Ahh siphon coffee makers. AKA vacuum brewers. AKA vacpots. AKA Silexes.
It’s our opinion at CoffeeGeek that Siphon Coffee is the best brewing method ever invented for brewing coffee… that isn’t called espresso. We love siphon coffee so much that we’ve done an entire two part history podcast on the brewing method, and we not only have this How To, but a Master Class (coming soon) on siphon brewing.
Here’s the thing. Siphon coffee can be intimidating. There’s a lot of science going on with the method, and it looks like it could be right out of Professor Julius Kelp’s laboratory in the Nutty Professor. And hey, that could mean explosions! (but there won’t be, so don’t worry!)
That said, did you know siphon coffee was by far and away the most popular brewing method used in American homes for a time in history? Yep, between the early 1930s and the mid 1950s, siphon coffee was king, with dozens of American companies designing, manufacturing, and marketing these brewing devices. Siphons were king once, and were almost killed off by the pursuit of convenience and economy.
In the past 20 years, siphon coffee makers have not only made a comeback, but have become the true darling of the home coffee aficionado. The brewing method not only leaves Pour Over coffee in the dust when it comes to taste, but makes pour over look like it belongs on the island of misfit toys when it comes to its presentation. Fact is, watching a siphon coffee maker at work is like watching theatre; it’s a spectacle.
If you want a bit of theatre in your own coffee brewing life, we present our simple how to on using these spectacular brewing devices. If you want a lot more detail, make sure you check out our Master Class, which is coming soon.
How Do Siphon Coffee Makers Work
A siphon coffee maker works on the principle of expansion and contraction of gases — actually one gas, water vapour — that allow the device to brew a full infusion style of coffee and filter the grounds efficiently, leaving a generally clean, pristine cup.
Siphon coffee makers are made up of four parts:
- the bottom container (or vessel, or “bottom chamber” or “bottom globe”l) where the water initially sits and the brewed coffee eventually rests;
- a top container (or vessel, or “top chamber” or “brewing chamber” or even “siphon chamber”) that has an open ended siphon tube attached to it, where the coffee brewing takes place; it’s the vessel with the siphon tube attached to it;
- a type of sealing material (usually a rubber gasket) to help create a partial vacuum in the lower vessel while brewing is taking place; and
- a filter, which can be made of glass, paper, metal, or cloth.
There is also a heating source needed, and there’s usually three readily available types: a cloth-wick alcohol burner (slowest); gas or electric stovetop (faster); or a specialty butane burner (fastest). There are also fourth heating source found often in Japan and some high end coffee bars: halogen light heating devices designed for siphon coffee brewing.
When the bottom globe of the siphon coffee maker is filled with water to a specific level, then heated up, eventually the water will start to vaporize into steam. Steam is what makes everything happen in this brewing device. Steam forces liquid water (at near-boiling temperatures) up the internal siphon. Steam keeps the brewing chamber’s action at optimal brewing temperatures. And the reduction in steam (and it’s conversion back to water) helps the “vacuum” stage of the brewing process, where your finished brew is drawn back into the lower chamber.
It’s always been fascinating how this brewing method was designed in 1840 in France. Even more so that it was the preferred brewing method in millions of American homes in the 1930s. With very few improvements (like safety glass), this brewing method, and its design remains largely unchanged to this day, but still looks like super science coffee brewing.
How to Use a Siphon Coffee Maker
Now that we’ve covered a brief bit of the siphon coffee maker’s history and how it operates, let’s get into how to use one. We aren’t going to provide much in the way of measuring, of exact timings, or even demanding you grind literally just before infusion starts (though you really should do that!) because the goal here is to get you using one of these devices in a simple, straightforward way, while still understanding what is going on and what the potential pitfalls (and rare dangers) are. Follow these simple steps, and you’ll end up with a really good cup of coffee that was superchic to watch while it happened.
Even though we’re striving to keep this part simple, there are some absolute cardinal rules about good coffee you must follow:
- Use fresh roasted, freshly ground coffee. There’s no getting around the fact that coffee is a perishable product, and the best results in the cup come from coffee that’s been roasted within the last few weeks, and is ground just before you start brewing.
- Use good quality coffee. You’re making siphon coffee here, and Costco coffee isn’t going to cut it. For this How To, we’re using coffees from Birdrock Coffee Roasters, one of the best new coffee roasters in the USA.
- Use good quality water. Some of us are blessed with having awesome tap water. Many are not. Use a Brita filter or similar to pre-filter you water before brewing. It makes up 95%+ of your coffee.
- A quality grinder is an absolute must. For this article, we’re using the veteran Baratza Virtuoso, which has been around for well over a decade, but has also seen many improvements and tweaks over the years, making it an amazing all purpose grinder.
You might be thinking that siphon brewers are expensive. Well, they can be. But you can also pick up some very inexpensive stovetop and 2 or 3 cup standalone models for well under $50 these days. And guess what: these $30, $40, self contained siphon brewers brew pretty much exactly the same as $150 Hario Nouveaus, on $400 Halogen Burners do. For the purpose of this Simple Brewing Step By Step, I’ll be using a Hario Technica 3 Cup brewer which retails for around $70, but you can find nice 5 Cup Models by lesser known brands for under $40.
We’re also using an aftermarket butane burner for this simple guide. It allows for much better control over the brewing process, and speeds up the heating of the water. Butane burners can cost as much as $100, or as little as $20 (like this one, a “Sterno” model).
For the amount of coffee to use, stick with our tried and true ratio of 7 grams of coffee for every 100ml of water used. Don’t have a scale? A slightly rounded tablespoon of ground coffee is about 7 grams. A 3 “cup” model siphon can brew about 350ml of coffee (maybe 400ml to the max). To keep things simple, we measure out 300ml of water to use, and 21g of coffee, ground slightly finer than drip.
Siphon Coffee, Step by Step.
And that’s really all it is to brewing with a siphon coffee maker. If you want more advanced techniques or want to learn all you possibly can about siphons, put aside some time and dive deep into our Master Class on Siphons (coming soon!)
The coffee used in this Siphon Coffee How to was supplied by Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, a southern California, award winning roastery and cafe company.
See our other Guides and How Tos