by Lisa Peryman November 13, 2015
Looking to elevate your coffee game? Look no further than the siphon coffee maker, or as it's more inelegantly known: the vacuum brewer or vac pot.
It really is no surprise that with the renaissance in artisan coffee making and boutique coffee houses, interest in the siphon method has revived. What could be more novel, particular and retro than a funky looking science experiment (think mad, Victorian scientist), with its own claim to beauty, that produces a slamming cup of joe? There is nothing muddy about siphon brewed coffee. This method produces dancing flavours and a crisp, almost pure cup that amplifies nuance - it is markedly lighter than coffee from a French press, for example.
Siphons are most noteworthy for maintaining a constant brew temperature throughout that doesn't interfere with extraction - the all-important process of pulling flavour from the coffee and maximum flavour in the case of these brewers. In fact, temperature stability is a key reason why connoisseurs often rank siphons as their preferred way to make coffee and consider it as important as grind in influencing the final taste. Then there's the sizzle factor.
Mark Prince, the creator of coffeegeek.com, describes his first time seeing a siphon in action as a "seminal moment for me in coffee". [See: Using a Siphon Coffee Maker]
"Almost everything about using a vacuum coffee maker is sensory," recalls Prince. "Aromas, fragrance, motion, touch, action. Grind the coffee, add it to the top of the vessel. Add cold (or hot*) water to the bottom. Put the bottom on a heat source. Add the top vessel with its attached siphon. Watch. Liquids defy gravity."
The dramatic spectacle the siphon is renowned for occurs when the water reaches boiling point in the lower globe and is forced by vapor (or gas) pressure to escape into the second globe where it saturates the coffee grounds (which can also be stirred in). Depending on preference and grind, brewing time can take 2-4 minutes. As the vapors contract when removed from the heat source (typically a butane burner, stovetop or denatured alcohol burner), gravity pulls the brewed coffee south into the lower chamber. It is the magic of this back and forth coffee tide that hypnotizes users over and over again.
Obviously the downside here is time: time to assemble and time to clean up, in particular. This jig is not going to work at brute o'clock in the morning when you need your caffeine jolt five minutes ago and you don't have the jam to do more than press a button or plug in a kettle. And although this method permits control over almost every variable of the coffee making process (another reason why connoisseurs adore the siphon - control equals excellence), this is also the province of disastrous possibility for the novice and any newcomer will need to allow themselves room to experiment in order to master this most elaborate of coffee makers. That said, some folks wake up and brew using a siphon, no problem. Some wake up and brew using a siphon for years and then, finding themselves thoroughly pooped, rediscover the joy of automatic coffee makers.
Our recommendation would be to add a vacuum coffee maker as a second option to your existing routine to begin with. Models produced by Bodum, Hario and Yama are very affordable and relatively easy for the beginner to use. For entertaining, these brewers were made for affect and won't disappoint (just make sure you've practiced for a while before introducing your siphon brewed coffee to people you care about).
To appreciate the refined charm of the siphon in action, watch this video from CoffeeCircle below. Click on the image to view.
* There is debate over which is best, hot or cold, but according to industry go-to guide "The Coffee Brewing Handbook" by Ted R. Lingle, hot water extracts coffee more completely than cold.
Of further note: Experts recommend grinding fresh-roasted coffee just prior to use to enhance aroma and advise to monitor the heat source to ensure an even boil (not too rapid). Some say to add the grounds after 1/2 - 3/4 of the heated water has reached the upper chamber, rather than add the grounds dry to the chamber at the start of the process. Consider switching from a spoon to using a wooden paddle, stir stick or spatula to stir in coffee as siphons tend to be made of glass and are delicate.
Siphon Coffee Brewers for the Cogniscenti
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Photography by Lisa Peryman and Richard C. Owens
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Lisa Peryman has worked with Greenpeace Australia and The Wilderness Society (Australia). She studied journalism in New Zealand and book and magazine publishing in Canada. Her background includes reporting and editing for daily newspapers and trade magazines, as well as creative copywriting for broadcast. Lisa is continuing her studies in Canada and currently works with Probe International as an editor and writer. Earnings from Green Beanery operations support the work of Probe International, a Canadian charity that works with citizens' groups around the world to protect their lands and their livelihoods. Probe International is a Canadian trust.