From its origins in Europe to a foray across midcentury American stovetops to modern fetishization in Japan, the Siphon Brewer, or Vacuum Brewer, is as legendary as it is fun to watch. Really, what brew method could be more thrilling than a historied, every-step-visible, risk-of-exploding mode such as the siphon? And whether you call it a siphon, syphon, vac pot, or a French balloon (!), if you play your cards (and water temperatures) right, you're going to get a very nice cup of coffee.
Coffee lovers love both immersion (letting coffee steep within water for some period of time) and filtration (expressing the steeped coffee somehow through a filter for a clean cup), and all brew methods involve some balance between these ideas. Though few methods truly combine the best of both worlds in harmony (the Clever Dripper is one that comes to mind), siphon brewing allows for both a steeped, continually heated brew time, and a speedy filtered extraction that delivers a clean cup. Plus, it looks and feels like you are doing REAL SCIENCE, which is an ego boost we all need first thing in the morning.
Though siphon pots can be, among other things, expensive, fragile, and finicky with temperature, you'll find the theatrical pleasures of preparing its extremely delicious cups of coffee are more than worth it—or at least they are at dinner parties.
To begin, the first thing you'll need is a siphon brewer, of which there are dozens of permutations. Contemporary models in popular use today in homes, cafes and Japanese Siphonista Competitions (yeah, I said it) are comely, high-heat-glass-based double-carafe contraptions manufactured in Japan.
Along with your siphon you'll need a source of heat: a small butane burner is great for the home, or if you're really fancy, you can get a halogen-based heater. (Many models of siphon come packaged with their own burners, by the way—something that looks like a very wussy oil lantern. You'll want to just go ahead and throw that out.)
Your siphon also needs a filter, and will likely come outfitted with a round cloth filter that cinches around a metal disk with larger holes, and secures to the top carafe via a spring and chain. You can also employ paper filters using a different attachment, or for the throwback set, glass rods are another option—but we'll save that for the advanced class.
Now that you've got your meth lab, er, siphon station ready to go, grab your coffee and let's brew a pot.
How to Brew in a Siphon
1. Grab your gear: Coffee, siphon, filter, burner (filled with fuel), water, thermometer.
2. Preheat and rinse your siphon's bottom carafe fully with hot water. Assemble the filter into the top carafe and set temporarily aside.
3. Measure out your dose of coffee—start with 21 to 26 grams for a 2-cup siphon— and grind coarsely. You may wish to remeasure your weight after grinding just to be extra sure you got it all.
4. Fill the lower carafe of your siphon to the 2-cup mark with boiling or near-boiling water. (You can fill it with room temperature water, and heat it all the way up with the burner, but it will take longer.)
5. Turn on your burner and place it underneath the bottom carafe to begin heating it. At this time, also set your top carafe and filter into the bottom of the siphon at a jaunty angle.
6. Patiently wait while the water in the lower chamber begins to boil. Place your thermometer in the top carafe at this time.
7. Once the water in the lower chamber forms bigger and bigger bubbles, set the top carafe firmly in the base of the bottom carafe, and wait for the water to use magic to travel northward into the top chamber. You want your siphon to brew at around 200 degrees F, so if the water in your top carafe stays superheated or continues to boil, try attenuating your heat source or stirring the water up top to get it to calm down a little bit.
8. Add your coffee to the water in the top carafe, giving it a good initial stir with a flat stirrer to fully saturate all grounds.
9. Wait approximately 45 seconds to one minute for the grounds to lose gas and bubbles in the top carafe. You may paw at the top of the grounds periodically with your stirrer if you wish. Though everyone's preferred time will vary somewhat, you'll be able, with experience, to observe what the coffee in the top carafe looks like (a clear, delineated line at the base of the grounds, and not a tall gassy bubbly "head" on the coffee) when it is done brewing.
10. Remove your heat source from the siphon. Do one last cyclonic stir right before the coffee draws down, to stimulate an even extraction. Watch and gasp as the vacuum created beneath sucks all the coffee from the top into the bottom, filtering it as it travels!
11. Carefully remove the top carafe from the siphon, allow coffee in lower chamber to cool, and serve. Observe the shape of the grounds as they've settled in the top carafe—a smooth, well-distributed mound or dome left behind is the result of a good extraction between all points along the grounds towards the center hole where the coffee traveled out.
Once you're done brewing and receiving our accolades, remember to thoroughly rinse your cloth filter and store it in a cup of water, ideally in a refrigerator, so that it may be reused several times without drying out. Washing and care for both top and bottom carafe of your siphon are important as well, but be careful with that top carafe, as it's begging to be cracked on something in your sink. That said, when the day finally comes, the remaining lower portion always makes a handsome terrarium.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org