I've been geeking out over coffee since yesterday, which is fun. The coolest thing I've been finding out about is vacuum-brewing or siphon- (also spelled "syphon-") brewing. There are a lot of bad videos of the process in action. In this good one, Chris Owens, a barista at Intelligentsia in Venice, California, demonstrates the process, which, you have to admit, has a pleasing mad-scientist aura about it.
Vacuum brewing was invented in Germany around the same time photography was invented, and became very popular in America in the middle of the 20th century. (There are many antique siphon sets available on eBay.) It fell mostly out of favor because instant coffee and drip machines with hotplates were (what else?) more convenient. It's been making a modest comeback lately, or so I've read.
And, on topic, the video was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jon Peterson: "I use a siphon at home, and a French press at work. The siphon is a beautiful design, works great—and is not for the clumsy, as the glass portions are, well, glass. It produces a cleaner cup than the French Press, ideal for some of the bright, fruity African beans. "For me, coffee drinking is all about the chase. About a year ago I bought a pound of Rwandan coffee that was by far the best coffee I've ever had. I roasted it myself, using most of my stash to dial in the perfect roast. And when that was done? Rather than mourn the loss of a perfect cup, the chase starts again! At the moment I'm working through a batch from Kenya. Only so-so, meaning it's only a hundred times better than Starbucks.
"Oh, and the time commitment for this pleasure? Twenty-five minutes a week to roast (including setup and cleanup), plus the time to grind and brew each cup. Life is good."
Mike asks: How do you roast your beans? (That sounds like the setup for a punchline, but it's not, I'm just curious.)
Jon replies: "I use a Gene Cafe air roaster. Recommended by the good folks at Bull Run Roasting in Minneapolis. They do wholesale stuff, but there was a brief period when they were selling to the public. I figured if it was good enough for home use by one of the roasters, it was good enough for me!"
Featured Comment by Zalman Stern: "Two thirds of the core Adobe Camera Raw engineering team roast their own coffee and the other third is extremely serious about tea.
"I roast with a Hot Top miniature drum roaster, which is a very well made appliance but on the high end side for home roasting. Previously I wore out an iRoast 2, which is like a heavy duty version of one of those air pop popcorn poppers from days gone by and roasts the coffee in a stream of very hot air. One can also roast on the stove in a cast iron frying pan or use one of many homemade roaster designs. In any event, one needs very good ventilation or a way to do the roasting outside.
"Sweet Maria's Coffee sells roasters, green coffee, and has a ton of info about the process and art of coffee roasting. (They also sell a variety of coffee makers, though they use the term 'vacuum brewing' rather than 'siphon.') The best part for me is I always drink freshly roasted coffee and can switch to a different 'varietal' every few days. Green coffee lasts for about a year so one can arrange to never run out as well, which I find important :-)
"Per Jon's comment, the Rwanda Gkongoro Nyarusiza from Sweet Maria's was the best best coffee I've ever had."
Featured Comment by Ruud van Ruitenbeek: "I fail to be convinced that there is a difference between the cafetiere [сafetière à piston, or French press —Ed.] and the syphon method. If someone can give me a scientifically argued case for the syphon I might be tempted, as I like the laboratory look!"
Mike replies: I'd guess that French press lets more sediment through, which is the reason I don't like it—I'm averse to sediment in my coffee. But I'm with you anyway Ruud—I don't see why the siphon method is fundamentally any different than pour-over in a paper cone in filter holder, which is what I've always used. You mix the coffee and the water and then strain the grounds out, right? So why are vacuum methods any different in terms of the final result?
I can see siphon or vacuum brewing in a glass coffeemaker as being an entertaining conversation starter at a small table of a few friends, but beyond that, like you, I'm mystified as to the appeal.
Reply from Dan: "Allowing an analogy to audio systems, siphon brewing creates a 'frowny-face' EQ—coffee that has its acidic, bright high notes and dark, bitter low notes muted, leaving a mellow and fruity middle. It's best suited for light to medium roasted beans—beans that have barely started the caramelization process that is the signature of a dark, Italian or French roast. You can achieve similar tasting coffee with a simple pourover paper drip brewer.
"As other commentators have noted, you won't get the dark, punchy coffee you would get with a French Press—siphon coffee is very 'polite.' It's the method you use when you want to impress your friends—though they may expect more from the resulting cup."
Featured [partial] Comment by Zeeman: "Like cameras, the best brewing method is the one you actually use."
Featured Comment by Robert Spoecker: "Geez, I make my coffee by putting a decaf coffee bag into a cup of cold water and microwaving it for about two minutes. Please don't tell Chris Owens."
Featured Comment by David Hassler: "If you don't want to go the self-roasting route, Chris Owens and Michael Phillips left Intelligentsia to start their own roaster, Handsome Coffee [in Los Angeles —Ed.]. They are doing an amazing job with the roasts. Me, I've stuck with the Aeropress, instead of going full-crazy with something like the siphon. I find a great amount of pleasure in brewing a cup of coffee that has a completely unique flavor from anything I previously tried."
Featured Comment by Paul Glover: "I'm already shooting medium-format black-and-white film in a 52-year-old Yashica TLR and considering trying some of the Adox/Efke old-school emulsions. I'm trying really hard to not get back into having a record collection on vinyl. Now you hit me, in short succession, with tea geekery and coffee geekery. Like I need any more geekery! Seriously though, an interesting topic. There's more to coffee than the stuff you buy at the supermarket.
"As for instant coffee, the only use for it is as a component in Caffenol."
[Editor's note: Caffenol is a coffee-based film developer. Apropos of that, I think I published the first modern article on coffee developers, in Photo Techniques, when I was editor there. The article was written by the wonderful Patrick Gainer, who would periodically blow things up on his wife's kitchen stove in their house high on a mountaintop in West Virginia. Pat also experimented with modern vitamin C developers before almost anyone else in remotely contemporary times was doing anything with those. Great guy. And not a half bad photographer, either. —Mike]
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "Always found it amazing how the cappuccino throughout Italy is a veritable holiday within itself. Don't think I ever had a cup there that wasn't beyond belief, whether in a café, a railroad station, a neighborhood dive—it always made you pause and give thanks."
Featured Comment by Jim Henry: "I have a friend who owns Metropolis Coffee in Chicago. They do their own roasting and blending, make trips overseas to coffee growers to get the right beans and do the right thing, etc.
"You can order a variety of types online and they will ship it to you that day or the next. So you are brewing your coffee within 2–4 days of its being roasted. This, I am told, and believe, is more important than the details of whether you are pushing or pulling the water through the coffee.
"I use a French press and you can see the freshness of the coffee as the hot water hits the grounds and an active bubbling occurs.
"That's my friend Jeff (owner) in the middle picture on the home page, holding the beans in his hands. I get no commission and I order from him regularly."
Featured Comment by Bill Mitchell: "The only really important siphon is the Kodak Tray Siphon."