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Back Buzz - July 1, 2002

[pumping heart] Pollards Tea & Coffee Company, 9-11 Charles Street, Sheffield S1, South Yorkshire

One thing I really like about Sheffield City Centre is the feeling of "old-ness". I'm not talking about your typical "ancient" or "historic" old, as in the Roman Catholic Cathedral or the old stone walls. I'm talking about "old" as in late 19th and early 20th century urban storefronts.

I know, I can hear my British readers muttering "Stupid American woman! What does she know about 'old'? Her country's barely out of infancy!" But for those interested in things like industrial archaeology and modern urban design, urban history of the late 1800s and early 1900s is both interesting and important. And since I, like most of my readers, wasn't born till the second half of the 20th century, to me it's also "old". So there: old is relative.

As you walk along Glossop Road into West Street and the area around Fargate you pass many of these "old" businesses and storefronts, such as restaurants, bars, and shops you could picture your parents or grandparents frequenting when they were young. Charles Street, just off Pinstone near the Moor, is an interesting traffic-challenged (and therefore pedestrian-friendly) road of which the centerpiece is the Pollards Tea & Coffee Company, a family-run business established in 1879. This is obviously the flagship location. Both a cafe and a shop, Pollards sells a wide range of coffee beans from the more common Kenya, Colombian, and French Roast to the rarer Old Brown Java and Blue Mountain style. The shop also sells speciality loose teas, from traditional Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Lapsong-Souchong, Jasmine, and Oolong to Rose Petal, Gunpowder Green, and Nuwara-Eliya.

If you step beyond the retail section in the front you'll find yourself in a big cafeteria of a place, with various coffees and teas sold as well as sandwiches, all-day breakfasts, and typical cafe fare. To me the place is reminiscent of the now-defunct Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Long Beach, California, where I have barely toddling memories of having a drink there with my mother after a shopping trip on the bus. By the time I was grown Clifton's had gone the way of urban swell and decline, although the original Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles still exists.

At Pollards I sat in one of the two booths in the back of the large front room. My "double macchiato" was served in way too large a cup -- i.e. a regular coffee cup -- but the shots were reasonably pleasing considering my expectations for this untrendy noncoffeehouse. My macchiato was a bit too hot, though, which was unfortunate since I needed to drink it quickly as my chauffeur was waiting outside in a no-parking area. This added a bit of pain to my experience, although not the pleasurable sort. (Mouth blisters are never particularly pleasurable.) My drink was served with a Lotus Caramelised Biscuit which is always a nice civilized touch -- but no spoon! This, as you know from reading my columns, I consider a major faux pas.

As I very carefully sipped my quietly burbling macchiato I was amused by the number of MIND THE STEP signs posted everywhere, along with the multicoloured MIND THE NEW STEP signs. Could this be because too many people stumble on both the original step and the new step, spilling their scalding coffees into the laps of other customers? The clientele on this particular Tuesday morning was about 90% elderly, suggesting some potentially serious scalding situations. Although you'd think Pollards would be popular with the elderly for the reasonably priced food menu, almost every one of those elderly individuals was drinking what looked like a cappuccino. Is this too cool for words or what?

For those in search of a regular cup of coffee the cafe sells filter or cafietiére coffee with a choice of Sumatra and Mocha, Djimma and Mysore, Blue Mountain Blend, or "Sparkling Water" Decaf. Yes, I know; I had to look this one up myself. Apparently the "sparkling water" refers to the decaffeination process which uses naturally-occurring carbon dioxide. So don't worry -- you will not get a carbonated cup of coffee.

Speaking of sparkling water and scalding coffee, here's a recent e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend:

Below is a forwarded e-mail I received. It looks like a question for Dr. Science. The introduction and conclusion sound pretty brainless, but the explanation is a bit plausible, and I'm tempted, not to avoid the practice, but to do some experiments. I have noticed a phenomenon where water heated in a microwave reaches a certain temperature and then violently erupts -- not to the point of spewing out of a cup, though. Even if it is possible to "superheat" water beyond the boiling point (although I've never heard of this under standard atmospheric pressure), to get a really violent reaction I suspect you'd have to do something really stupid, like heat a cup of water ten or fifteen minutes.

I wish we could Ask Dr. Ray!

"Who would guess this could happen? I was very glad to get this email from a friend, because I have been guilty of heating water in a microwave many times. You'll be glad you read it. I also suggest passing it along to friends and family. About five days ago, my 26-year-old son decided to have a cup of instant coffee. He took a cup of water and put it in the microwave to heat it up (something that he had done numerous times before). I am not sure how long he set the timer for but he told me he wanted to bring the water to a boil. When the timer shut the oven off, he removed the cup from the oven. As he looked into the cup he noted that the water was not boiling. Then instantly the water in the cup "blew up" into his face. The cup remained intact until he threw it out of his hand but all the hot water had flown out into his face due to the buildup of energy.

"His whole face is blistered and he has 1st and 2nd degree burns to his face, which may leave scarring. He may also have lost partial sight in his left eye. While at the hospital, the doctor who was attending to him stated that this is a fairly common occurrence and water (alone) should never be heated in a microwave oven. If water is heated in this manner, something such as a wooden stir stick or a tea bag should be placed in the cup to diffuse the energy.

"Here is what our science teacher has to say on the matter: 'Thanks for the microwave warning. I have seen this happen before. It is caused by a phenomenon known as super heating. It can occur any time water is heated and will particularly occur if the vessel that the water is heated in is new. What happens is that the water heats faster than the vapor bubbles can form. If the cup is very new then it is unlikely to have small surface scratches inside it that provide a place for the bubbles to form. As the bubbles cannot form and release some of the heat that has built up, the liquid does not boil, and the liquid continues to heat up well past its boiling point. What then usually happens is that the liquid is bumped or jarred, which is just enough of a shock to cause the bubbles to rapidly form and expel the hot liquid. The rapid formation of bubbles is also why a carbonated beverage spews when opened after having been shaken.' Please pass this on to everyone you know, it could save a lot of pain and suffering."

I believe the reason the water exploded is that it resented being microwaved. After all, water is a fluid; if it is cooled enough it becomes a solid, and if it's heated enough it becomes a gas. And the natural way to become a gas is to become hot enough to boil, at which case you -- if you were water -- would simply turn into vapour and rise. It's like if you and I were still working together in our cubicle at that Southern California aerospace company and that irritating little stutterer you could never stand walked in and attempted to speak -- you would simply rise like water vapour and leave the building.

If, however, you were trapped in your cubicle by the sprawling limbs of the programming rock climber who never understood the concept of personal space and the combined girths of the two obese work station coders, and the little stutterer continued to attempt to speak, endlessly stuttering and stuttering and stuttering -- you, unable to rise like vapour, would find your skin becoming uncontrollably flushed as if you were being heated from the inside, i.e. microwaved. At some point, if not allowed to rise like vapour, you would simply explode. I mean, I certainly would, and I'm sure water would as well.