slow coffee

Communities at Wilton Way

exterior of Wilton Way, Hackney Coffee

Wilton Way cafe on Wilton Way

There are two things that may strike you as you walk past Wilton Way café. The first is the prominent La Marzocco espresso machine on the counter. The second is the “ON AIR” sign in the corner next to the window. Indeed, it is best to look out for these two as there didn’t seem to be any other sign indicating that this café was the Wilton Way cafe, home to the London Fields Radio that is broadcast from here (hence the “on air” sign). In the late afternoon, the café offered some shade on a sunny day and so we popped in for a tea, though there is seating on a bench outside should you wish to enjoy the Sun. Although this website is supposed to be about coffee (which is roasted by Climpson & Sons), sometimes a fresh mint tea is what is needed. This particular mint tea was very refreshing with plenty of mint leaves in the cup. Sadly though, in what seems to be a common pattern at the moment, this was another café at which there were few cakes on offer, presumably as it was late afternoon by the time we visited. However, what is sad for the mind is perhaps good for the waistline, we’ll have to revisit in the morning for the cakes next time.

Corrugated iron supported the counter while the (plentiful) seats inside the café appeared to be made of recycled wood and boxes. Interestingly, this is mentioned in the description of the Wilton Way café on the London Fields Radio website, apparently the interior was designed to be a mix of modern and reclaimed materials. Choosing a seat at the back allowed us to survey the space and people-watch while sipping the tea. On the counter was an old-style Casio cash register while in the far corner at the front of the café, the microphone and broadcasting equipment stood waiting to be used for the London Fields Radio.

the broadcasting equipment at the WW cafe Hackney

London Fields Radio, broadcast from Wilton Way cafe

In the book “Radar, how it all began” the author, Jim Brown reminisced about how he had played with a crystal radio set as a child in the 1920s¹. Many scientists can remember making their own radio sets as children (or indeed as adults). It seems playing with things, taking them apart and building them again is part of the personal-history of many scientists and engineers (particularly experimental ones whether they be ‘professional’ scientists or not). The Lunar Society (which was active at the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth) featured a group of keen “tinkerers”. These were people who experimented with nature and invented new devices in order to explore their understanding of the world. Though each of them were only doing science ‘on the side’ as they each had other day-jobs, individuals within the group did make some important contributions to our understanding of the world. One such contribution was by Josiah Wedgwood who by observing the “waviness of flint glass” noticed its resemblance to “that which arises when water and spirit of wine are first put together before they become perfectly unified”². The reference is to mixing fluids of different density. Isn’t this experience of tinkering with things similar to our enjoyment and appreciation of coffee? The more we experiment, the more coffee we try (including cupping coffee as with this how-to from Perfect Daily Grind), the more deeply involved in coffee we become and the more we value it. Isn’t it actually true that in order to deepen our relationship with coffee we need to explore it (and experiment with it) more fully? Cannot the same be said for our relation to our world?

interior of Wilton Way cafe

The view from the corner. Spacious and quirky, the Wilton Way cafe has plenty to offer the coffee (or tea) drinker who wishes to slow down and appreciate the moment.

But then a second thought that, to some extent flows from the first. No development would be possible without a community, each contributor bringing a different talent but each contributing to an idea of a greater good. The London Fields Radio would not be possible without the scientists and engineers who design and optimise the broadcasting (and receiving) equipment. But neither would it be possible without talented DJs and musicians, thinkers, poets and performers to give us something to listen to. Two more groups of people are needed for London Fields Radio to be a success. Those who provide the space for the broadcasting equipment (i.e. the café) and those who listen in. Again there is an analogy with coffee. No cup of coffee could be there for us to enjoy without the farmers, the traders, the roasters, the baristas and finally many other people like us who enjoy a good cup. And the more each of us tinker with appreciating another’s work (cupping the coffee like a roaster or tending an allotment to appreciate the growth), the more of a community we become and the better coffee we get for it. We do not imagine while ‘cupping’ coffee that we are really about to take on the role of the coffee trader or roaster, yet by playing at their job we can appreciate their importance and skill more and so realise more effectively our own role too. We could go full-cycle here and consider how playing with radios and experiments can help us to understand the role of technology and science in society and our participation in it, but perhaps that is left as a point to ponder in another café: How can we each contribute to a better society, understand our role in it and appreciate the contributions of others?

One final thought that came from the Lunar society but appears to have a very contemporary relevance. Wedgwood once said to Richard Lovell Edgeworth “But in politics… as in religion, hardly any two people who thought at all, thought exactly alike on everything.” The main thing was “to agree to differ, to agree on impartial investigation and candid argument”.² It appears the Lunar men still have a thing or two to teach us.

Wilton Way cafe can be found at 63 Wilton Way, E8 1BG

¹Radar, How it all began, Jim Brown, Janus Publishing Ltd, 1996

²The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow, Faber & Faber, 2003

Tea Gazing

Milky Way, stars, astrophotography

The Milky Way as viewed from Nebraska. Image © Howard Edin (http://www.howardedin.com)

A recent opinion piece about last week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO drew my attention to a quote from Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Einstein was not the only scientist to have expressed such sentiments. Many scientists have considered a sense of wonder to be integral to their practice of science. For many this has involved gazing at the heavens on a clear night and contemplating the vastness, and the beauty, of the universe. Contemplating the twinkling stars suggests the universe outside our Solar System. Watching as the stars twinkle gives us clues as to our own planet’s atmosphere. Of course, it is not just scientists who have expressed such thoughts. Immanuel Kant wrote:

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.“*

light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup

Dancing threads of light at the bottom of the tea cup.

The other evening I prepared a lovely, delicate, loose leaf jasmine tea in a teapot. I then, perhaps carelessly, perhaps fortuitously, poured the hot tea into a cold tea cup. Immediately threads of light danced across the bottom of the cup. The kitchen lights above the tea cup were refracted through hot and not-quite-so-hot regions of the tea before being reflected from the bottom of the cup. The refractive index of water changes as a function of the water’s temperature and so the light gets bent by varying amounts depending on the temperature of the tea that it travels through. Effectively the hotter and cooler regions of the tea act as a collection of many different lenses to the light travelling through the tea. These lenses produce the dancing threads of light at the bottom of the cup. The contact between the hot tea and the cold cup amplified the convection currents in the tea cup and so made these threads of light particularly visible, and particularly active, that evening. It is a very similar effect that causes the twinkling of the stars. Rather than hot tea, the light from the distant stars is refracted by the turbulent atmosphere, travelling through moving pockets of relatively warm air and relative cool air. The star light dances just a little, with the turbulence of the atmosphere, this way and that on its way to our eyes.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.Ҡ

Marcus Aurelius of course didn’t have tea. Watch the dancing lights in the tea cup and see yourself sitting with it, resting a while and then watching while dwelling on the beauty in your cup.

*Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

†Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Time to enjoy a Beethoven coffee

Portrait bust of Beethoven, Anna EG Hoffman, in the British Museum collection © Trustees of the British Museum

Portrait bust of Beethoven, Anna EG Hoffman, in the British Museum collection © Trustees of the British Museum

It is said that Beethoven prepared his coffee by counting, precisely, 60 beans per cup. Biographies of Beethoven certainly suggest that he had a significant coffee habit. Banned by his doctor from drinking coffee towards the end of his life, there are many references to him frequenting coffee houses in earlier years. Sadly, I have not found the source for the 60 beans story and so would not like to comment on its veracity. Nonetheless, it is a good story and it does link with coffee so, as today (17th December) is the 244th anniversary of his baptism (it is assumed that he was born the day before on 16th December 1770), it is “Beethoven day” on the Daily Grind.

To me, what lends some credibility to the 60 beans story is the fact that, as coffee lovers, we can be very particular about the way we prepare our brew. Some people, for example, weigh the amount of the coffee and the quantity of water and brew their coffee according to instructions from one of the various online brewing tutorials (see here for a good one from Hasbean). Personally, in the morning, I am far too bleary eyed to consider getting the kitchen scales out, nor would I count a certain number of beans. I do however count the number of seconds that I take to grind my coffee with my trusty burr grinder (always set to the same level of grind of course). Can counting the number of seconds for a quantity of grind possibly be a good way of measuring a specific quantity of coffee?

Did Galileo drop balls from the top of the tower?

Did Galileo drop balls from the top of the tower?

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) died before coffee was properly introduced to Europe. He is relevant to this story though owing to his work on clocks and timing devices. One way that Galileo measured time was to collect water in a jug over the measurement period. It seems that this is almost the reverse of my morning coffee ritual. To check that he was measuring time correctly however, he needed a second, independent method. Of course, Galileo couldn’t use a watch or pendulum because watches hadn’t been developed at the time and Galileo himself was doing the work needed to understand pendulums and make them useful for clocks. So what else could he use to measure time? There is a clue to another method that Galileo used in his experiments on falling balls. Although there are questions as to whether Galileo really did drop balls from the top of the Tower of Pisa, we do know that he did experiments which involved rolling bronze balls down a groove. Along the groove were marks where strings made from gut had been pulled across the groove such that they made a sound as the ball passed, perhaps like the sound of a harp being plucked. By adjusting the position of these strings, the interval between the sounds from different gut strings could be made to match a known rhythm. The time it took for a ball to fall down the groove was being measured by matching its descent to a known tune. This suggests that Galileo sang while he was making his key measurements and that it was this that allowed him to start to understand how bodies fell under gravity. Singing was Galileo’s (surprisingly accurate) method of measuring time.

Which brings me full circle back to Beethoven. Beethoven certainly knew the “mechanician” Mälzel who invented the metronome as we now know it. There are also indications that Beethoven was aware of early versions of Mälzel’s invention. In 1813, the Wiener Vaterländische Blätter wrote “…Herr Beethoven looks upon this invention as a welcome means with which to secure the performance of his brilliant compositions in all places in the tempos conceived by him, which to his regret have so often been misunderstood“.  It seems that in the two hundred years between Galileo and Beethoven, there had been so many improvements to clocks and timing devices that singing, which had started off as a way to measure time, was now itself being regulated by the clocks that singing may have helped to develop.

How many beans go to make your morning coffee?

How many beans go to make your morning coffee?

So how is a Beethoven coffee, assuming that there is any veracity to the legend? Sixty beans works out as 8-10g which, depending on the amount of water in the cup could be weaker (or stronger) than modern brews. In my cup, it was slightly weaker than I am used to. I enjoyed my “Beethoven coffee” while listening to his String Quartet Op 74, “Harp”. As I sipped the coffee while listening to the first movement, I could almost hear the gut strings of Galileo’s experiment being plucked as the balls rolled by. The coffee itself (Costa Rica, Finca Arbar El Manatial, Yellow Honey, Caturra/Catual) was very smooth and rich, as you would expect from a coffee from Has Bean. Described in the tasting notes as “….An amazing caramel and milk chocolate sweetness partnered with delicate peach and apricot acidity…” It was the perfect coffee to enjoy with the Harp quartet piece. Sometimes it is important to take time to go slow and enjoy the coffee.

So why not raise a mug today to Beethoven and savour a Beethoven coffee? Please leave any comments using the form below, especially if you know a reliable reference to Beethoven’s coffee habit or have suggestions as to how to improve my morning brew.

Further reading:

Quotes taken from “Thayer’s life of Beethoven”, Revised and Edited by Elliot Forbes, Princeton University Press, 1967

Information on Galileo and time: “Styles of Knowing, A new history of science from ancient times to the present”, Chunglin Kwa, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011