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Coffee chemistry at Estate Office Coffee

Could it really be true that the tables were reclaimed school science desks? I had read a review of Estate Office Coffee by on London’s Best Coffee that had made this surprising claim (together with favourable comments about the coffee and cakes). Like a red flag to a bull, a visit was inevitable. Would there be any clues left on the tables as reminders of the past history? In the absence of many photos of the interior of the café, my mind wandered to images of long wooden benches like the physics labs in my old school. I imagined enjoying a coffee at such a bench, seated on a wooden stool, my feet not able to reach the ground. So when I arrived outside the cute little building, I was a bit puzzled as to how a whole lab could fit inside! Going in, my images of rows of coffee-table-lab-benches were metaphorically thrown out the window. Instead, a set of modern looking (small) tables were arranged so that several groups of 2-4 people could sit and enjoy their coffee together or individually. A lovely, friendly, space for conversation with friends but not quite the lab I had imagined. The counter, which was on the right as we entered, had a great array of muffins and cakes arranged on it which proved irresistible (and they knew which allergens were in which cake, so a definite tick in the ‘allergy friendly’ café box). The coffee (from Allpress espresso) was also very good and we ‘retired’ to a table to enjoy coffee and cake together.

interior Estate Office Coffee
Clearly science labs have changed since I was at school! The tables in Estate Office Coffee are reclaimed lab benches.

Although warm that day, sitting near the window was a very pleasant way of slowing down and noticing things. Moreover, the local history that is framed on the wall near the door, provided an interesting diversion for understanding how this quirky building came to be (and to survive in its present form). Copies of Caffeine magazine were also lying around adding to the large number of things that you could think about rather than revert to checking your phone. Finally though, curiosity got the better of me and I asked, were the tables really old school science lab benches? The helpful barista wasn’t absolutely sure and so texted the owner to enquire. Fairly quickly an answer came back: yes indeed, the wood had been reclaimed and used to be laboratory benches. Either school science labs have changed a bit since I attended or the tables have undergone a refurbishment as well as a reclaim, but nonetheless what a feature! Together we looked underneath the tables and noticed the parallel grooves running along the underside of the wood. What were they used for? Pens? Drainage channels for spilt chemicals? The mind boggled. But then returning to our table, we noticed that despite the lovely varnish and careful refurbishment, our table showed evidence of previous science lab use. Two circular stains as if the wood varnish had been etched by a strong acid. Immediately this took me back to experiments-gone-wrong with a home chemistry set but then it set off a whole different thought train through a slightly lateral connection to acidity and coffee.

table detail, inside Estate Office Coffee
Evidence of a past life?
Two rings in the varnish on one of the tables at Estate Office Coffee.

The issues and science associated with acidity in coffee have been discussed many times elsewhere and so if you would like to follow that train of thought you can do so here or here. Instead, I was reminded that the Arrhenius definition of acidity was that of a substance that, when in solution, increased the concentration of H+ ions in the water. For reasons that will become clear, this reminded me of stories I had heard of expert coffee-tasters who always use the same spoon when cupping coffee. Were there actually very good reasons that these coffee tasters always insist on using their own, same spoon, in every cupping session?

The connection between acidity and the spoons used for cupping comes via the ability of substances to gain or lose electrons to become ions. In the case of acids, the ion is H+ but different elements form their ionic counterparts more or less easily. This means that it is easier to take two electrons from the element copper (Cu) to form Cu2+ than it is to remove one electron from gold (Au) to form Au+. The ‘ability’ of a substance to gain (or lose) electrons is measured by the standard electrode potential. A few years ago, a group at the Institute of Making investigated whether different teaspoons made from different metals tasted different. In a blind taste test involving 32 participants, not only did they find that the spoons tasted different (as measured by bitter, metallic, strong etc), those metals that were more likely to form ionic species in solution (as indicated by the standard electrode potential) consistently tasted more bitter and more metallic than the rest: copper and zinc teaspoons tasted metallic, chrome and stainless steel tasted the least.

coffee at EOC Streatham
The important thing is how this tastes. What is the influence of cup size, shape, colour on your perception of the taste of coffee?

What was more interesting though was that the investigators then turned to the question: does the type of spoon used influence the taste of a substance? Although they investigated ice cream rather than coffee, the tastes they were looking at (bitter, sweet, salty, sour) are very relevant to coffee tasting. Again, the authors did a study involving a series of blind taste tests, this time involving 30 participants. Again, the teaspoons used were identical to each other apart from the fact that each had been electroplated with a different metal (gold, copper, zinc or stainless steel). Again there appeared to be a dependence between the taste of the substance (ice cream) and the standard electrode potential of the metal used for the spoon. When the ice cream (which had been separately flavoured to be more salty, bitter, sweet, sour or left plain) was blind-tasted with zinc or copper spoons, the ice cream was consistently rated more bitter than when tasted with stainless steel spoons. But there was more, it seemed that the sweetness of sweet ice cream was enhanced by the copper and zinc spoons. Indeed, copper and zinc spoons seemed generally to enhance the dominant taste of the ice cream (sweet became more sweet, salty more salty etc). Although spoons made of these two metals were also rated as tasting metallic, the most pleasant blind-tested ice cream-spoon combination was the sweet ice cream tasted with the copper or zinc spoons.

So it would appear that the material that the spoon is made from could influence our perception of the taste of the food or drink we consume with it. The taste of coffee could be influenced by the type of metal spoon that is used to taste it with. Other studies have emphasised the psychological importance to taste of the appearance or weight of the spoon. For consistent cupping therefore, it may very well be a good idea to stick to your favourite spoon.

However, this seems an area in which anyone can do a bit of kitchen-top coffee science experimentation. Have you blind taste tested several coffees? What about different coffees with different spoons? For those who cup coffee regularly it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on the influence of the spoon on the taste of coffee. For those of you new to coffee cupping, you can find a how-to at the bottom of this post and then please do share your experiences. In the meanwhile, you may be pleased to return in our imaginative journey to Estate Office Coffee where a great tasting coffee can be enjoyed in a non-metallic cup and where you may additionally pause to ponder the influence of your surrounding environment on the pleasure you derive from your coffee.

Estate Office Coffee can be found at 1 Drewstead Road, Streatham, SW16 1LY




Coffee review General Observations

Batch and CrO2 (Streatham)

coffee in Streatham
Batch & Co, Streatham Hill

A short while ago, on the advice of London’s Best Coffee (and, I headed along to Streatham to try a couple of cafés including Batch & Co along Streatham Hill Road. The café is quite modern and cubic with plenty of tables at which to sit and enjoy some good coffee and food. Another interesting recommendation from these sites to add to the list. The counter is on the left as you enter and there was a good selection of cakes on offer that day. Is it possible to have too much cake in one day? Sadly, possibly it is and so, as I had already had my fill of cake at a previous café, I kept with just an Americano (roasted by Caravan). Tap water (infused with mint) was available at each table which was greatly appreciated on such a hot day as the one on which we visited.

There were many things to notice in Batch and Co. The street/bus sign above the counter, the large selection of books in the corner (what a shame the seats next to the shelves had been occupied already!), the corrugated zinc walls and then, the cassette tapes on the tables. What a blast from the past. Sadly these tapes were no longer being used to store music but instead as table number indicators. Now ordinarily, I think these cafe-physics reviews should be the sort of science that is accessible to everybody, the sort of observation that anyone could make. But today, today the temptation is just too great, because these cassette tapes are linked to something that is being researched in an obscure but very novel effect that just happens to be an area of research for me. So today, I hope you will stay with me as I take you from Batch & Co to a very odd effect that happens when things (cassette tapes) get very cold.

coffee and cassette tape in Batch and Co
Coffee and tape. Who knew how special the tape material would be?

Those cassette tapes used to work by writing and reading magnetic information. So the actual tape bit needs to be a magnetic material. The first generation of tapes were made with ferric oxide (Fe2O3) but later, and seemingly better, music tapes used chromium dioxide, CrO2, as the tape material. Nowadays the technology of tape cassettes has been superseded by other media but the material CrO2 lives on, it turns out it is a very odd type of material.

Just like iron, chromium dioxide is magnetic, which is why it was used in tapes. But chromium dioxide is a very special type of magnet in that it is what is known as a fully spin polarised magnetic material. To understand what that means, it’s helpful to compare it with iron or copper or indeed, any other metallic material that you can think of. Metals conduct electricity because the electrons in them are free to move from one contact to another and hence carry a current. Electrons are negatively charged particles but they also have a property called “spin”. Although spin is associated with angular momentum (rotation), it is fundamentally a quantum mechanical property of subatomic particles and so shouldn’t be thought of as being about the electron’s rotation on its axis (rather like the Earth rotates). Indeed, it seems that this quantum mechanical property of “spin” is something that is very hard to pin down, even amongst physicists (see here). So instead, generally speaking, we just think about spin having two ‘directions’: spin up and spin down.

tape supporting a table, Batch and Co
An alternative use for a cassette tape. Poor tape.

Ordinarily, the electron spin doesn’t have that much effect on how much current the metal can carry (its ‘resistance’). Indeed for most metals, the number of spin up electrons is roughly equal to the spin down ones. However this is not true of chromium dioxide. Although it is a metal, all of the electrons that conduct the electricity through it are of one spin type. All the electrons are either ‘spin up’ or they are all ‘spin down’. This is spin polarisation. It is something that could never happen in copper.

There are many reasons that this could be interesting, both technologically and purely from the perspective of it being quite beautiful physics. What turns it from interesting to a really big question though is what happens when chromium dioxide interacts with another set of materials, superconductors.

Superconductors are materials that can carry large amounts of current with zero electrical resistance. This property makes them great for things like MRI machines in hospitals where large magnetic fields require the sort of currents superconductors can carry easily. How they are able to do this gets a bit complicated but what is crucial for this subject is the fact that to conduct a supercurrent they need to have zero spin polarisation: they need to have equal numbers of spin up and spin down electrons. (If you are interested in how superconductors superconduct you can read more about them here and here).

cassette tape at Batch and Co
Who knew that this tape was so special?

Now imagine, you have a wire of a superconductor such as very cold niobium (all spins are equal) that you connect to a wire (or a tape) of chromium dioxide (only one spin possible). You may think that if you tried to pass an electrical current down that connection there would be a problem. And you would be right: To conduct electricity, there have to be equal numbers of spin up and spin down electrons on the superconductor side but only one spin type can get through to the chromium dioxide side. There would be an electrical traffic jam. Which is all very logical and reasonable but it isn’t what happens. Instead, for reasons that we still do not understand, not only does the electrical current get through the connection, the chromium dioxide itself becomes superconducting through its proximity to the superconductor. By itself it could never superconduct but somehow, the superconductivity is leaking¹ into the chromium dioxide at the joint between the superconducting wire and the chromium dioxide tape. And it shouldn’t do this because everything we understand about superconductivity requires there to be electron pairs of spin up and spin down and everything we understand about chromium dioxide tells us that is absolutely not the case.

So how does it work? Surely these two effects (of superconductivity and spin polarisation) are incompatible with each other? Is there something peculiar about chromium dioxide that makes it so susceptible to this strange effect? We do not yet know (though we have a few ideas). Many groups around the world are looking at this odd effect including a network of universities in the UK. It is taking us a lot of research and quite a few meetings involving coffee to work it out but hopefully one day we’ll get there.

In the meantime, it may be worth pondering just how special those cassette tapes really were.

Batch&Co is at 54 Streatham Hill Road

¹Yes, “leaking” is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the technical words for what happens in the proximity effect.