The first time I set foot in Asia was at the airport in Shanghai. In hindsight, the rough and tumble of communist China was a brave choice to begin my Oriental odyssey. But the flights were cheap, so whatever.
My first day was quite the culture shock. People spitting in the street, no English written or spoken anywhere, masses and masses of people. And the worst part? Getting a damn coffee was next to impossible!
Coffee drinking is just not a major part of Chinese culture, I discovered, to my complete despair.
So we were walking up and down East Nanjing Road – this massive road that cuts right through the heart of the city – when one of us notices a sign with the word coffee. In English, of course.
We walked up the stairs into this modern and clean looking cafe and as I looked around I gasped. Sitting on the bar were these strange and wondrous contraptions that looked like they came from some Chinese emperor’s laboratory. Something like the beautiful gold device that you can see below. And it made coffee!
At the time I thought they were some exotic oriental creation. I was wrong about that. We sat and stared and drank coffee that came out of this thing. And that was my introduction to siphon coffee.
What is a siphon coffee maker?
Siphon coffee makers, also known as vacuum coffee makers, look like this.
The design above uses a separate butane burner which heats the water. The alternative is one that can be used on the stove, like the photo below.
As you can see, it’s an intricate design. This model is a particularly complex one, you can get siphons that are much simpler.
It’s rare to see coffee houses serving Siphon coffee. Rarer still that they’ll bring the siphon out and put it in front of you. If you ever get the chance, take it!
How does it brew?
Siphon coffee makers use an immersion method and then run through a cloth filter. Immersion is where the coffee grounds are mixed with the water and let to steep. Think of a French Press, where your coffee and hot water just sits in the pot brewing. This is the same but with a twist.
Let’s look at a step-by-step process.
- Set up the siphon. Filter is important, it needs to be locked on and tight
- Put water into the lower chamber and heat it to boiling.
- When the water has all been excited into the upper chamber, add coffee and give it a stir.
- Let the coffee and water steep for a few minutes (1-4 minutes, depending on size although you can experiment).
- Cut the heat, this removes the pressure that keeps the coffee in the upper chamber. The coffee will begin to drain down back through the filter to the lower chamber.
- When your coffee is all in the lower chamber, disassemble the syphon. BE CAREFUL while doing this it’s really hot.
- Pour yourself a fresh coffee.
You can follow the steps in this beautifully produced video.
A bit of history
Amazing as it may seem, siphon coffee brewing predates espresso machines, french presses, drip coffee and a whole lot else. It’s really old! It was first invented by a German named Loeff in the 1830s and was considered a specialty item.
Before then, it was widely acceptable to boil coffee in a pan then pour it straight into a cup! I don’t think I’ll be giving that a try anytime soon.
The siphon coffee maker remained popular for over a century. Check out this advert for one from 1914. It was an expensive item back then, the $41 in that advert would be over $800 now!
It fell out of favor sometime around the middle of the 20th century, largely due to the rise of the new methods like the french press or espresso machines.
It has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years during the so-called ‘third wave’ coffee era. So much so, that the Siphonist World Championships are held each year in places likes Seoul and Taiwan.
Siphon coffee’s hallmark is high flavor clarity while still retaining good body.
Clarity is the ability to distinguish different tastes within the coffee. A parallel is the Chemex which uses extra thick paper filters and also gives you a beautifully clean cup.
Body is the the richness and heaviness of a coffee. You can’t think of the French Press which produces a rich but silty cup.
Clarity and body are often considered opposites, you can have one of the other. Siphon coffee occupies the middle ground of the clarity-body spectrum and produces a cup that stays rich while being extremely flavorful is the reason that it is so lauded by experts.
NOTE: The default filter – and the one that will come with most siphons – is a cloth filter. I recommend using this – at least at first – to get the full benefits of siphon coffee’s unique taste. You can change this to a stainless steel mesh filter for a thick, richer more French Press-like taste. Or you can use a paper filter which will result in a cleaner, more Pour Over-like taste.
I’ve used siphon coffee makers a number of times but I’ve never owned one nor used one to make my regular cup.
I’m a big fan of the taste. A well prepared cup of coffee made with a siphon tastes wonderful for the reasons I mentioned above. The caveat is that it’s not an easy method to master.
It does take a lot of time to prepare and clean. More so than perhaps any other method. I remember reading somewhere that using a siphon to brew every day is like commuting to work by elephant. You’d look cool, but it’s not practical in the slightest. That said, one of my best friends loves his and uses it daily. With a bit of practice you can bring it down to a reasonable time, but it will never rival the alacrity of an Aeropress, for example.
Making siphon coffee is a gorgeous process. Watching the water evaporate upwards and then stay suspended through air pressure is a pretty sight. It’s one that never fails to impress observers, too.
I see it as a luxury item. A showpiece to bring out when you have guests. Or when you fancy experimenting on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
|Great body to clarity compromise.||Very unforgiving method.|
|Impressive to watch.||Takes ages to set up and clean.|
|Lots of control.||Making a brew is fiddly and time consuming.|
Should I get one?
If you’re new to coffee. This is not a simple method and is not very forgiving. You need loads of equipment and no small amount of skill.
If you want something that gives you lots of control but at the expense of it being difficult. It’s a favorite for many an experienced coffee connoisuer.
If you’re looking for something to show off with. Abso-fucking-lutely. There is nothing that inspires awe and questions like a beautiful siphon setup sitting in your kitchen.
If you’re looking for good flavor clarity with decent body. It’s considered by many to be one of the best methods to get a rich and flavorful cup.
I’m not an expert on siphon coffee makers. I don’t own one personally, although I am looking to get one as my newest toy. I’ve heard some fantastic things about the Hario Technica which uses a butane heater. I’d go with the Yama Glass for a stovetop siphon coffee maker.
Enjoy this article? Absolutely hate it? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.