Coffee review Coffee Roasters Observations Science history slow Tea

HR Higgins, Duke Street

Interior of HR Higgins cafe
The view of H.R. Higgins (Coffee-man) from Duke Street. The Royal Warrant can be seen on the side of the wall.

Established over 80 years ago, HR Higgins in Mayfair’s Duke Street is somewhat of an institution. From the pavement, you can look into the cafe space in the basement below while the shop upstairs offers coffee beans and tea for retail. During the (earlier) mornings, coffee is also prepared for take-away at the entrance to the shop on the ground floor while the cafe downstairs is closed.

The first time I came here, it was only to buy beans. That time I tried the Rwandan Women’s cooperative coffee and was impressed by the scales used to weigh out my 250g: a proper mechanical scale set complete with weights. The second time I tried it, again I only had time to purchase beans but I determined that the next time I would definitely try the cafe downstairs because if there was so much physics to appreciate upstairs with the scales and the decor, how much more would there be downstairs. And so, I arrived one morning at 8.30am having checked the opening hours and the cafe downstairs was… closed. It turns out that although the shop is open, and although take-away coffee is served from the front of the shop, the cafe only opens much later at 10am (on weekdays).

Inside an empty cafe.
Inside an empty cafe, downstairs at Higgins. The clock on the wall is a throw back to the ’70s while the mosaic tiling on the floor is particularly mesmerising. What strikes you?

However, what was an initial disappointment turned into a great opportunity as I was able to have a proper look around, completely on my own, while the man upstairs prepared my V60. Having no intention of actually ‘taking-away’ the take-away, when I came back upstairs (and had another look at the scales and tins of coffee at the back of the store) I went outside to the “H.R.Higgins” bench to sit and enjoy my coffee and the surroundings. There were a few pastries that were also available for take-away but this time I just took my coffee and sat down.

The coffee was really good. I had been given a choice of two coffees for the V60 and went for the Honduran as it was recommended as being particularly good for the V60 brew method. It was packed with flavour notes and character as it cooled while I sat on the bench. The bench offered a view of city life. The busy cafe next-door to my left; the old sign “Duke Street, W”* on the wall opposite; the imposing “Brown Hart Gardens” which is above an early 2oth century electrical substation just to my right and of course, the cafe itself in the basement visible behind me. The bench was also a good spot for people watching. Many people, with many characters, walked past (or got their coffee in Higgins and then walked past). I thought perhaps that I even saw George Osborne** wandering by but decided to let my mind wander to think about the physics instead.

Of course there was a lot to ponder. The nature of scales and the definition of the kilogram had been an obvious starting point but the reflection of the cafe name in the window opposite me provided further directions of thought. The patterns of the tiling in the cafe could provide several avenues of thinking while the history involved with the establishment of this establishment would have prompted a significant diversion. Finally, the antique bike standing next to the bench took me on the thought-journey that occupied the rest of the time I spent on the bench and enabled me to keep my phone left solely for taking photographs.

An old bike with flowers where a delivery box used to be.
The H.R. Higgins bike. Complete with Brookes saddle and flowers for luggage, this bike gave plenty to ponder while enjoying a coffee.

Now used as a flower pot holder, this old bike looked as if it had been adapted from a delivery bicycle of a fair few years ago. The brakes were immediately attention grabbing. We have become used to the wires used to operate the brakes on modern bikes but these used firm metal rods to transfer the action on the brake levers on the handle bars down to the wheels. And then the wheels themselves had rubber tyres. Again, this is somewhat obvious and very familiar except the first bikes had iron wheels because rubber tyres had to be invented.

There is a potential diversion here to the story of rubber, which could almost be a cafe-chemistry review but we won’t go that way today. Nonetheless, it is worth pondering that rubber tyres are, just like coffee, a product with a varied history of globalisation, trade and colonisation. What enabled the bicycle wheel to evolve from cast iron to pneumatic tyres was the chemistry involved in the ‘vulcanization’ process invented by Goodyear that meant that the rubber no longer suffered from getting too soft at higher temperatures and too hard at lower temperatures. Anyway, that’s a digression.

Returning to the bicycle, a lot of physics is involved in cycling. Is it actually clear how any of us can balance on a bicycle? A short answer, and the one that is often off-handedly given, is that we can cycle because of “conservation of angular momentum”, but it turns out that it is a little more tricky than just that. A few years ago, a chemist decided to test the ideas put forward to explain how we balanced on a bicycle by building so-called “un-ridable” bicycles and found that he could actually ride some of them, thereby showing that some of our ideas on bicycle riding needed a little ‘tweaking’. The basic ideas of conservation of angular momentum were correct, but like many things, if you actually want to understand it, you need to go a bit deeper (and do a couple of experiments!).

As we move beyond the basic physics so we move to the technology of cycling and the improvements that are being made to competitive cycles (and their riders) to make them more aerodynamic. We have moved a long way from brakes using rods and delivery cycles. And yet, sometimes there are advantages to the old ways. Just as the scales at H.R. Higgins still work perfectly well with the balance and weights system, so new delivery bicycles are re-appearing in London, swapping polluting vans for cleaner-greener delivery vehicles. Just these ones no longer have metal rods for brakes and they perhaps have a pedal-assist electric motor.

Have you enjoyed a coffee at H.R. Higgins (or somewhere similar)? What did you notice that enabled you to put your mobile phone down and really think about your surroundings? Do let me know in the comments section here or via social media.

H. R. Higgins is at 79 Duke Street, Mayfair, W1K 5AS

*The single “W” on the sign (rather than the post code of the area “W1”) shows that the sign has been there since before the first World War when the London post code system was refined from the merely “W” to the W1, W2 etc. that we use now.

**George Osborne was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister for the UK government) from 2010 to 2016.

Coffee review Observations Sustainability/environmental Tea

Breathing underwater at the London Particular

table and inside of the LP
Inside the London Particular

Tucked out of the way in New Cross, the London Particular has always been just that little bit far away to travel to, but always so tempting, a siren calling towards New Cross. The reviews of the food and the place were intriguing, while the coffee is roasted by HR Higgins, a roaster with a café that always seems closed when I get the opportunity to pass by (which is usually Sundays). So it was with some relief that I finally managed to get to the “LP” a couple of weeks ago. Towards the end of a row of shops, the space outside the café has plenty of seats where you can enjoy a spot of lunch and/or a coffee on a warm day. Inside feels more cosy. A bar on the left of the entrance forms a corridor with the wall that you walk through to get to a room with communal table at the back. In addition to the communal table, there are a series of individual high chairs along the wall. At the back of the café is a window with an old device sitting on it. “An old digital multi-meter” I said before being corrected by my sometime companion in these reviews, it has a dial, it must be an “analogue multi-meter” then! It did seem to be able to measure current and resistance and it did have a dial to indicate the value measured. Quite why it was sitting, unconnected, on the windowsill is anyone’s guess.

An Analogue multi-meter. But why was this sitting on the windowsill at the back of the cafe?

The lunch menu is good. Enough items there to provide choice, few enough that each can be done well. Significantly, the true London Particular, the pea soup, was not on the menu on the day we were there. We had a light bite of lunch, a black coffee and shared the jug of mint infused tap water that was placed on our section of the table. At the other end of the table, another customer was enjoying her lunch. So although communal, the table gave us enough room to be private and have our own conversation. A mirror along the wall above the table reflected the blackboard menu between the table and the bar. Thinking about mirror writing reminded me of Dr Florence Hensey and his letters of lemon juice ink. Back in the eighteenth century he had operated as a spy out of coffee houses on the Strand and in St Martin’s Lane¹. Spying on England for France, his letters, written in lemon juice (invisible ink) passed without detection before the frequency of correspondence drew suspicions. Times move on. Spies would surely no longer write in lemon juice or even mirror writing to avoid detection.

Lunch on a week day was a very good time to experience this café. It must get quite crowded at weekends or brunch times. So it was good to be able to sit back and contemplate our surroundings from the back of the café. In the foreground of our view though was the water jug. With fresh mint leaves stacked inside, it was evident that air had become trapped under some of the leaves forming tiny bubbles. How had the air got stuck there? Was it merely that the leaf was blocking the air bubble from rising through the water? Could there be slightly more to it?

Coffee and mint water in New Cross
Coffee and mint water at the LP

There is a popular expression “like water off a duck’s back”. Perhaps it arose because the duck’s back is often thought one of the most waterproof surfaces we know. But what makes the duck so waterproof? Why does water just form drops and then fall off the back of the duck? It is not because the feathers are oily. We sometimes ‘wax’ our waterproofs with a grease to make them resistant to getting wet and so perhaps we have thought that the duck’s back was just a bit greasy? And yet a study done back in 1944 showed that mere oil could not account for the waterproofing of the duck’s back.

Before delving into why the duck’s back is such a waterproof surface, it’s helpful to know how to quantify ‘waterproof-ness’ in the first place. To measure how waterproof something is, we use what is known as the contact angle, which is the angle that the drop makes with the surface on which it is sitting. Surfaces that are not waterproof (technically we call them “wettable” or hydrophilic), have very low contact angles, the ‘droplets’ of water on the surface are flattened. Waterproof surfaces on the other hand (imaginatively called hydrophobic), have contact angles which are much greater than 90º (it may be helpful here to have a look at the cartoon illustrating this point). Droplets that formed on a duck’s back had contact angles much greater than 90º, indeed, they formed almost spherical drops of water. What could be going on?

artemisdraws cartoon, contact angle, wettability
How ‘wettable’ a surface is can be defined by the contact angle that the drop makes with the surface. Image thanks to artemisworks.

The answer is in the details of the feather. The feather is not a flat surface but a material that has irregular protrusions and structure at the micro and nano-scale (one thousand and one million times smaller than mm scale respectively). These protrusions trap air within the feather and so effectively suspend the drop above the feather surface. The droplet does not have a flat surface on which to spread out. The structure means that the contact angles of the drops of water on a feather can be even higher than 150º; the droplets are held up almost as if they are spheres of water.

mint infused water at the LP New Cross
A breath of fresh air under water. Air bubbles trapped under mint leaves.

Another creature that uses the irregular protrusions on the hairs on its legs for waterproofing is the spider. The hairs on the legs of a spider mean that, just as the duck’s back, the spider’s legs are extremely waterproof. But it also means that air is trapped under the droplets. Consequently, if a spider finds itself submerged under water, the air under the droplets forms little bubbles similar to those under the mint leaf in the London Particular. And this allows a drowning spider the air it needs to breathe. Nanostructure helping the duck to dive and the spider to survive. And the mint water to be particularly refreshing on a warm day in a very pleasant place for a spot of lunch and a coffee.




The London Particular can be found at 399 New Cross Road, SE14 6LA

¹London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, Pub 1963