The headlining piece of last week's New York Times dining section brought new awareness to an old method of making coffee: the vacuum, or siphon brewer. (They are sometimes also called glass brewers or balance brewers.) Among some coffee aficionados, especially in Japan, the vacuum brewer is the way to make a cup of coffee. The coffee from a vacuum brewer is often described as pure, dramatic, and crisp. Good siphon coffee made us feel like we were really tasting coffee for the first time. Vaccum brewing looks like something from a Victorian laboratory, and it has indeed been around since the 1840s when it was invented in France. It was popular in the United States around the middle of the 20th century, but compared to the new, easy drip and percolator coffee makers it was too time-consuming and precise of a method to take real hold. They continue to be very popular in Europe and Japan.
The vacuum pot is a pleasure to watch - it makes a showman's cup of coffee! It works on simple scientific principles that look like magic when in action. Water sits in a bottom container, with grounds in a top container. There is a siphon tube and filter between the top and bottom containers. As the water heats the vapor it creates forces it to rise up through the tube into the top chamber. The water mixes with the coffee grounds and extracts their flavor. It just so happens that the temperature at which enough water becomes vapor is the same temperature that makes for maximum and perfect coffee extraction.
Then the heat source is removed, and as the water and vapor cool, gravity sucks them both back down into the lower chamber. The grounds up top are completely sucked dry and all of your coffee is in the bottom chamber.
This leaves an incredibly delicious and satisfying cup - we get this whenever we can. Cafe Balcony in west Los Angeles is the only place we've been able to find it, but we're thinking about investing in our own brewer.
The gold standard of vacuum brewers is the Cona, which run about $200. More economical versions like the Yama and Bodum are about $30-$50. Some more expensive versions come with a built-in heat source or flame while others are made for use directly on a stove burner.
More on siphon brewing:
• Great pictorial guide to brewing at Sweet Maria's
• Complete siphon coffee FAQ at Coffee Kid