citizen science

Aroma and batch brew

Isn’t it great to find a lovely, freshly brewed, hot cup of aromatic coffee in a quirky little café? Which bit do you enjoy most? That special aroma as you inhale the steam above your cup before sipping the coffee to compare the taste with the smell?


Representation of 2-furfurylthiol. Amazing what can be found (briefly) above your coffee cup.

As you may imagine, a fair bit of research has gone into working out which chemicals are responsible for that just brewed aroma (for a review see here). More than 800 volatile chemicals have been identified as key to the aroma of coffee of which the most important for that freshly roasted and brewed coffee smell seems to be 2-furfurylthiol. Although it has a complicated name, it’s got a fairly simple chemical representation (shown right). Responsible for the “roast-y, sulphur-y” smell in freshly brewed coffee the problem for us, and for 2-furfurylthiol, is that it is not very stable. In fact, in experiments in which a freshly brewed coffee was stored in a thermos flask to keep it warm, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the space just above the coffee decreased by more than 50% within 20 minutes of storage. After an hour, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol had decreased to less than a quarter of its original amount and shortly after that, it was gone completely (study can be found here). (Other volatile aromatics decreased similarly (here)).

So if you were to brew a coffee, put it in a flask to keep it warm and then drink it within 20 minutes, you will have lost more than half of the lovely coffee smell. And if, heaven forbid, you were to take it from its thermos 1hr after brewing, almost all those wonderful aromatics would have decayed away.

Lundenwic coffee

This was not a batch!
Could you taste the difference between freshly made drip brewed coffee and batch brew?

Why is this important? Well, it’s about batch brew. You may have noticed that batch brew is increasingly popular in many cafés. Offered as a way of getting a filter coffee ‘freshly’ prepared for you without the hassle of actually having to have the filter made there and then. Different establishments try to get around the inevitable aromatic loss by changing the batch every 30 minutes or storing it in a ‘low oxygen’ environment, but is this enough? Do we need some blind taste-tests on batch brew?

A problem is that the decay of 2-furfurylthiol is not just due to oxidisation. Sadly for us, its decay seems to be intimately tied to other qualities that we appreciate in the coffee, the melanoidins (that make the coffee brown) and other chemicals formed during the roasting process (the phenols and the quinones). So even in a low oxygen environment, that aromatic 2-furfurylthiol is going to react with the other chemicals that make coffee great to make batch brew less great.

weather, bubbles, coffee, coffee physics, weather prediction, meteorology

It’s all in the 2-furfurylthiol. That fantastic coffee aroma is due to a number of unstable aromatic compounds that rapidly decay after the coffee is brewed.

That’s the theory. Clearly many cafés have taste-tested the batch brew and found that it doesn’t make enough difference to be concerned about. And in practice there are many other factors that may make a batch brew better than a fresh drip coffee you can make at home (though it would be great if someone could point some of these out for me!), what we need is a citizen science type taste test. A blind test of the same bean, prepared as a fresh filter and a cup at the end of the storage life of the batch. They will most likely have different temperatures so this would need to be considered, either by pouring very little of each (so the fresh-filter cools quickly), or waiting for 5 minutes for your cup of fresh-filter to cool to the batch temperature. Do they taste the same? Do they smell the same?

So this is a call for some science experiments “in the field” (and seemingly for everyone to drink more coffee). If you enjoy a cup of “batch” and are a regular at a café, please do drop me a note to share your blind taste-test experiences. If you are a café, any tips you have as to how to store warm coffee for longer than 20 minutes without compromising the aroma would be very interesting to hear (though if you find a café storing batch for longer than approx. 30 minutes, I would seriously consider going somewhere else!). And if you just drink coffee at home, why not get involved too, prepare a filter coffee that you store in a thermos and another a bit later ‘fresh’, get someone to help you so that you taste them ‘blind’ and let me know what you think. The comments section below is always available, otherwise I can be found on Twitter and Facebook and will happily debate there.

Enjoy your coffee!


An opportunity to become a cafe-scientist

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

A great place to sit and do some citizen science: Timberyard, Seven Dials has plenty of seats outside.

There are many things to be gained from putting down your smart phone when you enter a café. Firstly, there is the opportunity to fully experience the coffee. The sounds as it is made, the smell, the taste, even the feel of the coffee. Then there is the opportunity for people watching; their behaviour as they order their coffees or have their meetings or try to alleviate boredom while playing with their smartphones. Of course, there is also the opportunity to look at the history of the café and its surroundings, to think about a café-physics review or just slow down and notice things. There’s always something interesting going on.

If you are lucky enough though to be in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Milan or Rome there is now even more reason to put down that phone while you savour your coffee. By doing so, you could be helping scientists with a few questions that they have about atmospheric pollutants. If you are not in one of those cities, you miss out this time, but you may want to keep reading because if enough people get involved now, perhaps next time the iSPEX-EU project may come near you.

contrail, sunset

What sort of aerosols and pollutants are floating in the atmosphere above your head at this moment?

The question is, what are the atmospheric pollutants that are in the air near where you are now? Perhaps you are in a café on a main road and the answer seems obvious, it is those cars and buses that keep passing by. But there are in fact many forms of atmospheric aerosols or particles and they range in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns (which, in terms of coffee grind is from much smaller than the smallest Turkish coffee to approximately the size of a small particle in an espresso grind). Is it really so clear that where you are, in the centre of that big city, is that polluted? If on the other hand you are on the coast in Barcelona, just how salty is that salty sea air? The iSPEX-EU project allows you to measure it and find out.

These particles of dust, salt and soot etc. can have  an effect on human and animal health, so clearly we want to know more about their distribution and their prevalence. But there are also, more subtle reasons why we may want to know about them. They may have an effect on global warming and they are certainly needed in order for clouds to form, (though as yet we still do not fully understand this process). We need more data about what aerosols are around and where they are to start to know what questions to ask (let alone answer) about health, the climate and cloud formation. Yes, we have satellite measurements and pollution data at specific locations, but what people are missing is that local information. What are you actually breathing? When you look up at the blue sky, what pollutants (or other type of aerosol) are you looking through? Can we get enough data to know how the air quality varies between the cafés of Hackney and those of Hammersmith?

Skylark Wandsworth

Another ideal cafe for iSPEX-EU measurements, great coffee and a lovely outdoor seating area at Skylark cafe, Wandsworth Common

To get this data the scientists involved in iSPEX-EU need people, many people. People who are willing to spend 5 minutes turning their iPhone (sadly it is an iPhone-only project) into a pollution detector. The more people that they can get measuring, the more data that they will be able to obtain. All you need is an app from the App-store and a (free) device that fits over your iPhone camera which you can pick up from somewhere local to you. Then, you just take a seat outside the café on a lovely blue sky day between now and the 15th October, aim your phone at the sky and take a series of photographs which are shared back with the scientists coordinating the project. If you are curious to know how your air quality compares with that in another participating city, you can check the live map to see how the measurements are going across Europe.

The device works by looking at the colour spectrum as well as the polarisation of the light reaching the camera as a function of angle. This information gives tell-tale clues as to the size of the aerosols as well as their prevalence. There is a lot more information on the website of the iSPEX-EU project and so I would recommend that if you do want to know more, you click their link here. In the meantime, why not sign up with iSPEX-EU, take a seat outside in that café and enjoy a great coffee knowing that, as you do so, you are contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

If you do decide to participate, please let me know of any great locations that you find, both for the coffee and the measurements, or share your pollution measurements with me in the comments section. I look forward to seeing some great data on the live map.

To get involved with the iSPEX project, you can follow the link here.