coffee houses

Language

Tasting notes on a coffee. Do each of us hear the same meaning even as we use the same words?

How should we describe the flavour of coffee? First used in 1995 and redeveloped in 2016, the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) coffee tastes flavour wheel was designed to give coffee professionals a common language to describe the flavours they were experiencing. You can find copies of the colourful wheel in many coffee shops, or sit at home and explore your coffee with it directly from the SCA’s website. Ideally it would help us to discuss different coffees, to compare and to consider which we find fruity, spicy or tasting of chocolate. But how common is our language really?

The wheel has come in for particular criticism for its cultural, or geographical, specificity given the global interest in good coffee. Flavours that are well known in North America may not be so common elsewhere. And so the wheel has been adapted to include more diverse flavour terms both in Taiwan (where terms include jujube and many other fruits) and in Indonesia (where there is a strong emphasis on spices). However, the problems go deeper than this. As a keen blackberry forager, I know that the flavour of blackberries is very variable, both between locations and depending on the time of year that you pick (during the first fruits of July or towards the end of the season in September/October). Nonetheless, ‘blackberry’, is a flavour referenced on the wheel. The developers of the wheel anticipated this problem and knew that we need to have a common understanding of the flavour ‘blackberry’ in order that it can be useful. They therefore referenced the flavour blackberry to one particular type of blackberry jam. This helps and serves as a good control, but only if we all know that ‘blackberry’ really refers to a type of blackberry jam.

The issue seems to go beyond the idea that people ‘don’t understand’ how the terms are meant to be used, it is more that we are using the terms in different ways. The issue is not confined to coffee, there are many examples in science too. The term ‘theory’ for example has a specific meaning within scientific practice that is different from that used in every-day language. For scientists a theory represents a description of the world that is backed by experiments and experimentally testable predictions. Anthropogenic climate change is a ‘theory’ backed by a large amount of evidence, it is our best way of understanding what is going on with the climate. Here ‘theory’ means ‘what we think is really happening’. It is very far from the idea of ‘theory’ found even in the dictionary where one definition is of “a speculative (esp. fanciful) view”. And this gives us a problem because if we talk scientifically of a ‘theory’, as how we think the world is working, we may be heard by others as if we are just making these wild ideas up and, a few years down the line, a new theory will take this one’s place. Indeed, some scientists have argued that the problem has got so bad, we should just get rid of terms such as ‘theory’ altogether.

There are some words that we do not understand or deliberately use in ambiguous ways. There are however many words that we use which do not mean the same thing to another group of people. (Sign at White Mulberries, 2015)

It is not an issue easily solved by education, because education can imply that one group (which is typically not ‘us’) needs to be informed about the correct meaning of the word. Indeed, the issue is not that one group does not understand the correct meaning, the issue is that we are using different languages while utilising the same words. Another word that demonstrates this point is ‘strength’*. The dictionary has ‘strength’ as ‘being strong’ and strong as “having power of resistance, not easily broken or torn or worn…. tough, healthy, firm, solid….” This comes close to how the word may be used in a scientific context as ‘tensile strength’, which is the amount of load (force) that a material can support without fracture. You can also see how the word could be understood within the world of coffee as the amount of total dissolved solids in a particular brew. Nonetheless, both of these are different from how the word is used in English and can be applied to coffee as being about the degree of roast of a coffee.

If it were just a question of occasional misunderstandings this may be tolerable but once again, things become more complicated as we look deeper. As alluded to with the ‘climate change theory’, it can have consequences for our behaviour: are we likely to make the changes needed if we can convince ourselves, on one level at least, that climate change is just a theory? But with other fields, it can also have an effect on our emotional response to a story. The term ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ refers only to movement of persons within geography. The term can apply to international movement or even to movement within a country or region. Importantly, within a geographical context, the term is “value neutral”; it is merely a descriptive term. We do not have to look too far in the reporting around us to find that the word ‘migrant’ in particular is not taken to be value neutral within common usage. This is a difference in usage that could have profound political and ethical repercussions.

Jonathan's coffee house plaque
The site of Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley. Where are our modern equivalents? Places where we can meet to encounter and listen to each other?

So if education is not the answer what could be? Perhaps it was unfair to rule out education so quickly, it depends on how we understand the word education itself. If we understand it purely as being about communicating to somebody, we won’t get very far. If however we understand education to be a flow of knowledge, in both directions, and communication as not being ‘communicating to’ but ‘listening with’, then we can start to speak and understand each other’s language more fluently. We need to regain a forum in which we can really learn from each other and hear what the other is saying. And then, for them to hear us too: we need an encounter, a dialogue, a conversation. Perhaps we need a return of the coffee houses, or even the Salons of old, or failing those, a new way of encountering the other on social media. How can we encounter each other in 280 characters? How do you encounter others?

*WIth thanks to Amoret Coffee for suggesting this one over on Twitter (and to all the other people who contributed to that Twitter discussion for the many fascinating and thought provoking suggestions of such problematic words).

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).

Electrifying coffee at the Black Penny

Black Penny coffee London

The Black Penny on Great Queen St

Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coffee houses were places to go for debate, discussion or even to learn something new. The Grecian was known for science. Maths instruction (particularly for gambling) could be found with Abraham de Moivre (1667-1754) at Old Slaughter’s on St Martin’s Lane. Other coffee houses were meeting centres for literature, politics, philosophy or even espionage*. Coffee houses became known as “Penny Universities”. The Black Penny on Great Queen St is a café that wants to continue this tradition, with a downstairs “seminar pit” ready to host such discussions. Although the events page still says “coming soon”, if the events do indeed come, this is very much something that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Even without the seminars though, The Black Penny is definitely worth a visit. Entering from the street, the bar is on the left and is stocked with a good looking selection of cakes. We were shown through to the relatively large, bright and airy seating area at the back where a jar of water (infused with cucumber and mint) had been put on the table for us. I had a very good long black and a lovely apple and blackberry muffin with which to take in my surroundings. The muffin was confidently asserted to be nut-free, and so the Black Penny gets a tick in the ‘good nut knowledge’ section on the Daily Grind. The coffee beans were roasted by the Black Penny themselves and while it still says that they serve ‘Alchemy’ coffee on their website, this no longer appears to be the case.

Duracell batteries as coat hooks, battery, batteries

A strange form of coat hook? The things that catch your eye in cafes

Inside, there are some very interesting architectural features to notice, the remains of a ceiling for example (now removed to reveal the roof) and the acoustics introduced by the speaker positioning. Downstairs in the seminar pit there is apparently a very old stove, though I didn’t get to see that on my visit. However, what immediately struck my eye was what appeared to be a series of coat hooks that looked very similar to a well known brand of battery. Quite what these hooks were for or why they looked like batteries I didn’t manage to ascertain, however, it did get me thinking, can you use coffee-power to light an LED?

You may have heard of a potato battery, or a lemon battery. These are often used in science outreach experiments in schools to demonstrate electricity, or the concepts of current/voltage. Made from an ordinary potato (or a lemon), a copper wire is stuck into one end of the potato and a different metal (usually zinc) is stuck into the other end of the potato. At the Black Penny, there were three things left on the table. My coffee, the mint and cucumber infused water and the tea of my accomplice in many of these reviews (I’d eaten the muffin). Which of these would perform better as a battery?

coffee power

Can 6 coffee ‘cells’ with aluminium and copper electrodes light up an LED? (The answer may be in the photo)

Although people suggest using galvanised screws as the source of the zinc electrodes, I didn’t have many of those to hand and so had to manage with aluminium foil for one electrode, copper wire for the other. By putting the aluminium on one side of a shot glass, the copper wire on the other and then filling the glass with coffee, I was able to get 0.5-0.8V across the electrodes when I measured it with my digital multimeter (DMM). Fantastic you may think, almost an AA battery, but then if you were to measure the voltage across the water rather than coffee, you will find that you get a voltage of 0.6-0.7V. The result for tea was, perhaps unsurprisingly, about 0.6V.

But voltage is not the whole story. A battery does not just supply a voltage, it gives a current. The current depends on the electrical conductance of the liquid that the electrodes are in. In the case of the potato or the lemon battery, the acid (phosphoric or citric respectively) means that there are free hydrogen ions in the ‘battery’ between the electrodes which mean the electric current can flow through the circuit. Coffee consists of many acids (chlorogenic, quinic, citric etc etc.) and so it seems sensible to ask if coffee could be used to produce a battery with a current that could power an LED? LEDs require both voltage and current, (1.6V and 10mA for the LEDs used here). Hooking up a series of coffee battery-cells meant that, by 6 ‘cells’, I had 3V across the contacts. However the electric current through the coffee battery was very low (the maximum current I recorded using the low acidity Roasting House Sierra de Agalta Honduran coffee prepared in a cafetière was 155 μA). Although this was higher than the current through water (max 81 μA), it is much lower than the current through white vinegar (770 μA under the same conditions). Consequently, in order to light the LED connected to my coffee battery, I had to add salt to each coffee cell which serves as a way of massively boosting the current through the coffee (salt forms a solution of Na+ and Cl- ions that conduct electricity through the coffee). Though even then, my LED only lit dimly and intermittently.

battery, Volta, Como museum, Como

How it should be done. The “Alessandro Volta Temple” in Como, Italy, is a fantastic place to learn about the history of electricity

Sadly then, I do not see coffee power as a future for lighting in our cafés, (unless you want to use bulletproof coffee with salted butter). However, it has started to make me wonder, could we use a single coffee-cell to monitor the acidity of our coffee? If you find a method of brewing or a particular coffee especially acidic, it should produce a higher current for the same voltage through the cell, or equivalently, the resistance of the coffee-cell should decrease as the acidity of your coffee increases. Although obviously, it would be a bad idea to drink the coffee after putting it into a cell with copper and zinc (or aluminium) electrodes, you could pour a small amount of your coffee into a shot glass to test it while you were drinking the rest of the coffee. I intend on testing this hypothesis over the next couple of weeks but in the meanwhile, if you have thoughts on this to share (or the results of your experiments), please let me know either via the comments section, email, Facebook or Twitter.

The Black Penny is at 34 Great Queen St, WC2B 5AA

* A history of coffee houses can be found in “London Coffee Houses”, Bryant Lillywhite, (1963)