There is nothing quite like wandering through a market street in the hour or so before the market opens. It feels as if you are there as part of the city is waking up, things moving into place, ready to start the hustle and bustle of the day. It is one of the things I like to do when exploring a new city: wake up earlier in order to walk around and try to find breakfast, listening for the character of the place. Sometimes though, it is good to try this in your own city, it is a chance to see your home, your space, in a new light; a different aspect of its essence. So it was that I ended up wandering along Portobello Road shortly after 8am one week day morning. Market stalls were being moved into place, office workers were cycling or scooting on their way to work and a small little coffee shop with an open door seemed to invite customers in to sample their coffee.
Hermanos Colombian Coffee Roasters cafe can be found at 127 Portobello Road. Actually, it can also be found at 7 other locations including Kings Cross and Victoria Stations. Does this qualify as a coffee chain? Regardless of the number of cafes, Hermanos Coffee on Portobello Road is somehow clearly integrated into that community, so much so that this initially appeared to be a small scale single shop embedded within Portobello. When you sit to drink a coffee while the street around you ‘wakes up’, it seems as if people around drop their guard a bit, you see glimpses into relationships that later in the day will be hidden by the rush of people. Perhaps it was the time of day that made this cafe seem particularly friendly, I stepped inside to order my coffee.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the coffee is roasted by Hermanos Colombian Coffee Roasters and they have a large selection of their coffee (and coffee making equipment) for sale on your left as you walk into this small cafe. The counter is just ahead of you (also on your left) with the menu behind the counter showing the usual selection of coffees available. I am fairly confident that they also offered a pour over coffee on the menu, but it being the start of the morning rush, I didn’t want to preoccupy the barista with making a filter for me and so I ordered a long black. Beyond the counter, there were a few seats with people already inside enjoying coffee and conversation before the start of the day. As I indicated that I wanted to sit outside, the person behind the counter asked me if I would prefer “china or a take-away cup”. It’s a small detail but it was nice to be asked. I picked up my cup of coffee from the end of the counter, wandered outside and took a seat waiting to watch what went on for the next half hour or so.
I listened as the barista spoke to each new customer, some of whom were clearly regulars. “Back to hot coffees as the weather turns colder then?” I heard, as a customer walked in off the street. I then watched as the barista came outside, took a short breather during a lull in customers and greeted the person who was opening the hat store next door. Another person walked into the cafe to pick up his bag that he had left there briefly as he knew it would be ‘safe’. This is (unfortunately) not something that you would normally assume of Portobello Road. It was not just the community aspect that jumped out at the interested observer of this cafe. The science started to appear everywhere. This is of course in one sense always true. The mere fact of seeing something involves multiple elements of physics and biology without thinking about anything deeper. However, some cafes produce something in the physicist akin to writer’s block, it can be hard to link to what is around you. This is very far from the case at Hermanos.
The recent rain on the wooden table top suggested the phenomenon of coffee rings and what makes a surface wettable, while the table itself with one wonky wooden slat immediately prompted considerations on defects in crystal lattices. One of the many people who rushed by was talking to someone on a mobile phone set to speaker. This meant that the entire conversation was audible to the nearby coffee drinker. You could ponder what they were talking about or you may start to think about why it is that someone through a phone line sounds different to that same person speaking in front of you. Every sound is made up of several frequencies of sound wave. The more complex the sound, the greater the number of frequencies used to convey it. When you speak to someone face to face, all of those frequencies will be transmitted from the speaker to the listener. When a sound is transmitted through a phone line, it is necessary to limit the frequencies that the phone line can carry. For some sounds, some of the higher frequencies that contribute to that sound’s ‘sound’, will get blocked off by this bandwidth limitation. Consequently certain sounds, like “s” and “t”, will sound slightly different over a phone line than when speaking face to face. The conversation will be perfectly intelligible, but we pick up on subtleties in people’s voice and know that they sound slightly different through the phone network.
Elsewhere, the sign of the cafe puts a square around the “H” of “Hermanos” which prompts recollections of the element hydrogen which has that symbol on the periodic table. It was an appropriate connection because the raindrops on the signboard were reflecting the Sun which is mostly made of hydrogen being formed into helium through nuclear fusion. Looking again at the sign, the reflections and the table, it was clear how our eyes interpret lines and angles into information about distance. These are observations that scientist-artists of the past have used to formulate the rules of perspective. It caused me to look again at the wonky wooden slat and think about how I knew it was wonky (without putting my coffee on top of it). Perspective then surfaced again as the worker in the hat stall next door brought out the days collection of hats and goods. As he was standing behind a hat stand arranging a viewing table, it appeared that he was wearing one of the hats on the stands. Only the fact that he moved and the hat didn’t showed that actually my eyes had been deceived. A parallel meaning of perspective was evident around as the street changed while I was there: by the end of my coffee, the shops were open, parents were rushing children to the school around the corner, the street was alive. What would I think of this cafe if, rather than enjoying my coffee at around 8.30am, I was trying to drink it in the middle of the Saturday tourist rush?
The coffee was good. A very drinkable cup with which to enjoy my time on Portobello Road. The cafe was equally good, showcasing many different aspects of what being a cafe is about. Hermanos Coffee is definitely worth a visit and I hope to go again next time I have the urge to explore Portobello Road before the crowds arrive. It seems appropriate however to conclude this cafe-physics review with a quote from the Hermanos brothers themselves about their cafes and coffee. They say “We understand that our journey at Hermanos is also the collective journey of so many, who each in their own way contribute to and benefit from the world of coffee.” A journey that is so much easier to appreciate if you pause to sit and people watch at this lovely little cafe.
Hermanos Coffee is at 127 Portobello Road, W11 2DY and at multiple locations around London.