Something brewing in my V60

kettle, V60, spout, pourover, v60 preparation

The new V60 “power kettle”

It was my birthday a short while ago and someone who knows me well got me a perfect present: a kettle specially adapted for making pour-over V60 style coffees. Until this point I had been struggling with a normal kettle with it’s large spout but now, I can dream that I pour like a barista. Of course, it is important to try out your birthday present as soon as you receive it. And then try it again, and again, just to make sure that it does really make a difference to your coffee. So it is fair to say, that recently I have been enjoying some very good coffees prepared with a variety of lovely beans from Roasting House and my new V60/V60 kettle combination.

Spending the time to prepare a good coffee seems to make it even more enjoyable (though it turns out that whether you agree with this partly depends on why you are drinking coffee). Grinding the beans, rinsing the filter, warming the pot, the whole process taken slowly adds to the experience. But then, while watching the coffee drip through the filter one day, I saw a coffee drop dance over the surface of the coffee. Then another one, and another, a whole load of dancing droplets (video below). Perhaps some readers of Bean Thinking may remember a few months back a similar story of bouncing droplets on soapy water. In that case, fairly large drops of water (up to about 1cm wide) were made to ‘float’ on the surface of a dish of water that had been placed on a loudspeaker.

Sadly, for that initial experiment the coffee had been made undrinkable by adding soap to it. The soap had the effect of increasing the surface viscosity of the droplets which meant that the drop could bounce back from the vibrating water surface before it recombined with the liquid. Adding soap to the coffee meant that these liquid drops could ‘float’ (they actually bounce) on the water for many minutes or even longer (for more of the physics behind this click here).

science in a V60

A still from the video above showing three drops of coffee on the surface.

On the face of it, there are some similarities between the drops dancing on the coffee in my V60 and these bouncing droplets. As each drop falls from the filter, it creates a vibration on the surface of the coffee. The vibration wave is then reflected back at the edges of the V60 and when the next drop falls from the filter it is ‘bounced’ back up by the vibration of the coffee.

But there are also significant differences. Firstly, as mentioned, there was no soap added to this coffee (I was brewing it to drink it!). This means that the viscosity of the drops should be similar to that of ordinary water. Although water drops can be made to bounce, the reduced viscosity means that this is less likely. Secondly, the water is hot. This acts to reduce the viscosity still further (think of honey on hot toast). Perhaps other effects (such as an evaporation flux or similar) could be having an effect, but it is noticeable that although the drops “live” long enough to be caught on camera, they are not very stable. Could it be that the vibrations caused by the droplets hitting the coffee are indeed enough to bounce the incoming droplets back up but that, unlike the soapy-water, these “anti-bubbles” do not survive for very long? Or is something deeper at play? I admit that I do not know. So, over to you out there. If you are taking time to make coffee in a V60, why not keep an eye out for these bouncing droplets and then do some experiments with them. Do you think that the bounce vibration is enough to sustain the bouncing droplet – does the speed of pour make a difference? Is it associated with the heat of the coffee? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

(The original soapy-coffee bouncing droplet video).

If you see anything interesting or odd in your coffee, why not let me know, either here in the comments section below, e-mail, or over on Twitter or on Facebook.

The attractive power of coffee

Just imagine, you are trying to fill 3 espresso cups at once but all you have is a portafilter with two spouts and a balloon? Ok, that sounds unlikely. The experiment that I’m going to describe however will allow you to bend a stream of coffee with a balloon. Moreover, in order to work it relies on sub-atomic particles. What a party trick; investigating sub-atomic physics while filling two cups with one stream of coffee. It could be mind bending, instead it is coffee bending.

What happens?

When you rub an inflated balloon on your (dry) hair, electrons are transferred from your hair to the rubber balloon. Electrons are, of course, sub-atomic particles and, together with protons and neutrons, they build up atoms. As these electrons carry an electric charge, the balloon becomes the source of a static electric field.

Thanks to Artemisdraws for the schematic

The electric field from the balloon aligns the water molecules such that the coffee gets attracted towards the balloon.

Water molecules are composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen each. They are electrically neutral. However water is also a strongly polar molecule, meaning that when it is subjected to an electric field, the molecules will tend to align such that they are more positively charged closer to the negatively charged balloon and more negatively charged further away from the balloon. This charge distribution means that the stream of water gets attracted towards the balloon. The amount that the coffee stream bends is dependent on the strength of the electric field from the balloon and the mass of the stream which is still being pulled down by gravity.

The video suggests using cold brew coffee when you test this at home. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if the balloon gets too close to the coffee stream, it can get splashed. There is a chance that this may burst the balloon. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the water molecules are more agitated at higher energies (temperatures). This means that thermal agitation weakens the average dipole moment of the water thereby weakening the attraction between the coffee stream and the balloon. In this effect as in its taste, cold brew is a stronger drink than your ordinary hot filter.

Let me know if you try this and how you get on. It would be particularly interesting to see any attempts made on bending coffee from an espresso machine. My thanks, as always, to artemisdraws for the helpful schematic shown here.

Does nature hate a vacuum?

The problem tea pot

The problem teapot

A few weeks ago, while having lunch with colleagues, one of them was complaining about his problems with his morning tea. So desperate he was to get his cup, he kept tipping the teapot to steeper and steeper angles in an attempt to increase the rate of pouring. Unfortunately, when he did so, the flow out of the spout became chaotic and, rather than having a nice cup of tea, he had a mess on the table. Another colleague suggested (sensibly) that it was a problem with the air-hole at the top of the teapot, not enough air was getting into the pot to enable the tea to flow smoothly out. In fact, my colleague’s tea pot problem turned out to have a different cause that will be featured in the Daily Grind in a few weeks. However, it did get me thinking about the purpose of the air hole in take-away coffee cups.

On the lid of a take-away cup are two holes. One, for drinking from while in a rush to get from A to B, the other, a very small air inlet hole that allows the coffee to flow nicely from the drinking hole. The requirement for such an air inlet has been known for millenia, however it was not understood why it was needed. Traditionally it was explained by saying that “nature abhors a vacuum”, the idea being that the coffee could not leave the cup because if it did so it would leave a vacuum which nature ‘does not allow’.

Take-away cup, plastic lid, equalisation of air pressure

The lid of a take-away cup has two holes. One for drinking from, the other to let air in.

An immediate problem with such an argument is that it implies that coffee has a will; nature ‘does not want’ a vacuum. Indeed for Rene Descartes (of “I think therefore I am” fame) this was a key problem with the traditional explanation. Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650, although for twenty years before that he had lived in Holland. For Europeans, the Dutch were fairly fast off the mark in terms of the introduction of coffee into their society. They had managed to get hold of a coffee plant in 1616 but only started properly growing coffee for themselves (in Ceylon!) in 1658, a few years after Descartes’ death. It is therefore unlikely that Descartes ever had the opportunity to try much coffee. Instead, when Descartes thought about the importance of air holes, the example that he used was a wine cask. In ‘The World‘, written in about 1632 he states “When the wine in a cask does not flow from the bottom opening because the top is completely closed, it is improper to say, as they ordinarily do, that this takes place through ‘fear of a vacuum’. We are well aware that the wine has no mind to fear anything; and even if it did, I do not know for what reason it could be apprehensive of this vacuum…”

Oranda, fish, Descartes water fish example, air pressure equalisation

The space behind a swimming fish is immediately filled with water as the fish moves forward.

For Descartes, the reason that an air hole was needed in the wine cask was not because nature hated a vacuum but because, on the contrary, nature was completely ‘full’ of matter. Whether that matter was wine, air or the material that made up the barrel, the world was full of ‘stuff’, meaning that if wine came out of the cask the air that it displaced had to go somewhere. Having nowhere else in the universe to go, this displaced air would have to go into the region of the cask that the wine had just vacated. Descartes compared this movement of air into the top of the cask to the displacement of water by fish as they swam through water. We may not notice the water in front of the fish moving to the back as the fish swims through the water but we know that the water must fill the empty space left by the moving fish. In the same way we do not perceive the air to flow from the outlet of the wine cask to the top of the barrel, but we know that it must (because, Descartes thought, it had nowhere else that it could go).

This explanation had far reaching consequences for Descartes world view. He could explain gravity and the motion of the planets as a consequence of the planets moving in a giant vortex of a substance around the Sun. The image of the solar system as a giant cup of coffee being stirred is one that the Daily Grind is sure to return to at some point. For the moment though, we need to step back and think. We know that the universe is not ‘full’ in the sense meant by Descartes and so this part of his explanation must be wrong, but why is it that blocking the air inlet hole stops the flow of water out of the cup?

coffee cup science, coffeecupscience, everydayphysics

Whether coffee leaves the cup or not depends on a balance of forces

Think about the schematic shown here. Gravity is pulling on the mass of coffee in the cup through the drinking hole. Air pressure is acting against this pull, pushing the coffee back into the cup (if you ever wanted a demonstration of how powerful air pressure can be, try sealing an empty water bottle before coming down a mountain or at the start of the descent in a plane). There is also air pressure inside the cup acting downwards on the coffee. With the air hole open, this air pressure is fairly equal to that outside of the cup. The inside air pressure cancels the outside air pressure, gravity wins and the coffee comes out. Imagine now closing the air hole. No air can get into the cup so, after a little coffee leaves, the air pressure inside the cup drops to less than the air pressure outside of the cup. This time, the air pressure outside the cup pushes the coffee back into the cup more than gravity pulls it out and the coffee stays in the cup. Can we test this explanation? One way to test the theory would be to somehow change the pressure inside the cup. Using two identical cups (which I got from the very friendly people with good coffee at Iris and June), the video below shows two experiments. In the first, both cups are filled with the same amount of cold ‘coffee’ (no coffee is ever wasted in these videos, dregs are recycled). The second experiment shows one cup holding cold coffee, one holding steaming coffee. Why might these experiments support the theory that it is air pressure that keeps the coffee in? Perhaps you can think of better experiments, or improvements to this one, let me know in the comments section below, but most of all, enjoy your coffee while you do so.

(note that the cups had got a bit water damaged through practise runs before filming. Note also that for this experiment to be meaningful, you would need to repeat the measurements many times so that you can build up a statistical picture, but that would make the video quite boring).