I was not initially going to do a cafe-physics review of Attendant. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the coffee, I did. I had a very well prepared V60 which went very well with a lovely chocolate brownie. Nor was it that there was nothing to see at Attendant. No, it was quite the opposite. Part of the point of the Attendant seems to be its location. You see, if you were not aware of it already, Attendant is to be found in a (no-longer-used), underground, gentlemen’s toilet. Although they have been thoroughly cleaned, various fixtures (19th century urinals and cisterns) remain in place. Modern (deliberate) graffiti adorns the walls as you walk in. Understandably, there are no windows to gaze out of in this café. It is, in many ways, a very interesting place to visit and the coffee is certainly worth a visit too. However, it is difficult to do a review which is, after all, about noticing something unusual, when the former use of this space is almost shouting at you. I thought about doing a review based on how the shape of the coffee cup can influence the flavour of the coffee that you perceive. Yet somehow, writing a review on anything other than the fact that this is a re-use of an interesting space seemed, almost, perverse. So I left it. Until that is, UK Coffee Week came along.
UK Coffee Week raises awareness and money for Project Waterfall which in turn aims to help provide clean water and sanitation for coffee growing communities. Currently, Project Waterfall works in three countries, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia. In these countries a large number of the rural population lack basic access to drinking water while a greater number do not have access to sanitation facilities. Clearly this can lead to health problems. The World Health Organisation estimates that world wide, the drinking water of 1.8m people is contaminated with faeces, while 0.5 million people per year die from diarrhoeal diseases including cholera.
Perhaps, while sitting in cafés or having breakfast at home, we have a tendency to take water for granted. Certainly I will admit that I can. I’m sitting here writing this enjoying a great cup of coffee with a few biscuits both of which took water to produce. Beyond the obvious water in the kettle for the coffee and the water used for the dough for the biscuits, there is the ‘hidden’ water. The water used to irrigate the coffee crops and the wheat fields or to process the coffee cherry towards the green bean stage. The water used in generating the electricity used to bake the biscuits, or roast the coffee. The water used to clean the utensils between coffee roasts/biscuit batches so that we don’t get food poisoning. The list could go on. Indeed, the UN estimates that producing 1 cup of coffee requires 140 L of water. This figure though presumably cannot include the private water needs of the individuals who work on the coffee plantations. We all need water and we all need it to be clean.
So, in thinking about our water consumption (and the water consumption of those who help us to enjoy our coffee), we can do a few things during this coffee week 2016. Firstly, we could make a donation towards the work of Project Waterfall (here) or a similar charity that is working to provide clean water and adequate sanitation to those who don’t have it. Secondly, we could take the prompt from Attendant and start to think about where our water comes from. Why from Attendant? Well if you were living on the International Space Station or, to a lesser degree, in Singapore, this question may have an obvious answer. For the rest of us, we are often a little bit removed from direct water recycling, but it’s worth looking more closely at Singapore because they have developed a water strategy that may be of use for more of us in the future.
Singapore has a population of just over 5.5m (London: 8.6m) with a land area of 719.1 km². As an island, it is surrounded by water and so you may think that water is not a problem for the inhabitants of the city-state. But the water surrounding Singapore is the salt water of the sea and so not easily converted into drinking water. While looking for a solution towards a self-sufficient water supply, Singapore decided to try the recycling route. Through a scheme called NEWater, currently 30% of Singapore’s water supply is from ‘reclaimed’ water (for reasons that may be obvious, they avoid the word ‘recycled’). The Singaporean authorities aim to make this 55% by 2060. Waste water produced in Singapore undergoes a process of micro-filtration (which takes out suspended particles), reverse osmosis and UV disinfection before being reintroduced to the water supply system. Although most of this reclaimed water is used for industrial processes, the reclaimed water can be added to Singapore’s reservoirs so that it will go into the drinking water supply.
A similar process is used on the International Space Station but there, as it is a closed environment, it is not just the waste water that goes down the drain that is ‘reclaimed’ but the water exhaled by the astronauts and the lab animals on the station. On Earth this would evaporate into the atmosphere, contribute to cloud formation and then rain back down closing the greater water cycle in that way. On the space station, the fact that it is a closed environment means that this moisture too can be ‘reclaimed’. By recycling the water in this way, the inhabitants of the space station avoid having to require too many costly water deliveries from the Earth.
Perhaps, while drinking our coffee (or tea, or even water) today, we can take five minutes to consider where our water comes from as well as considering whether those who contribute to our brew have adequate water supplies themselves. And as it is coffee week, here is that link again to Project Waterfall (Donation button at the bottom of the main Project Waterfall page). Enjoy your coffee.
Note added August 2017: It is with some regret that I have to say that Attendant is not a good place to go if you suffer from allergies. They have started serving almond milk and (according to a Twitter Direct Message received from the Attendant Team) do not adequately clean their steam wand between drinks so as to prevent cross contamination. Their advice to me was that I “should not have any hot drinks or food at our premises as we do not operate a nut free environment at our stores”. There are many good cafes to visit if you suffer from nut allergies, but please avoid this one (or just have a black coffee and enjoy the atmosphere).