coffee had such a sweet, fruity aroma reminding me of cherries that gave way to plums on tasting. What I took as toffee seemed to be described on the tasting notes as “dates” or “molasses”. Close enough I think. A lovely coffee to enjoy slowly.

Hundred House coffee
The Hundred House coffee bag. With that aroma, indeed how I wonder what you are.

Printed onto the bag was a star with extra lines coming out of it, suggestive of a twinkling star at night. Although each star is massive, they are all at such a great distance from us that they appear to us as point sources of light. And since all light gets refracted when it goes from one medium to another (think about the appearance of that paper straw in a glass of water) the star will appear to twinkle from our position on the Earth below our turbulent atmosphere. Although on a clear night we may not notice it directly, regions of relative hot and cool air in the atmosphere are constantly moving. Layers of air move over each other creating waves much like you see on the seashore and it is this turbulent environment that refracts the light from the stars in such a shimmering way. We can see a similar effect in tea (though not so easily in coffee*): When we pour hot tea into a cold cup, the convection in the cup leads to there being areas of hotter and cooler tea. The refractive index of water is temperature dependent and so the light incident on the tea gets refracted (bent) by different amounts depending on whether it encounters a cool region or a warm region. This leads to the lines of light that we see dancing on the bottom of the cup¹.

KH instability, Kelvin Helmholtz instability
Not a great example of a Kelvin Helmholtz instability but it gives the general idea. This one was quickly snapped from a moving car, I’m on the lookout for a better example.

Although atmospheric turbulence is inferred by the twinkling of stars, a beautiful visualisation of that turbulence can be seen in the form of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. Named after Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, this instability manifests as a string of waves on a cloud. It occurs when a fast moving layer of air flows over a slower moving one. The phenomenon is fleeting. If you are lucky enough to see it, the pattern manifests only for a very short time. They are definitely worth watching out for.

Depictions of atmospheric turbulence can also be seen in some paintings. It is said that Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of turbulence in his painting “Starry Night” is extraordinarily accurate. Certainly it is striking that the turbulence depicted by van Gogh does look like the turbulence in a coffee cup. However apparently it goes much deeper than this. In a numerical analysis of the turbulent patterns in a few van Gogh paintings, researchers showed that van Gogh’s depiction was very close to the mathematical (Kolmogorov) description of turbulent flow.

Coffee, Van Gogh
Van Gogh in a coffee cup. Reminiscent of his painting “Starry Night”, there are remarkable mathematical similarities between what van Gogh depicted and real turbulent events.

On their website, Hundred House discuss their aim of being a “collective space, where conversation, art and industry meet, over a cup of coffee”. Pouring a coffee, and watching the turbulence in the cup, perhaps pause a while to consider these points of connection and maybe add a bit of science to the mix. This week if you are in the Northern hemisphere, the Perseid meteor shower offers a particularly great time to reflect on turbulence in the atmosphere and the twinkling of the stars. If you locate the “W” of Cassiopeia (currently in the north east viewed from London) and watch, slightly underneath it towards Perseus, you should see a few meteors of the Perseid meteor shower (perhaps 60-70 per hour during the peak of 11th-13th August). While watching for the shooting stars, it is worth looking at those that twinkle. Which twinkle more, the stars of Cassiopeia or the stars toward the horizon? Why do you think this is?

Whether you watch the stars or just prepare your coffee, take the time. Enjoy your brew.

You can find out more about the coffee subscriptions at Dog and Hat coffee, here and more about Hundred House coffee, here. Do get in touch (email, Twitter, Facebook or comments) if you notice anything you want to share.


*We don’t see this so often in coffee because coffee, generally, absorbs more light than tea and so it is harder to see the bottom of the cup.

¹Another effect that can lead to these patterns in swimming pools and similar large bodies of water is caused by waves on the surface of the water. Where waves form on the surface of the pool, the curved surface acts as a lens focussing the light to the floor of the pond. As the waves move on the surface, the pattern on the pool floor will change similarly to that in the tea cup.

Home experiments Observations slow Tea

A coffee balancing act

Coffee Corona
Sometimes you can infer the existence of a thin (white) mist over your coffee by the corona pattern around reflected light fittings.

Clouds of steam hover just above your brew, dancing on the surface in sharp, almost violent, sudden movements. You can see it almost every time you drink a long black, cup of tea or even a glass of hot water. But what on earth is going on?

Back in 2015, a paper by Umeki and others showed that these dancing white mists were levitating water droplets, a common manifestation of something that had been noticed in lab experiments a few years earlier. Hundreds of water droplets, each about 10 μm diameter (the size of the smallest grains in an espresso grind) somehow just hover above the coffee surface. You can read more about that study here. Yet there remain questions. How do the water droplets levitate? What causes those violent movements in the cloud? Can contemplating your coffee help to understand these questions?

To explore what is happening with the white mists, we need to view them in an environment that we can control so as to change one or other of the parameters in the ‘coffee’ and see what happens to the mists. And this is what Alexander Fedorets and co-workers have been doing for a few years now (even before the work of Umeki). What Fedorets has noticed is that when you heat a small area (about 1mm²) of a thin layer of liquid, it is not just possible to create these white mists, you can see the droplets levitating and they form hexagonal patterns of droplets. This is quite astonishing because whereas we are used to solids forming crystals (think of water and snowflakes for example), a formation of liquid droplets in a “self-organised” pattern is an unusual phenomenon.

floating, bouncing drops
You can stabilise much larger droplets of water (up to a couple of mm diameter) by vibrating the water surface. This is a very different phenomenon but is also an interesting effect you can create in your coffee.

Then we can ask, what is it that causes these droplets of water to levitate above the surface? According to a recent paper of Fedorets, the answer is indeed as simple (in the first approximation) as the fact that these droplets are in a delicate balance between being pulled into the coffee by gravity and pushed upwards by a stream of evaporating water molecules. This balance suggests that we can do a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation to estimate the size of the droplets and also to understand what happens when the coffee cools down. We start by thinking about the gravitational pull on the droplet, the force on that is just F↓ = mg (where g is the gravitational acceleration and m is the mass of the droplet) so, if we write this in terms of the density of water, ρ, and the radius, r, of the droplet:

F↓ = ρ (4/3)πr³.g

Similarly, we know how to calculate the upwards force on a particle created by a flow of liquid (steam). It is the same expression as Jean Perrin used to understand the layering of water colour paint in a droplet of water (which is the same as the layering of coffee in a Turkish coffee) and so proved experimentally Einstein and Langevin’s theories of Brownian Motion (which you can read about here). If the steam has a velocity U and the dynamic viscosity of the steam is given by μ, the upwards force given by the steam is:

F↑ = 6πμUr

For the droplet to ‘balance’ (or levitate) above the surface, F↓ = F↑ so with a bit of re-arrangement we get the radius of the droplet as given by:

r = √[9μU/(2ρg)]

Plugging in sensible numbers for μ (2×10^-5 kg/ms) and U (0.1 m/s), and using the density of water (10³ kg/m³) and g = 9.8 m/s² gives a radius for the droplet of 17 μm which fits very well with what is observed.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds
The white mists often seem to vanish as if they were sustained by Rayleigh Benard cells in the coffee. Rayleigh Benard cells can also be found in the clouds in the sky, in fact, anywhere where there is convection.
Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

But does the expression tell us anything else? Well, the radius is proportional to U; the velocity of the steam. So if you increase the temperature, you should increase the radius of the levitating droplets. This is exactly what is seen. Also, as the temperature of your coffee drops and there is less steam coming off the surface, it will become harder to stabilise these white mists; the mists will disappear as the coffee cools. This is something you can test for yourself: what is the optimum temperature at which to see the white mists (and drink your coffee)?

But the study by Fedorets showed something else. Something quite intriguing and perhaps relevant to your experience. Fedorets had stabilised the droplets on the surface by using an infra red laser and held them into a fixed area by only heating a small region of the liquid. In that sense the study is quite far from our physical experience with a coffee. But what Fedorets noticed was that these stabilised droplets grew with time. As the droplets grew, the bottom of the droplet got closer and closer to the liquid surface until, suddenly, the droplet collapsed into the liquid. This collapse caused a capillary wave on the water surface which is a small wave regulated by the surface tension of the water. And this wave then caused the surrounding droplets to collapse into the liquid interior. Because this happened very quickly (the wave travels at about 1m/s which is equivalent to a slow stroll at 3.6km/h), to us, looking at our coffee, it would appear that a violent storm has momentarily erupted over the surface of the white mists.

As the wavelength of a capillary wave is determined by the surface tension of the liquid, this suggests that if you change the surface tension of the coffee you may change the speed or perhaps the appearance of the collapse of these white mists. You can change the surface tension of your coffee by adding either soap or alcohol to your long black. Umeki did add a surfactant (to reduce the surface tension) and didn’t notice a significant difference to the speed of the wave but maybe other factors (such as temperature) were dominant in that experiment. It certainly seems a good excuse to investigate. Let me know if you experiment with your coffee and if the white mists move faster or slower in your Irish coffee compared with a morning V60, you may want to film the results if you intend to drink the coffee afterwards.

The work of Fedorets and of Umeki were both published under ‘open-access’ meaning that anyone can read them (without paying). You can read Umeki’s study here and Fedoret’s study here.

General Observations Science history Sustainability/environmental Tea

Why politicians should drink loose leaf tea

Coffee Corona
Notice the rainbow pattern around the reflected light spot?
The universe is in a cup of coffee but to understand rising sea levels, it’s helpful to look at tea.

The universe is in a glass of wine. So said Richard Feynman. It has been the focus of this website to concentrate instead on the universe in a cup of coffee, partly because it is much easier to contemplate a coffee over breakfast. However there are times when contemplating a cup of tea may be far more illuminating. Such was the case last week: if only a politician had paused for a cup of tea before commenting on rising sea levels.

There are many reasons to drink loose leaf tea rather than tea made with a bag. Some would argue that the taste is significantly improved. Others, that many tea bags contain plastic and so, if you are trying to reduce your reliance on single-use plastic, loose leaf tea is preferable. Until last week though, it had not occurred to me that brewing a cup of tea with a mesh ball tea infuser (or a similar strainer) was a great way to understand the magnitude of our problem with rising sea levels. If a stone were to enter a pond, the pond-level would rise; if a spherical tea strainer (full of loose leaf tea) were to be placed in a cup, the soon-to-be-tea level would rise.

Clearly, because we know our physics, we would not place a strainer of tea into an existing cup of hot water as we know the brewing process relies on diffusion and turbulence, not just diffusion alone. So what we more commonly observe in the cup is actually a tea-level fall as we remove the straining ball. Fortunately, we can calculate the tea level decrease, h:

A schematic of the tea brewing process

My cylindrical tea mug has a radius (d) of 3.5cm. The radius (r) of the mesh ball is 2cm. We’ll assume that the tea leaves completely expand filling the mesh ball so that the ball becomes a non-porous sphere. Clearly this bit is not completely valid and would anyway create a poor cup of tea, but it represents a worst-case scenario and so is good as a first approximation.

Volume of water displaced = volume of mesh ball

πd²h = (4/3)πr³

A bit of re-arrangement means that the height of the tea displaced is given by

h = 4r³/(3d²)

h = 0.87 cm

This answer seems quite high but we have to remember that the mesh ball is not completely filled with tea and so the volume that it occupies is not quite that of the sphere. Moreover, when I check this answer experimentally by making a cup of tea, the value is not unreasonable. Removing the mesh-ball tea strainer does indeed lead to a significant (several mm) reduction in tea level.

Earth from space, South America, coffee
Assuming we are truly interested in discovering more about our common home, we can gain a lot through contemplating our tea.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

What does this have to do with politicians? Last week a congressman from Alabama suggested that the observed rising sea levels could be connected with the deposition of silt onto the sea bed from rivers and the erosion of cliffs such as the White Cliffs of Dover. If only he had first contemplated his tea. Using a “back of the envelope” calculation similar to that above, it is possible to check whether this assertion is reasonable. As the surface area of the oceans is known and you can estimate a worst-case value for the volume of the White Cliffs falling into the sea, you can calculate the approximate effect on sea levels (as a clue, in order to have a significant effect, you have to assume that the volume of the White Cliffs is roughly equal to the entire island of Great Britain).

Mr Brooks comments however do have another, slightly more tenuous, connection with coffee. His initial suggestion was that it was the silt from rivers that was responsible for the deposition of material onto the sea bed that was in turn causing the sea level to rise. About 450 years ago, a somewhat similar question was being asked about the water cycle. Could the amount of water in the rivers and springs etc, be accounted for by the amount of rain that fell on the ground? And, a related question, could the amount of rain be explained by the amount of evaporation from the sea?

The initial idea that the answer to both of those questions was “yes” and that together they formed the concept of the “water cycle” was in part due to Bernard Palissy. Palissy is now known for his pottery rather than his science but he is the author of a quote that is very appropriate for this case:

“I have had no other book than the heavens and the earth, which are known to all men, and given to all men to be known and read.”

Reflections on a cup of tea.

Attempts to quantify the problem and see if the idea of the water cycle was ‘reasonable’ were made by Pierre Perrault (1608-80) in Paris and Edmond Halley (1656-1742) in the UK. Perrault conducted a detailed experiment where he measured the rain fall over several years in order to show that the amount of rain could account for the volume of water in the Seine. Halley on the other hand, measured the amount of evaporation from a pan of heated water and used this value to estimate the evaporation rate from the Mediterranean Sea. He then estimated the volume of water flowing into that sea from a comparison to the flow of the water in the Thames at Kingston. Together (but separately) Perrault and Halley established that there was enough water that evaporated to form rain and that this rain then re-supplied the rivers. Both sets of calculations required, in the first place, back of the envelope type calculations, as we did above for the tea-levels, to establish if the hypotheses were reasonable.

If you missed the coffee connection, and it was perhaps quite easy to do so, the question that Halley studied concerned the rate of evaporation as a function of the water’s temperature. This is something that is well known to coffee drinkers. Secondly however, one of Halley’s experiments about the evaporating water was actually performed at a meeting of the Royal Society. It is known that after such meetings, the gathered scientists would frequently adjourn to a coffee house (which may have been the Grecian or, possibly more likely, Garraways). As they enjoyed their coffee would they have discussed Halley’s latest results and contemplated their brew as they did so?

What this shows is that sometimes it is productive to contemplate your coffee or think about your tea. Notice what you observe, see if you can calculate the size of the effect, consider if your ideas about the world are consistent with your observations of it. But in all of it, do pause to slow down and enjoy your tea (or coffee).

Home experiments Observations slow Sustainability/environmental Tea

Tales from the worm bin

the cup before the worm bin
How it all began.
“Completely compostable”
But how compostable is it?

It is hard to believe but it was one year ago this week that the composting experiment that became #willitcompost started. The idea was to test just how “compostable” a coffee cup described as “completely compostable” really was. The problem is that “compostable” has a legal definition but it is not one that you or I may immediately recognise. Legally for a take-away coffee cup to be described as compostable it has to completely disappear within 6 months in an industrial composting facility. Industrial composting is quite different from home composting. In the former, the temperature is kept at (58±2)ºC while in my composting worm bin, it can get very cold indeed.

As has been written about elsewhere, in the absence of better industrial composting facilities, there is very little virtue involved by swapping a disposable cup for a compostable one, to combat the problem of waste it would be far better to remember your re-usable. However, what if you had a composting bin at home? How long would it take the cup to compost? And even, would it compost?

So every week for the past 52 weeks, I have posted a photo of the cup, composting away, in the worm bin. It seems clear that although it will eventually compost, more than 52 weeks is a long time to wait and not practical if you are drinking multiple take-away coffees.

51 weeks later, the lining and part of the rim of the cup are still in the worm bin. Clearly the worms have better things to eat.

In the meanwhile, other questions have been raised. What about other coffee packaging such as the bags for roasted coffee beans? What about the compostable “glasses”? Can anything be done to speed up the composting of the cup?

Last month, the opportunity came to start a new experiment testing these questions. A compostable coffee roasting bag from Amoret Coffee (which was reviewed on Bean Thinking here) was placed in the second shelf of the worm bin together with a cup, a compostable “glass” and a section of food packaging. The cup and the ‘glass’ were cut in half before being placed in the worm bin. One half of each was left as it was but the other half was soaked in (initially boiling) water for 12 hours. The idea of this was that part of the problem that has slowed the composting of the original cup was the lining that is designed to hold hot liquids without leaking. If we could somehow weaken that lining before placing it in the worm bin, perhaps the composting process would be accelerated?

A roasted coffee bag, a cup (split in two, see main text), a compostable glass and some food packaging, but will they compost?

Starting in late March provides the best chance of a quick composting process due to a particular aspect of worm behaviour. Although the composting worms will continue to eat the waste put into the composting bin throughout the winter, they do slow down quite a lot. If you have a worm bin, you may notice that the amount of waste that you can put into the bin decreases during the winter months. On the other hand, as the weather improves, the worms seem to eat everything very quickly so, to provide the best conditions for composting, the weather has to be reliably warm (or at least, not freezing).

Rather than once a week, updates will be approximately once per month both on social media and in the Bean Thinking newsletter. So keep your eyes on #talesfromthewormbin on twitter or subscribe to the newsletter. Do we really take our environmental responsibility seriously by using compostable packaging or, ultimately, is a more radical approach to waste, single use packaging and consumerism necessary?

Coffee review Observations Science history slow Tea

Pushing it at Lever and Bloom, Bloomsbury

Lever Bloom coffee
Lever and Bloom under a blue sky.

Does a take-away need to be rushed? A coffee so quick that there is ‘not enough time to prepare a flat white’? Are we always so preoccupied with the distractions of our day that we consume our coffee merely for the pleasant caffeine kick that it provides?

Lever and Bloom in Bloomsbury is a great example of why this does not have to be, indeed should not be the case. Since 2015, Lever and Bloom have been operating out of a cart on Byng Place close to UCL and a number of other research institutes. The character of the surroundings really does affect the space and both times I have been to Lever and Bloom I have either met interesting people in the queue or overheard snippets of intriguing conversation about history I know nothing about.

Coffee Bloomsbury reusable coffee cup
Long black in a keep-cup and telephone box in Byng Place.

It is easy to spot the coffee cart in the corner. Firstly, it is bright red and quite eye catching but secondly because of the queue forming in front of it. Don’t be put off though, the queue moves very quickly so you won’t wait long even if you are in a rush. Queueing however does give you an opportunity to peer into the cart. Space is used extremely efficiently. with each piece of equipment  apparently having its own perfect home. It reminded me of a childhood game of trying to fit in as many objects as possible into a matchbox. A cabinet on the table in front of the cart displays cakes including cinnamon rolls (sadly sold out by the time I arrived in the afternoon). It was also nice to see the number of people ahead of me in the queue who were using re-usable cups.

The lever of the name refers to the (Izzo Pompei) lever espresso machine that is used on the cart. It was fascinating to watch the ground beans being carefully tamped and the lever being pulled to prepare the espresso. Although there is some debate as to the optimum water pressure needed for preparing an espresso, the standard pressure is 9 Bar; water is pushed through the tamped grinds at nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Watching these espressos being prepared reminded me of preparing ceramic samples of an interesting magnetic material a few years ago. We were interested in the electrical properties of a class of materials called manganites. To prepare the materials for measurement we first had to grind the pre-cursor powders (but with a pestle and mortar, no burr grinders) and then, after a couple of further preparatory steps, press them into a pellet ready for firing in the oven. The machine used for pressing the pellets had a lever, not dissimilar to that on the espresso machines and yet, the pressure that we used for the pellets was roughly 1000 Bar. This high pressure was needed so that dense pellets of manganite material would be formed when we heated it in the oven (typically at 1200 ºC). Just as a good espresso depends on the pressure and then the temperature and time of extraction, so the properties of the pellet would be affected by the pressure and then temperature and time of firing in the oven.

Portland Stone fossils
Fossils in Portland Stone. It is astonishing what is revealed when you slow down and notice the buildings around you.

Similar effects affect the rocks of the earth, something that is particularly visible in the area around Lever and Bloom. A geological walking tour around Byng Place, Tottenham Court Road and towards the British Museum illustrates this particularly well. Behind Lever and Bloom, the church of Christ the King is built from Bath Stone. An oolitic limestone, this type of rock is formed of compressed sand and bits of shell. Much as the manganite samples of my study before they were fired in the oven but of a more interesting colour. Heading towards Gower St and the impressive UCL building is made of Portland Stone. Another limestone, this building material is a goldmine for urban fossil explorers. Continuing the walk, on Tottenham Court Road, the Mortimer Arms pub is fronted by quartzite while Swedish Green Marble adorns 90 Tottenham Court Road. Quartzite and Marble are both types of metamorphic rock, formed by pressing together different precursor materials at high pressure and temperature. Other types of marble can be seen on the tour, suggesting the influence of pressure and temperature of formation on the rock structure as well as the type of precursor rock.

It would seem that such a walking tour is perfectly timed for a longer style of coffee, perhaps a latte (in a re-usable cup of course) from such a centrally located place as Lever and Bloom. And of course, assuming you are using a re-usable, there is even more to ponder. The pressure and temperature during the manufacture of the re-usable cup would have affected the properties of the cup (or in my case, glass).

Let me know if you spot any interesting rocks or fossils during your time at Lever and Bloom but whatever you do, I hope that you can enjoy your coffee and then slow down to enjoy it a bit more.

Lever and Bloom is at Byng Place, WC1E 7JJ

Coffee review General slow Sustainability/environmental Tea

Coffee and a horse box at Blue Tin, Oxfordshire

coffee Nuffield Oxfordshire Blue Tin
The cafe is in here. The new farm shop at Blue Tin.

Blue Tin is not an easy café to find, one that you can wander into just off the street. In fact, although it serves coffee and cake, Blue Tin is not really a café at all but a friendly place for a drink attached to a farm shop. Open to walkers and passing cyclists, horse riders and drivers, Blue Tin seems to be almost in the middle of nowhere. Approximately 4km by road from Nuffield, Blue Tin can be found just off a single lane country road. You will know when you actually arrive at the farm because of the sign and the box advertising fresh eggs (complete with honesty box for when the shop is closed).

We first came across Blue Tin (when it was a shop in a shed rather than a shop/café in a building) while walking in the area. There are some good walks in the area which can be very pretty when the bluebells are out and so it is well worth combining a visit to the café with a walk in the Oxfordshire countryside. Despite only opening in December 2017, the café associated with Blue Tin has put a lot of effort into ensuring that their coffee is ethically sourced, great tasting and locally roasted. The coffee is roasted by Horsebox Coffee and is of course also available to purchase in the shop. The espresso based drinks use the Dark Horse espresso blend (though I wasn’t sure whether this was occasionally rotated when the seasonal espresso is available). We had an Americano and a latte. The Americano indeed had the chocolate notes described on the coffee bag, while the milk of the latte really complemented the espresso base. Cakes are also available though we didn’t try on this occasion.

Provenance Information Blue Tin, old board, no coffee info
On the wall of the cafe is a schematic showing where each product sold in the shop originates. Seen here is the earlier version that does not include the coffee (roasted within 5 miles). Everything is local and the meat is particularly local having been brought up in the farm next to the shop.

There is plenty of space to sit down inside and contemplate the shop while enjoying your coffee in this welcoming environment. The arrangement also gives you time to consider the farm and space for your mind to wander. One place my mind was wandering that day was to the importance of our beliefs in our decision making, even while they are informed by science.

For example, it is often said that we could significantly help climate change by becoming vegetarian or including one meat free day per week in our diet. In a 2013 paper, the authors calculated the emissions associated with farming, producing, packaging and storing 66 categories of food item that were sold in a (modelled) medium sized supermarket. In order to calculate this various assumptions about the produce had to be made¹.

To summarise the paper (though it is well worth taking the time to read it), the study suggested that avoiding meat altogether could reduce our individual carbon footprint due to food by 35%. However even introducing a meat free day (combined with a switch to poultry rather than beef and significant reduction in the amount of food we waste/packaging used) could introduce a reduction of 26%.

Horsebox coffee Oxfordshire
Americano, Latte and shop. The coffee-space at Blue Tin farm shop, Oxfordshire

Does the science therefore “say” that we should all go vegetarian? It is worth looking more closely at the paper and considering our own belief systems. In the report, beef had a total CO2 equivalent emissions of 25.13 Kg per kg of food¹. One suggestion of the authors was to swap beef for poultry. Poultry has a total emissions of 4.05 Kg CO2 equivalent per Kg. But looking through the table of calculated emissions for each food type, “spirits and liqueurs” had a total emissions of 3.16 Kg CO2e per Kg. Perhaps (hopefully) you could say you would take a long time to drink a kg of spirits, but even wine has 2.41 Kg CO2e per Kg. As a rough estimate, 1 bottle of wine (750 ml) is 3/4 Kg, so the bottle of wine with dinner is contributing roughly equivalently to the shared roast chicken. There are nutritional arguments for eating meat. Can we say the same of drinking wine? What of coffee? (not included in the table I’m relieved to say!)

The study shows the quantity of emissions associated with each type of food stuff. It does not show us how to act. Each decision we make (eliminate meat/go teetotal/all things in moderation) is based on what we believe about the world. Even the idea that it would be a good thing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to try to limit climate change is a moral one, not a scientific one. These decisions depend on what we think is ‘good’, what is ‘bad’, what life is about. In short it depends on our beliefs about the world and our place in it rather than purely the facts. These are philosophical, or dare I say it, even religious questions. Science can inform us of the damage that we are doing but it cannot help us to decide whether that matters, nor even if it does matter, what we should do about it.

Interior of Blue Tin with flower
You won’t need the sugar. Another view of the cafe at Blue Tin.

Whether we decide to buy better quality² meat less frequently, go vegan or even do nothing are not decisions that we are making entirely based on the science. Although informed by the science they are nonetheless based also on our existing beliefs about the way the world is and the way the world should be. We may decide for example that, while we should reduce our consumption of “cheap” beef/imported lamb, we should take care to buy more expensive meat from somewhere that takes care of their animals throughout the farming (and slaughtering) process but eat it less often. Depending on the rest of our diet, this could similarly reduce our food-related greenhouse gas emissions (if for example we mostly ate vegetarian with occasional meat consumption). We may similarly decide that eating meat is intrinsically wrong and so go entirely vegetarian.

These are choices we make, informed by the science but based on our ideas of morality. They are not easy choices nor are they choices we will necessarily agree with each other about. To make these choices requires time set aside to think about what matters to us, about what we believe in. And this means that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religious belief any more than there is a conflict between science and the decisions we make in general. We need science to inform our beliefs but we need also to recognise the role of our beliefs (conscious or subconscious) in our decision making.

In short, we need to slow down, pause and really think about things. And where better to do so than in quiet and comfortable places with good coffee (and cake) such as Blue Tin?


¹Interestingly, the authors assumed that for beef, the effective emissions were increased owing to deforestation and land clearance that is associated with beef production in some places. If this is not accounted for, the effective emissions from beef are still calculated to dwarf much of the other food stuffs but not by quite so much. The footprint would therefore be less for beef raised on an existing local form, slaughtered and purchased locally. Similarly, the ‘vegetarian’ diet that was modelled by the authors contained dairy (with similarly high emissions as beef).

²Again ‘quality’ is a subjective term that cannot be easily ‘scientifically’ quantified, instead it is argued based on what we believe ‘good’ means. Do I mean that the animal had healthy conditions during life? Was well cared for? That it tastes good? That I could speak to the people who farmed the animals? I’ve left it deliberately slightly ambiguous here.

Blue Tin Produce is at Garsons Farm, Ipsden, OX10 6QU

Coffee review General Observations Science history Tea

Time standing still at VCR, Kuala Lumpur

VCR chalkboard
A trip down memory lane via a new cafe. VCR in Bangsar, KL

One of the first science-based talks I gave was about how VCR tapes worked. Depending on how you viewed it (and whether you had to listen), this was either an achievement given that I was at school and didn’t really understand magnetism nor magnetoresistive devices, or a thing to be suffered through (for much the same reasons). So when I learned that a new café called VCR had opened in Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur, it prompted a series of fond (and a few embarrassing) memories.

Moving on, it is clear that this second branch of VCR (the first is in Pudu, in the main part of KL), aims to provoke such memories of times past. From the name of the wifi to the pulleys behind the counter and the wooden screen at the back of the café, various details around the café pull your memory in different directions. However the coffee is very much in the present. With three types of coffee available to try as a pour over as well as the standard espresso based drinks, this café has a lot to offer. The coffee is roasted by VCR themselves in their Pudu branch. There is also an extensive food menu with an interesting Chawan mushi as well as an intricate avocado toast (topped with pomegranate seeds, toasted quinoa and feta).

coffee at VCR Bangsar
Coffee and pour over jug. But is the number 68 or 89?

The friendly baristas were happy to advise on which coffee to match with which brewing device (though there seemed a marked preference for V60s on the days I visited). In total I tried 4 pour-overs, one with the Kalita Wave and the others by V60. These coffees were all excellent but very different. A couple were fruity, one was sweet and full bodied, one reminded me a bit of the local fruit durian, not I hasten to add because of its taste, but because the aroma from the cup was so different from the flavour of the drink. It was a great privilege to be able to try these different coffees consecutively and to really experience the variety of flavours in coffee. Great care was taken while making the pour over before it was brought over to the table, together with a jug of water, it also seemed to me that the baristas kept a discreet eye on me afterwards to ensure I enjoyed the coffee. So it was a good experience to have had the opportunity both to enjoy one of those pour overs and to observe the people and the surroundings of VCR when I had to wait for 1 hour for someone with no phone and no book. If you get the opportunity to do this I would very much recommend it. Find a comfortable café, order a coffee and then sit, without distractions, and watch what your mind notices and where it wanders for an hour.

An obvious place for a mind to wander would be to the mechanism of tape recording (and why mini-disks are the superior recording medium for the elegance of the physics involved). However, in an hour a mind wanders far further than the name. Supporting the cakes (and a display case for the 2nd place award of the brewers cup), was a table with a concertina type decoration around its edge. Was this a nod to the Kalita Wave brewing device? This is a significant difference between the V60 and the Kalita Wave: the ridges (or wave pattern) on the filter of the latter. How does coffee flow past these ridges? Does this difference in flow dynamics make a difference to the taste of the coffee?

variables grind size, pour rate, pour vorticity
It seems that there would be a lot of physics to observe in the fluid flow in a Kalita Wave filter.

A few weeks previously a friend had made a (lovely) coffee with her Kalita Wave. It was interesting to note the different dose of coffee she used and the way the grinds built up in the ridges (compared with my ‘normal’ V60). Why do the grinds end up in the ridges? Why is there a layer of dust on the blades of a fan? Why do some corners of a building collect more dust or leaves than others? Are these questions related and does it change the flavour of the coffee in the Kalita?

In fact, there are many subtleties in understanding how fluids move around solid objects. One of these is that at the interface of the fluid with the solid, the fluid does not flow at all, there is a stationary layer. Known as a boundary layer or Prandtl boundary layer (after the person who first suggested their existence, Ludwig Prandtl), realising these layers existed revolutionised the field of aerodynamics. The problem had been how to model the drag experienced by a solid object in a fluid flow. Although perhaps only of academic interest in terms of the flow of coffee around a Kalita filter or a spoon, by the end of the nineteenth century and particularly, with the invention of airplanes, how to calculate fluid (i.e air) flow around a solid (i.e. wing) object became very important for practical reasons.

vortices, turbulence, coffee cup physics, coffee cup science
Another cool consequence of boundary layers:
Vortices created at the walls of a mug when the whole cup of coffee is placed on a rotating object (such as a record player).

Prandtl introduced the concept of a boundary layer in 1904. The idea allowed physicists to treat the main body of the moving fluid separately to the layer, very close to the solid, that was dominated by friction with the solid. This meant that the Navier-Stokes equations (that are used to describe fluid flow and ordinarily do not have an analytical solution) are simplified for this boundary layer and can be quantitatively solved. Although simple, by the 1920s Prandtl’s layer (and consequently the solvable equations) were being used to quantitatively predict the skin friction drag produced by airplanes and airships.

The boundary layer allows us to understand how vortices form behind cylinders or around the corners of buildings. I suspect a mix of the boundary layer, turbulence caused by the coffee going over many of the ridges and the brick like stacking/jamming of the coffee grains would combine to explain the difference in the grind shape around the Kalita Wave and the V60 filters. What this does to the flavour of the coffee and whether better brewing would involve more agitation, I will leave to Kalita Wave coffee lovers to investigate. And when you do, I would love to hear of your results, either here on Facebook or Twitter.


General Home experiments Observations Science history slow Tea

A tense moment for a coffee…

capillary bridge
A bridge formed by water between a cup and a cafetière.

Each and every coffee represents an opportunity to uncover an unusual bit of science. Sometimes the connections between what happens in your cup and the wider world are fairly obvious (e.g. the steam above your coffee and cloud formation), but sometimes the connections seem a little more obscure. On occasion, your observations may lead to philosophical speculations or stories from history. Every coffee is an opportunity to discover something, if you just slow down and ponder enough.

It was with this in mind that I looked at my freshly made French Press coffee a few weeks ago. I had positioned my cup very close to the cafetière such that a small water bridge had formed between the cup and the cafetière (see photo). Such “capillary bridges” have been studied for a couple of centuries and yet there is still more work to do. Caused by the surface tension of the water, understanding the way these bridges form and the shape of the surfaces produced is important for fields such as printing and powder processing. Yet it is only in the last 150 years or so that we have started to understand what surface tension is. Moreover, much of the pioneering work on this subject was done by an amateur scientist who just noticed things (and then designed some very clever experiments to discover more).

Agnes Pockels (1862-1935) is now regarded as a surface science pioneer but in 1891 she was a complete unknown. Although she had wanted to study physics, she was prevented from going to university because she was female. Consequently, all her study of the subject had to be through her brother Friedrich’s books and letters. It is not known what prompted her investigations but from 1880 she had been experimenting with a device to measure the surface tension of water. The device used a sliding weight to measure the force required to pull a 6mm diameter wooden disk off of the surface of a trough of water.¹ The design of this device was so successful that, a few years later, Irvine Langmuir adapted it slightly in order to study the surface of oils. He went on to receive the Nobel Prize for his work in 1932. Yet it is a device that could also be built in your kitchen, exactly as Agnes Pockels did².

reflections, surface tension
The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

Pockels measured the surface tension of water contaminated by oil, alcohol, sugar, wax, soda crystals and salt (amongst other things)¹. She discovered how the surface tension of the water could be affected by pulling the surface or introducing metal objects onto it. She discovered the “compensating flows” that occurred between regions of different surface tension (you can see a similar effect with this soap boat). Yet all of this remained hidden from the wider world because Pockels was unable to publish. Not having access to the contemporary literature about surface tension and moreover unknown, unqualified and female, no journal would look at her work let alone publish it. Nonetheless, she was clearly a brilliant experimentalist and capable physicist.

Things changed when Pockels read a paper by John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) in about 1890. Rayleigh was quite the opposite of the unknown Pockels. As well as his work on sound, electricity and magnetism and the (co-) discovery of Argon, Rayleigh is known for his work on understanding why the sky is blue. (Which is another phenomenon that you can see while preparing your coffee if you drink your coffee with milk.) In his paper on surface tension, Rayleigh had come to similar conclusions as Pockels’ work but Pockels had gone further. Unable to publish herself, she instead wrote to Rayleigh, in German, detailing her experimental technique and results. Rayleigh responded by forwarding her letter to the scientific journal Nature together with an introductory paragraph:

“I shall be obliged if you can find space for the accompanying translation of an interesting letter which I have received from a German lady, who with very homely appliances has arrived at valuable results respecting the behaviour of contaminated water surfaces. The earlier part of Miss Pockels’ letter covers nearly the same ground as some of my own recent work, and in the main harmonizes with it. The later sections seem to me very suggestive, raising, if they do not fully answer, many important questions. I hope soon to find opportunity for repeating some of Miss Pockels’ experiments.”¹

Coffee Corona
You may have seen white mists form over the surface of your coffee (seen here by the rainbow effect around the light reflection). But what are they and how do they form? This is still not really known.

Rayleigh’s introduction and Agnes Pockels’ letter were published in Nature on 12 March 1891. The paper enabled Pockels to publish further results in both Science and Nature as well as in other journals. In 1932 she received an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work.

It seems that this coffee-science story has two main messages. The first is to emphasise how much we gain by ensuring everyone has access (and encouragement) to study physics (or indeed whatever subject they are motivated by). What would we have lost if Agnes Pockels had not had the books of her brother and made the decision to write to Rayleigh? But the second message is that Agnes Pockels managed all this, at least initially, by merely noticing what was going on in the liquids around her. Being curious she designed and built a piece of equipment that enabled her to measure what she was intrigued by and by taking a systematic series of data she discovered physics that was unknown to the wider community at the time. So the question is, what do you notice when you look at your coffee? How does it work, what can you discover?

Please do share any interesting physics that you see in (or around) your coffee either here in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter. Tea comments would also be welcome, but whatever you do, slow down and notice it.


¹Rayleigh, Nature 1891, 43, 437-439, 12 March 1891 (full text here)

²Reference to the kitchen is here.

Coffee review Observations slow Tea

Coffee prints at Water Lane Brasserie, Canterbury

coffee in a friendly environment Canterbury
Drinks at Water Lane Brasserie, Canterbury

Making our way down the cobbled High St in Canterbury, into a side street within the old walled town and then following the black board signs for coffee, we found our way to Water Lane Brasserie on Water Lane. Although it is very close to the High St and even the bus station, somehow Water Lane Coffee feels quite hidden. We had decided to try Water Lane for a spot of lunch as we had read good things about the food and coffee. A friendly dog welcomed us into the café where a few groups of people were chatting or working on their laptops.

Various, slightly out of place, ornaments were dotted around the fairly large space. There was the Newton’s cradle in the window, the Fly agaric mushrooms near the sofa seats, the hand grinder and syphon brewer near the counter and, of course, the jenga sets on some of the tables. As various customers came and left, the friendly service suggested that this was a café in which relationships are built along with jenga towers. Corny analogies aside, it may have been tempting to focus a café-physics review on such pieces dotted around. However, it always seems that the more that you contemplate a place, the more rewarding the observations become (to yourself at least, whether they become more interesting to others is quite another matter).

mushrooms at water lane
A Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom near the sofas. Learning about how to identify mushrooms is excellent training in noticing.

Our soup, which was indeed a lovely way to enjoy a light lunch meant that we had quite some time to look around the café. Just outside the window, a bird feeding area with hanging bird feeders had somehow attracted an ingenious moorhen that was cleverly balancing on a conveniently placed pole while grabbing food perhaps intended for smaller birds. Inside, punting equipment lined the walls as it seems that you can punt in Canterbury’s river now when it is warmer (is this a new thing? I cannot remember this from years ago when I used to be in Canterbury more regularly). On a shelf above the counter there were several beers with the logo “Canterbury Ales”.

By this time we were enjoying our coffee (long black) and soy hot chocolate. These were a great finish to the soup. Although there was no information about the roaster, the coffee was very drinkable, darker rather than fruity. As we moved the soup away, the indentations on the top of the (old card table) table became more obvious. Rather like footprints in the sand or fossils in London’s Portland stone. Evidence on a table top of coffee-drinkers-past. Could we gain much information from the imprints left on the table top? Firstly, this table has not just been used for playing cards, a fair few plates of food have been placed on it. Secondly, some very heavy small objects, given the shape of the footprint, perhaps vases, have also been put on the table in the past, was this used decoratively? It is difficult to know with any certainty what happened on this table but with a bit of extra information, such fossil footprints can be full of information.

coffee prints at Water Lane
The table top at Water Lane. What can you discern from the indentations that have been left?

When thinking about fossil footprints, as with the table, the first bit of information that can be gleaned from the fossil is the size of the animal (or object) that made them. So even in the absence of a skeleton fossil, it would be known that some dinosaurs were enormous. Last year a set of dinosaur footprints were discovered in Australia that were 1.7m large, a single foot larger than many humans are tall. Then there is the information that can be ascertained from multiple footprints, such as the idea that perhaps dinosaurs hunted in packs or at least, that some dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex moved in small groups, presumably for hunting. Elsewhere, the presence of different types of dinosaur footprints that seemed to move in different patterns suggested a hunt that occurred millions of years ago.

Tristan Gooley in “The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” suggests using more recent footprints to see the wildlife stories that have recently unfolded around you when you walk in the country*. He writes:

“Tracking is built upon these simple, logical principles. All four-legged animals lift and replace their feet in a set order and rhythm and this reflects their evolutionary heritage….. It will not be long before you come across two sets of tracks that are clearly related in some way. The two types of tracks, their character, the spaces between them, the habitat, the time of year and a host of other circumstantial evidence will reveal whether an animal was hunting another, scaring it off, playing with it or trying to mate with it. Here, following the track means reading the story.”

Returning from our day dreams and to the table at Water Lane, looking out the window it became apparent that a figure was staring back at us. Standing just on the other side of the river Stour, a short, stout, statue of a monk looked out from under the hedge around the church beyond the river. The old Greyfriars chapel dates from the thirteenth century, the home of the (then recently formed) Franciscans, named after St Francis of Assisi. Details of the history of this place are revealed in old graffiti around the venue. The monk on the river seemed to silently acknowledge the place’s history as the water ran by. What clues as to previous visitors are there in this friendly, quiet and contemplative café on the river Stour? What will be our imprint on the world when we leave it, as individuals, as a society?

Water Lane Brasserie is in Water Lane, Canterbury.

“The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” by Tristan Gooley, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

*Not just the country. In many urban parks you can see the recent behaviour of geese, sea gulls and the dogs that chase them, or walking down a pavement tracking a dog that has just walked through a puddle. Hearing a story from the clues left behind needn’t just be a game left to country walkers and fossil hunters.