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.


Keeping it local at Lumberjack, Camberwell

Lumberjack coffee Camberwell

Lumberjack Camberwell with the (not quite) inukshuk in the window

I came across Lumberjack last week while spending an afternoon in Camberwell looking for interesting cafes to “cafe-physics” review. I was actually on my way to a cafe further along the road when a couple of wooden structures in the window attracted my attention. Thinking that they were “Inukshuk” we decided to go in and try this new cafe. It turned out to be a good choice because, even though the structures were not in fact inuksuik, they had brought us into this lovely little cafe. We arrived shortly before closing but I still had time to enjoy a very good long black (with beans from Old Spike Roastery). Complementary water was brought over to the table. It would have been great if we had arrived just that bit earlier so that we could have had more time to properly appreciate this friendly cafe. The interior is bright and smartly decorated with wooden tables and shelving as well as plenty of seats at the back. The wooden furniture is explained by the fact that the cafe is the trading arm for London Reclaimed, a charity that provides employment and carpentry training to 16-25 year olds from SE London while making bespoke furniture from reclaimed timber. The cafe too aims to provide training and support to encourage 16-25 year olds into work and a future career. In terms of the ‘physics’ bit of this review, the interior of the cafe certainly has plenty to observe, from the pendulum like light fittings to the detail of the wood. But as this cafe is metaphorically, and in some ways literally, built on/with wood and as Lumberjack boasts on its website that “almost everything you’ll find in store, from the coffee to the furniture, are sourced as locally and homemade as possible” it is only appropriate that this cafe-physics review should focus on wood, trees and a tree very specific and local to London; the London Plane tree.

Long Black coffee in a red cup

A Long Black at Lumberjack with the grain of the wood showing underneath

With their characteristic mottled bark, London Plane trees are a recognisable sight along many a London street. The bark absorbs pollutants from the street before bits of bark fall off, taking the pollution with them and leaving the tree with its mottled appearance. Their root structure and resistance to pruning or pollarding helps to ensure that (mostly) they can survive happily in the crowded confines of London pavements. They are indeed very much a tree that seems almost specially adapted to London. Yet the connection between the London Plane and London goes deeper than that. The first ever record of a London Plane tree was in the seventeenth century, just up the road from Lumberjack, in the Vauxhall Gardens of John Tradescant the Younger. The London Plane is in fact a hybrid tree, thought to be a cross between the American sycamore (first recorded in London in 1548) and the Oriental Plane (first recorded in London in the C17th). Both these trees were found in Tradescant’s gardens and it is possible that the hybrid tree, the now ubiquitous London Plane, was actually first grown in Vauxhall.

Even though London is full of Plane Trees, it is not very common to find plane wood furniture. Rather than the grain visible in the tables at Lumberjack, Plane wood shows a “lacy” structure that gives furniture made with plane a distinctive pattern. Although unsuitable for outdoor furniture, plane-wood can be used to make indoor furniture and indeed some London based cabinet makers have even documented obtaining usable timber from recently felled London Planes.

Tomb of the Tradescants

The Tradescant Tomb at St Mary’s, Lambeth

And it is this that takes us to the physics part of the cafe-physics review. Perhaps it is the areas (and the parks) that I walk through, but it seems to me that there has been a fair amount of tree felling in London over the last six months or so. Part of the reason for this must be to ensure that the trees in our parks and that line our streets are safe and not going to fall down in high winds. Many trees that fall down in high winds do so because they get uprooted. However it is also possible, in very high winds for the whole tree to snap. Indeed, when researchers mapped the wind speeds through a forested area of Southern France during a storm in January 2009 they found that when the wind speed exceeded ~40 m/s (90 miles per hour), more than 50% of the trees broke in the wind, irrespective of whether these trees were softwood (pine) or hardwood (oak). A very recent paper by a Paris-based group (published last week in the journal Physical Review E) confirmed that irrespective of the species of tree or the tree height, the trunks of trees were liable to snap at a critical wind speed. The team combined experiment and theory to establish that the critical wind speed scaled with the tree’s diameter and height. However, because trees generally treble their diameter as they double their height, the effect of the diameter change was (almost) cancelled by the height difference between trees. Surprisingly, this critical wind speed did not depend on the elasticity of the tree, so there is no difference between a softwood such as pine and a hardwood like oak or plane. The researchers calculated the critical wind speed needed to break a tree to be 56 m/s, very close to the 40 m/s observed in that January storm.

Lumberjack can be found at 70 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8QZ

If you have a cafe that you think needs a cafe physics review, please let me know. Comments always welcome, please click the box below.