Ever considered the connection between your morning brew and a century old technique that, it is fair to say, revolutionised analytical chemistry?
Last week, a new coffee arrived in the post from the Roasting House coffee club, followed shortly by an email with details about that week’s coffee. This is not unusual, the coffee club means that a different coffee arrives every two weeks. What was slightly unusual was the email which started:
“There are some brief tasting notes on the bag of coffee we sent you, but before you go on and read the more detailed description, have a good taste of the coffee yourself….”
The opportunity to do so finally arrived and I prepared a V60. First measuring out the freshly ground beans, rinsing the filter, watching the bloom, then slowly pouring the remaining freshly boiled water onto the grounds, all the while noting the aroma.
Taking this opportunity to slowly prepare (and appreciate) a coffee, I noticed that some of the soluble elements in the coffee climbed the filter paper during the pour. A few hours afterwards, the paper had gained a circular rim of coffee solubles around the top of the paper. Although in many ways quite different, this effect was very reminiscent of the technique of chromatography.
The biggest difference between the behaviour of the V60 filter and “paper chromatography” is that in the former, the bottom of the filter paper is continuously immersed in both the sample (coffee) and the solvent (water). In chromatography on the other hand, a drop of the sample (e.g. coffee or ink) is put onto the filter paper which is then placed in a solvent (e.g. water, ethanol). Different components within the sample travel different amounts up the filter paper depending on how soluble they are in the solvent and how they interact chemically with the filter paper. So different components will travel different distances up the filter paper before they get stuck while the solvent continues to travel up the paper. All else being constant, each component always travels a certain distance relative to the solvent and so this provides a way of separating chemical components ready for further analysis or identification.
Perhaps you remember using chromatography to separate the colours in an ink pen at school? The ink was spotted onto a piece of filter paper and then immersed in water. We watched as it separated into various colours illustrating the number of different dyes that had been used to make up the ink. When used professionally though, the chromatography technique can be used to investigate trace impurities in soil, air, drinking water etc. It has even been used to analyse the components in coffee. From something that can be done in school science, it is an incredibly powerful chemical technique.
What was surprising was that the technique of chromatography was not invented until 1903, while the idea of using paper in chromatography only came about in 1944¹. Those who first used chromatography as a method to identify chemicals (in plants), did so using columns of powder rather than paper. Paper chromatography was invented to investigate the separation of amino acids and specifically was used to understand the composition of the antibiotic tyrocidin¹. Just as the ink in our school experiments separated into different dyes, so the chemicals that they were investigating would separate into different components, different chemicals would stay at different heights on the filter paper.
Since its invention, the technique had been extended to include gas chromatography rather than just liquid and has been developed to be extraordinarily sensitive. It is now possible to analyse chemicals with a mass of just 10^-15 grammes, a quantity which is too small to even easily imagine. Even just a couple of decades after the invention of the technique it could be said:
“Amino acids… could now be separated in microgram amounts and visualised…. (Paper chromatography) would allow one within the space of a week [to do some analysis]… which until then could very well have occupied the three years of a Ph.D….”¹
However, to return to the coffee. Through tasting rather than chemistry, I obtained a toffee aroma, with earthy notes and hints of redcurrant that evolved as the coffee cooled into a sweet toffee taste. The tasting notes further down the email on the other hand said:
“There’s a rich chocolate base, a kind of woody pine taste, sweet summer fruits, even tobacco. Remember, taste it before you judge it! Tobacco notes and woody pine don’t sound particularly appealing and maybe you don’t taste them at all!”
Much more descriptive than my effort. It seems I need to return to my V60 and improve my tasting ‘chromatography’. There are so many ways to slow down and appreciate a good coffee, what do you notice in yours?
A ‘coffee tasting wheel’ can be found here if you, like me, would like to improve your coffee tasting ‘chromatography’.
¹Chapters in the evolution of Chromatography, Ed. John V Hinshaw, Imperial College Press, 2008