Coffee Affair

Coffee under the microscope

Inside Coffee Affair

There are many great cafés in London serving excellent coffee but inevitably a few stand out. One such café is Coffee Affair in Queenstown Road railway station which ‘inhabits’ a space that really encourages you to slow down and enjoy your coffee while just noticing the environment. An ex-ticket office that whispers its history through subtle signs on the parquet floor and in the fixings. The sort of place where you have to stop, look around and listen in order to fully appreciate it. And with a variety of great coffees on hand to sample, this is a café that is a pleasure to return to whenever I get the opportunity.

So it was that a few weeks ago, I happened to wander into Queenstown Road station and into Coffee Affair. That day, two coffees were on offer for V60s. One, an Ethiopian with hints of mango, peach and honey, the other, a Kenyan with tasting notes of blackcurrant and cassis. But there was an issue with them when they were prepared for V60s. The Ethiopian, “Gelana Abaya”, caused a considerable bloom but then tended to clog the filter cone if due care was not taken during the pour. The other, the Kenyan “Kamwangi AA”, did not degas so much in the initial bloom but instead was easier to prepare in the V60; there was not such a tendency to clog.

What could be going on?

So we had a look under the microscope at these two coffees. Each coffee was ground as if it was to be prepared in a V60 and then examined under the microscope. Was there any difference between the appearance of the Gelana compared to the Kamwangi? A first look didn’t reveal much. Magnifying both coffees at 5x, it could be said that the Kamwangi had more ‘irregular protrusions’ on the ground coffee compared to the smoother Gelana, but it was hard to see much more:

coffee under the microscope

The samples of ground coffee imaged under an optical microscope at 5x magnification. Kamwangi is on the left, Gelana on the right. “500 um” means 500 micrometers which is 0.5 mm.

So, the microscope was swapped to image the coffee in fluorescence mode. It was then that the cell structure of the coffee became clear. Here are the two coffees magnified 10x:

Fluorescence microscopy 10x, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Kamwangi, Gelana

Fluorescence microscope image of the two coffees at 10x magnification. Note the open structure in the Kamwangi and the more closed structure in the Gelana.

and at 20x

Kamwangi and Gelana coffee under the microscope

A fluorescence microscope image magnified 20x – not ‘um’ means micrometers (1/1000 of a mm), so the scale bar represents 1/10 mm.

So there is perhaps a clue in the cell structure. It seems as if the Kamwangi structure is more open, that somehow the cells in the Kamwangi break open as they are ground but the Gelana somehow keeps its cells more intact. Could this be why the Gelana blooms so much more?

Which naturally leads to a second experiment. What happens when you look at these two coffees in water under the microscope? Here the fluorescence images didn’t help as all you could see were the bubbles of gas in each coffee but the optical microscope images were of more interest.

optical microscope image in water

The two coffees compared under the microscope while in (cold) water. Magnfied 5x

‘Bits’ broke off the Kamwangi as soon as water was added but in comparison, there were far fewer bits of coffee breaking off the Gelana grains.

So what do you think has happened? If you remember our question was: when these two coffees were prepared with a V60, the Gelana bloomed a lot but then clogged in the filter (without extreme care while pouring the filter). Meanwhile the Kamwangi did not bloom so much but also did not clog the filter, what could be happening?

From the microscope images, it appears that

  1. Before adding any water, the cell structure in the Kamwangi is more open, the Gelana appears ‘closed’.
  2. When water is added, there are many more ‘bits’ that come off the Kamwangi whereas the Gelana does not show so much disintegration on the addition of water.

If pushed for a hypothesis, I wonder whether these two observations are linked. What is happening is that the cell structure in the Kamwangi is, for whatever reason, fairly fragile. So as soon as it is ground, the cells break up and a lot of the carbon dioxide is released. Consequently when water is added to it, the bits of broken cell quickly disperse through the water and it doesn’t seem to ‘bubble’ that much. In comparison, the Gelana cell structure is tougher and the cells only open up when water is added. I wonder if this means that the ground Gelana coffee will swell rather than break up and so ‘jam together’ as each grain tries to expand rather like trying to inflate many balloons in a bucket. They will push against each other and prevent water from easily percolating through the ground coffee.

Sadly, many more experiments would be required before we could see if there’s any truth in this hypothesis however that does provide a great excuse, were one needed, for many return trips to Coffee Affair. Meanwhile, what do you think? Do any of the images stand out to you and why? What do you think could be the cause of our V60 coffee mystery? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please let me know either here in the comments section (moderated and experiencing a lot of spam at the moment so please be patient), on Facebook or on Twitter.

2 years in

3D hot chocolate art on an iced chocolate, Mace, Mace KL, dogs in a chocolate

Happy birthday to me

Last weekend, Bean Thinking turned 2. So I’ve been looking back at the cafés I’ve visited over the past two years. Bean Thinking started as a way to slow down and to try to see things in a (slightly) different way, to really enjoy the coffee but also to take time to explore the stories, and the science, that can be found in different cafés. I’ve enjoyed the coffee in each café that I have visited but, as always happens, some stick in the memory a little more than others.

So I decided to pull together five cafés which, for me, had an interesting story to tell or prompted an unexpected chain of thoughts. I have sadly had to leave out some great cafés and some really fun stories (for me to think about at least). However, these five stood out. Each café introduced an unexpected bit of science to me, or had something about them that meant that slowing down and enjoying the coffee provided a really special moment. Consequently, each café features for slightly different reasons, and so rather than create a top 5 (which would be impossible anyway), I have listed them alphabetically. I hope you’ll excuse this trip down memory lane.

Amoret, Hammersmith

Kettle drum at Amoret

Coffee on a drum at Amoret

It is not every day that a well made V60 can transport you to another planet. Yet that is what happened for me at Amoret in Hammersmith. The cylindrical design of the table reminded me of a drum but the question is, why do drums make the sounds that they do? The answer to this question took me on a journey into sounds. Just how different would Bach’s famous fugue sound if played on Venus rather than Earth? And then a surreal moment as a Dutch TV station decided to take Bananarama to Venus courtesy of research conducted at Southampton University. This was all accompanied by great coffee in a very pleasant cafe, the review can be found here.

Coffee Affair, Queenstown Road,

Contemplating the floor at Coffee Affair

Contemplating the floor at Coffee Affair

Where better to slow down and appreciate the moment than a place reminiscent of the geology of the South Downs that helped Charles Darwin to argue the case for his theory of evolution. Coffee Affair occupies the old ticket office at Queenstown Road station. The fixings and the floor of the café reveal evidence of the people who inhabited this space in times past. Watching the V60 being prepared, slowly, carefully, exactly, emphasises this sense of time. The result is great coffee in a place that almost forces you to step out of the speed of modern life and stop, put down the smart phone and take time to just notice. Coffee Affair was reviewed here.

Lumberjack, Camberwell,

Lumberjack coffee Camberwell

Exploring local connections at Lumberjack

There’s a strong emphasis on keeping it local at Lumberjack in Camberwell, as well as a preoccupation with all things wooden (this being an enterprise set up with London Reclaimed). So it was interesting to discover that there was a fairly local connection between Camberwell and the ultimate ‘local’ London tree, the London Plane. Not only that, but research that had been published a few weeks before I went to review Lumberjack had shown that, surprisingly, the wind speed needed to fell a tree was fairly constant at around 56 m/s, irrespective of the size or type of tree. This surprising finding was the cherry on the cake for this ultimate in local reviews (here).

Red Door, Greenwich,

vortices, turbulence, coffee cup physics, coffee cup science

Beautiful physics at Red Door

Just what would happen if you put a cup of coffee on a record player? A turntable in a corner at Red Door in Greenwich meant that not only did I start to think about this question, I decided to start some experiments to find out. The resulting physics was physically as well as scientifically beautiful. The experiments can be done by anybody with equipment that you can probably find at home (though I would recommend not using an actual turntable). It turned out to be an elegant experiment involving vortices, but as Helmholtz noticed, similar vortices form in organ pipes, the atmosphere and even in electromagnetism. Truly a beautiful piece of connected physics that I would have missed had I enjoyed my coffee ‘takeaway’. More here.

The Turkish Deli, Borough Market,

Turkish coffee

The universe in a cup of coffee at The Turkish Deli

“The universe is in a glass of wine” so said a Greek poet according to Richard Feynman, but at the Turkish Deli it is more obvious in a cup of coffee. When made properly, Turkish coffee requires at least four minutes of ‘settling time’ before it can be enjoyed. You could use this time to think about how the concentration of coffee particles changes as a function of the depth. Similar considerations led Jean Perrin to conduct experiments back in 1910 that he declared showed that “… it becomes very difficult to deny the objective reality of molecules” (which before that point had indeed been very much denied). Now that The Turkish Deli also roast and grind their own coffee on-site, there is even more reason to visit and ponder the connectedness of our coffee and our planet. The Turkish Deli was reviewed here.

With so many more cafés to explore, and things to discover, who knows what the next year or two will bring. And if you’ve got a recommendation or found a great café where you have stopped and noticed something intriguing, no matter how lateral, why not drop me an e-mail, I’d love to hear your experiences of slowing down and appreciating our coffees.


A ‘brief’ encounter at Coffee Affair

Coffee Affair, Queens Road Station

The exterior of Coffee Affair, yes it really is inside the station

It was a few weeks ago now that I dropped into Coffee Affair on a Saturday afternoon and met Michael (who runs Coffee Affair along with ‘Mags’). What can I say? This place is worth visiting for so many reasons. Firstly of course there is the coffee, so much care and attention to detail was taken when I ordered a pour over Burundi coffee from Round Hill Roastery. I was warned that my coffee would take some time to prepare before the filter was carefully rinsed and the coffee weighed and ground. The final coffee having been made with such attention that I started to understand why they had chosen the name ‘coffee affair’. It is clear that coffee is a passion.

Parquet floor at Coffee Affair

The floor at Coffee Affair.

Then there is the knowledge that Michael brings to the coffee and is happy to share. Thoughts about the best temperature to drink the coffee for example, or details about different brew methods (there is a lovely array of coffee brewing equipment on the wall of the cafe). One thing that really appealed to me though was the place. There are only a couple of tables and a bar but this emphasises the space that Coffee Affair inhabits: A preserved old ticket office. There are windows looking into the station with bars on them through which the tickets used to be sold. There is the oak table that has had years of ticket sellers leaning on it, presumably with a lamp next to their counter as it would have been a lot darker when it was used as a ticket office. Then there is the flooring, original parquet flooring that dates from the time that the station was built.

If you take a seat towards the back of Coffee Affair and look at the floor you can see where the floor has worn down just that little bit as ticket sellers from years ago shuffled at their counters while selling tickets. Like the toe of St Peter, the floor has been worn away by the number of people in contact with it over the years. Between the counters you can see where someone has tried to polish the parquet to minimise this ‘dip’ but has instead managed to produce lines in a slightly more polished floor. Thinking about the wear of the floor reminded me of Charles Darwin’s musings about the erosion of the Weald in the South East of England.

Goudhurst area

How long does it take for such landscapes to form?

In the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” (1859), Darwin included an estimate for the age of the Weald of Kent, the area between the chalk hills of the North and South Downs. Based on his observations of coastal erosion, Darwin calculated that the Weald must have been at least 300 million years old. This was perfectly long enough for the gradual evolutionary steps of natural selection to have occurred. As Darwin said “What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years!”* Looking at the floor at the Coffee Affair, you can get a similar idea as to the number of generations that have stood at the ticket windows.

Darwin’s estimate of the age of the Weald led him into an argument with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) about the age of the Earth (which you can read more about here). It was Kelvin’s argument about the age of the Earth that Darwin considered “the single most intractable point levelled against his theory during his lifetime”†. The argument was eventually settled in Darwin’s favour, once new physics had been discovered, but only after both Kelvin and Darwin had died. So I’ll leave Darwin the last words for today’s Daily Grind, relevant too for those who have the opportunity to study the floor at Coffee Affair: “He who most closely studies the action of the sea on our shores, will, I believe, be most deeply impressed with the slowness with which rocky coasts are worn away”.*


Coffee Affair is in the old ticket office at Queenstown Road Station, Battersea,

* Quotes from “On the origin of species”, Charles Darwin (Oxford World Classic’s edition, 2008)

†Quote taken from “Charles Darwin, The Power of Place”, Janet Browne, Princeton University Press, 2002