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Siphon Coffee Maker: Brewing the Best Cup of Coffee

Updated on January 10, 2011

Most have never heard of siphon brewing, or vacuum pot brewing, as it fell out of favor as a method for home brewed coffee during the 1960’s, but it remains as one of the best ways to create a wonderful cup of coffee. Its recent resurgence in coffee culture hasn’t been unwarranted to say the least. The cup it produces is clean, crisp and rich, as it fully extracts the many flavor nuances of various regional coffee beans. For those who take pride in producing the best result possible, it affords a very visual, and tactile brewing process. Not to mention, it’s just really cool. The entire siphon coffee apparatus borders on being a science project, and you get to be a “Mad Coffee Scientist”!

Vacuum Pot Brewers: How do they work?

Some will wonder about the “magic” behind a siphon brewer, but for those of you who don’t, feel free to skip down to the step by step segment. So, how does a siphon brewer work to produce a great cup? I’ll attempt to explain it here as simply as possible. There are basically four components to a siphon coffee maker. First, a lower glass (borosilicate) vessel, which holds the water to be heated initially and the brewed coffee after. The second piece is an upper glass vessel with the siphon tube extending from the bottom with a rubber gasket, which seals the upper and lower vessels and helps create the vacuum. The top vessel is where the grounds are placed and the “brewing” happens. Finally, there is the filter and heating element, which, I’ll get into the various types later. On to the process. First, water is placed into the bottom vessel, then the top vessel is placed carefully onto the bottom vessel, where the water is being heated. As some of the heated water is evaporated, it is converted into water vapor; this expanding gas(water vapor) forces the remaining heated water up into the top vessel via the siphon tube. Heat is maintained as the brewing progresses to keep the water up top, and within the ideal temperature range for brewing coffee of 190*F-205*F. Temperature is an important detail when it comes to good coffee, and a siphon brewer readily keeps you with the proper range. Once the coffee is steeped, or brewed for the preferred time, the heat is then removed to reverse the entire process. The vapor contracts in the bottom vessel and the resulting vacuum “pulls” the water back down into the bottom vessel and through the filter, so you are left with a clean, delicious cup of coffee.

Moving past the ad hoc science lesson.Here is the step by step guide to brewing with a siphon coffee maker. I want to add here that, there are certain keys to brewing a great cup of coffee as with any coffee brewing method. Those are to always use freshly roasted beans, to always grind your beans right before brewing and to maintain the proper brew temperature at all times during the brewing process. With regards to grinding, a good burr grinder that produces consistent coffee grounds is just as essential to good coffee as the way you choose to brew it. If you aren't already using one, you really want to step up from a blade grinder. This isn’t the end all be all way to brew with a vacuum pot either as steep times, stirring and when to add the coffee grounds can be adjusted to your own method or tastes. For me, I’ve found that this approach results in a consistently good cup.

All the necessary components together: Hario siphon coffee maker, siphon paper filter, butane micro burner, coffee measuring spoon with stirrer, fresh roasted beans, Macap burr grinder.
All the necessary components together: Hario siphon coffee maker, siphon paper filter, butane micro burner, coffee measuring spoon with stirrer, fresh roasted beans, Macap burr grinder.
Close up of the paper filter installed. At the bottom of the metal paper filter holder is a spring and hook that secures to the bottom of the siphon tube.
Close up of the paper filter installed. At the bottom of the metal paper filter holder is a spring and hook that secures to the bottom of the siphon tube.
Pour water into the lower vessel. I prefer to start with hot water from an electric kettle as this speeds up the process. If you're starting with cold water, heat it first with the burner while the top is off until some wafts of steam start forming.
Pour water into the lower vessel. I prefer to start with hot water from an electric kettle as this speeds up the process. If you're starting with cold water, heat it first with the burner while the top is off until some wafts of steam start forming.
Place the upper vessel carefully onto the lower vessel and make sure the fit is snug between the two.  Butane burner on full blast here.
Place the upper vessel carefully onto the lower vessel and make sure the fit is snug between the two. Butane burner on full blast here.
As the water evaporates, the vapor(gas) expands and pushes the heated water up through the siphon tube to the upper vessel.
As the water evaporates, the vapor(gas) expands and pushes the heated water up through the siphon tube to the upper vessel.
Mmm.. Pedra Roxa Brazil coffee beans from Gorilla Coffee in NY.  Roasted on Dec. 13th.
Mmm.. Pedra Roxa Brazil coffee beans from Gorilla Coffee in NY. Roasted on Dec. 13th.
The water has fully risen to the top vessel.  There will be a fair amount of bubbles as some vapor escapes. Notice that not all the water rises from the bottom vessel to the top.
The water has fully risen to the top vessel. There will be a fair amount of bubbles as some vapor escapes. Notice that not all the water rises from the bottom vessel to the top.
Quick temperature check, 194*. Turn down the butane burner at this point to the lowest heat that will keep the water in the upper vessel.  We're looking to brew the coffee not cook it.
Quick temperature check, 194*. Turn down the butane burner at this point to the lowest heat that will keep the water in the upper vessel. We're looking to brew the coffee not cook it.
Add the freshly ground coffee beans into the top of the siphon brewer.  I grind the beans, while the water is rising, about the same coarseness as you would use in a drip brewer.
Add the freshly ground coffee beans into the top of the siphon brewer. I grind the beans, while the water is rising, about the same coarseness as you would use in a drip brewer.
Start your timer or mental clock.  This is a 3 cup brewer so I'm looking for a 60-90 second steep time.  With a larger 5 cup brewer, I would go up to a 2-3 minute steep.
Start your timer or mental clock. This is a 3 cup brewer so I'm looking for a 60-90 second steep time. With a larger 5 cup brewer, I would go up to a 2-3 minute steep.
Give the coffee a quick stir to make sure all the ground coffee is fully immersed.
Give the coffee a quick stir to make sure all the ground coffee is fully immersed.
Another quick temperature check, 204*F. As you can see, the temperature still rises some during the brew process. I'm at the upper limit since I was busy taking pics.  You most likely won't see the temperature this high with the proper steep time.
Another quick temperature check, 204*F. As you can see, the temperature still rises some during the brew process. I'm at the upper limit since I was busy taking pics. You most likely won't see the temperature this high with the proper steep time.
Remove the heating source and place it completely away from the brewer.  You don't want any residual heat during this phase, called the kick down, which would add unnecessarily to brew time.
Remove the heating source and place it completely away from the brewer. You don't want any residual heat during this phase, called the kick down, which would add unnecessarily to brew time.
When the heat is removed, the process reverses as the gases begin to contract and convert back to water and the coffee can move freely downwards. A small vacuum is also created which "pulls" the coffee into the lower vessel.
When the heat is removed, the process reverses as the gases begin to contract and convert back to water and the coffee can move freely downwards. A small vacuum is also created which "pulls" the coffee into the lower vessel.
The kick down is completed as indicated by a whooshing/gurgling sound followed by a tumult of bubbles in the bottom vessel.
The kick down is completed as indicated by a whooshing/gurgling sound followed by a tumult of bubbles in the bottom vessel.
Carefully remove the top vessel.  There will be a tiny bit of suction remaining.
Carefully remove the top vessel. There will be a tiny bit of suction remaining.
Completed product. The siphon coffee maker's lid is also conveniently used to hold the top vessel.
Completed product. The siphon coffee maker's lid is also conveniently used to hold the top vessel.
The lower vessel doubles as a serving carafe.  Pour and enjoy..
The lower vessel doubles as a serving carafe. Pour and enjoy..
A clean, full-flavored cup of vacuum brewed coffee!
A clean, full-flavored cup of vacuum brewed coffee!

Siphon Coffee Maker Filters

The three predominate filter types for vacuum brewers are cloth, paper or a glass rod. A cloth filter is usually the de facto choice, as it is the type of filter that accompanies most modern day siphon coffee makers such as those from Yama. Many prefer this type of filter as it does an excellent job of filtering fine coffee grinds while still allowing the flavorful oils from the coffee through. Hario Glass, from Japan, produces a siphon paper filter, which is sold separately or included with some models. I find these easiest to clean and maintain, though, some debate that flavor is lost as some of the aforementioned volatile oils will be absorbed by the paper filter. Glass rods are also available if you can find them on eBay. Do a search for "Cory glass rod." A glass filter will give you the best of both a cloth and paper filter, but it doesn’t do the best job of filtering finer coffee grounds. It will allow coffee oils through and is very easy to clean, but some fine grounds will seep into the final product since the small nubs on the globe portion of the “filter” don’t do a fantastic job of actually filtering. Glass rods are also prone to clogging if you’re not careful. This is where the kick down phase of brewing is stalled due to too many fine grinds. You really need to be precise and have a good grinder to have consistent success with a glass rod filter.

Heating Elements

Every stand-alone siphon coffee maker is supplied with an alcohol wick burner, but they are slow to heat and not very capable. I'd recommend that you purchase a butane burner, as they provide a quick and effective heating source. You can find them on Amazon or woodworking tool websites. Butane refill canisters are also easily acquired at home improvement stores and other home retailers. Some siphon brewers are also made to be used on your stovetop. These are easily indicated by either their product description, or visually by looking for a flat-bottomed lower glass vessel.

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