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What Is Siphon Coffee? (The Most Unique Method In Coffee?)

August 9, 2017

Siphon Coffee is a mysterious creature, made from a Siphon Coffee Maker – often referred to as a Vacuum Pot or a Vacuum Coffee Maker – an absolutely outrageous looking piece of kit.

It is held in high regard by many in the know and for some pretty interesting reasons.

Firstly, what is Siphon Coffee?

It’s coffee that is made using a special brew method known as a Siphon Coffee Maker. This device uses one of the most interesting ways of making coffee using vacuums and water vapor which I’ll get into in a second.

Its immersion style brew with cloth filter is considered to give one of the most complex and well-balanced tastes among all coffee brewing methods and if nothing else, it looks fantastic sitting on your kitchen countertop.

Now you’re gonna wanna see some photos and vids of this thing in action – believe me, it’s pretty awesome – so let’s get into the rest of it.

What Is Siphon Coffee?

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!

We must have walked for hours around the city not seeing anywhere like the number of coffee shops you’d expect in any Western place.

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. At last!

We walked up the stairs into this modern and clean looking cafe, nice leather sofas, elevator music and all that. Then what did I see on the counter area but about five or six of 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 as the waiter prepared this ornate looking device and showed us how to brew it before our eyes.

Then spent the rest of the afternoon chilling and drinking the coffee that came out of the 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.

The 10-Second Step-By-Step

  1. Set up the siphon. The filter is important, it needs to be locked on and tight
  2. Put water into the lower chamber and heat it to boiling.
  3. When the water has all been excited into the upper chamber, add coffee and give it a stir.
  4. Let the coffee and water steep for a few minutes (1-4 minutes, depending on size although you can experiment).
  5. 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.
  6. When your coffee is all in the lower chamber, disassemble the siphon. BE CAREFUL while doing this it’s really hot.
  7. Pour yourself a fresh coffee.

You can follow the steps in this beautifully produced video.


A Bit Of History About Siphon Coffee

old style advert for siphon coffee

Photo by Mark

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.

At that time, it was widely acceptable to boil coffee in a pan then pour it straight into a cup! Not something I 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.


What Does Siphon Coffee Taste Like?

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 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.

cute drawing of a siphon coffee maker


My Thoughts On Siphon Coffee

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.

Pros Cons
Green TickGreat body to clarity compromise. Red Cross Very unforgiving method.
Green TickImpressive to watch. Red CrossTakes ages to set up and clean.
Green TickLots of control. Red CrossMaking a brew is fiddly and time consuming.

Should I Get A Siphon Coffee Maker?

NO! Red Cross
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.

YES!Green Tick
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.

YES!Green Tick
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.

YES!Green Tick
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.

Update: Well, I just went ahead and wrote a 2000+ word guide to Siphon Coffee Makers full of killer info on which one to get. It’s worth checking out just to see how beautiful the #2 Siphon Coffee Maker is.


Enjoy this article? Absolutely hate it? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.

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