why are there drops on the surface of a tea sometimes

Coffee and cream baubles – not just for Christmas

floating, bouncing drops

Drops of water can be stable on the water’s surface for many minutes if you put the water on a loudspeaker, more info on how to create these at home here.

You may have noticed them before: balls of liquid dancing on the surface of your coffee (or tea) that seem to last for ages before being absorbed into the drink? Perhaps you have added milk to your coffee and noticed that it took some time before the milk entered into the brew?

It turns out, there’s some very interesting physics that is happening whenever you add milk to your tea or when you are preparing a pour-over. It can link coffee to wine and to quantum mechanics. It is worth taking a closer look at these drops.

You may remember that you could use a loud speaker to make droplets of coffee bounce on a cup of the same. The vibrations in the cup meant that the air between the droplet and the drink never got squeezed out of the space between them. So, rather than coalesce, the drop jumped up and down on the coffee surface before finally disappearing under. This type of bouncing bauble has been shown to behave in similar ways to quantum particles in wave-particle duality. An analogue of quantum physics in the macroscopic droplets on the surface of your drink.

But that type of bauble required the use of a loud speaker (or some similar way of generating vibrations on the surface of the coffee). What if you could ‘bounce’ a drop of coffee on a cup of coffee without any external props like speakers? Well, it turns out that you can. In November 2017 a group of researchers showed how a temperature difference between a drop falling into a drink and the drink itself could result in the drop appearing to float on the surface of the drink for many seconds. The obvious example was cold milk into a cup of coffee (or tea). But I think that it may also happen in a V60 when you prepare a pour over, more on that below.

science in a V60

Bubbles of liquid dancing on the surface of a brewing coffee.

The idea is quite simple. If there is a temperature difference between the drop and the coffee, when the drop approaches the coffee, there will be thermal gradients across the drop/cup system. Surface tension is temperature dependent: the higher the temperature, the weaker the surface tension. Differences in surface tension across the surface of a liquid result in compensating liquid flows (one of the best places to see this is in a glass of wine, but there’s also a great party-trick experiment you can do to demonstrate it which is here). So, because there is a temperature difference across the surface area of the droplet (owing to the difference between the droplet and the cup), there will be liquid flows set up within the drop. These flows are like circulating vortices which draw the surrounding air into the gap between the drop and the cup and so prevent the existing air between the drop and the cup from escaping. If the air has nowhere to escape to, the drop can’t merge with the drink, in fact it ‘levitates’ for a number of seconds.

The authors suggest that this is a reason that you can often see rain drops staying on the top of puddles or ponds before being subsumed into the water, or why you can see the cream (or milk) stay as globules on the surface of your coffee (or tea). And so I wonder, could this also be the explanation for an odd phenomenon that I sometimes notice while brewing coffee in my V60. Perhaps you have seen this too? After some time, the new drops of filtered coffee impacting on the surface skit along to the edge of the jug. They stay as balls of coffee on the coffee’s surface for quite some time before becoming part of the brew. You can see a photo of some of these droplets above. Initially I thought that this was because the surface of the coffee had started to vibrate with the impacting droplets. But it is also possible that it could be this temperature effect. As the (brewed) coffee in the jug would be cooler than the water dripping into it from the filter, there would be a temperature difference between the droplet and the coffee but the reverse of the milk-coffee situation. The drop would be warmer than the coffee it’s dripping into. The authors of the study suggested that it was the magnitude of the temperature difference that was the key, not the sign of the temperature difference. So that would fit with the V60 observations seen previously. However how would you show which effect (vibration or temperature difference) is responsible for the behaviour?

Enjoy playing with your tea, coffee and V60s. Do let me know the results of your experiments. Is it a vibration thing or does the temperature difference have to be there to begin with? Let me know what you think is going on.

I am also grateful to Amoret Coffee for alerting me to this story in the first place through Twitter. If you come across some interesting coffee-science, please let me know, either here in the comments section (moderated, please be patient), or on Twitter or Facebook.