Equal parts science and artful craft, brewing coffee with a siphon brewer turns an otherwise simple task into an immersive experience. The devices themselves are often sleek, yet scientific looking. The contrast of metal and glass makes it look like something out of a chemistry lab. And if you’ve ever been to one of the many cafes that have adopted siphon brewing, you know that the brewing process is a spectacle on its own.
The siphon brewer first gained real traction in America a few years ago when Blue Bottle dropped some serious money on a siphon bar for one of their cafes. The siphon bar was bought and shipped all the way from Japan, adding a sense of mystique and exotic luxury to the purchase. This helped to solidify the idea of the siphon as a brand new Japanese coffee brewing concept being brought to America. But this was never the case.
As it turns out, the concept of a siphon (or vacuum pot) coffee maker has been around for over 100 years! The original patent for a vacuum coffee maker was filed in Berlin in the mid-1830’s. In the late 1800’s, a French woman named Madame Vassieux designed and sold the first commercially successful siphon brewer.
So if the concept was invented in Berlin and made successful by a French woman, why do we constantly hear about American vs. Japanese siphon brewing methods?
Well, first, specialty coffee culture is a lot bigger in Japan and the US when compared to other countries.
Second, each country had companies that were integral in bringing siphon coffee into the collective conscience. In America, it was the aforementioned Blue Bottle cafe and their headline-grabbing siphon bar. In Japan, it was Hario, the makers of the world-renowned V60, and Yama. Both companies now make some of the world’s most highly regarded and well-designed siphons.
Given the fact that coffee is all about experimentation, it’s only natural that each country would develop its own way to use this captivating piece of coffee art.
But before we get into the differences, let’s take a look at similarities between the two.
Regardless of your brew method, the function of the brewer remains the same. In a siphon coffee maker, water in the lower chamber is brought to a near* boil. This creates an increase in vapor pressure, forcing the water to rise upward into the top chamber.
The emphasis here is on the fact that the water is brought to a near boil, as opposed to a rolling boil. A huge reason for the siphon maker’s creation is the fact that boiling coffee has an adverse effect on the taste of the coffee. Controlling the water’s temperature prevents this from happening.
Siphon brewing, whether you use the American or Japanese brew method, is a full immersion method. This is a fancy way of saying that the coffee is in complete and constant contact with the water, as opposed to a pour over style brew. This is the same method used in French press and Aeropress brews.
Because it’s a full immersion method, you’ll need to grind your coffee accordingly. For a siphon brew, you should grind your coffee to a medium coarse grind, similar to that of a French press.
Constant Heat Source
A consistent heat source is what makes the siphon brewing method so special. Heating options for burners include denatured alcohol, butane, gas, or halogen. As for what burner to use, that’s largely a matter of preference, though halogen burners are probably the most widely preferred option.
In order to understand the differences, we can consult the America vs. Japanese brew methods as described in the “Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee” book by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman, and Tara Duggan.
The American Method:
1. Soak the filter in warm water for 5 minutes. Drop the filter into the center of the upper bowl, then pull the chain to secure the filter and set the upper bowl into the holder.
2. Weigh out the coffee; the amount depends on the brewing ratio you’ll use. Grind the coffee to a medium coarseness, a little finer than you would for French press.
3. Pour the hot water into the lower bowl in its stand.
4. Ignite the burner. Place the lower bowl over the flame and wait for all the water to rise to the upper bowl. Measure the water temperature in the upper bowl and adjust the flame until it stabilizes at 188°F (87°C).
5. Add the ground coffee to the upper bowl. Gently incorporate the ground coffee into the top layer of hot water by rubbing the paddle along the top of the coffee mass for no longer than 30 seconds. The motion is like trying to spread cold butter on a piece of particularly delicate toast. Within 30 seconds, all the coffee should be moistened by the hot water.
6. Let the coffee brew for 20 to 40 seconds.
7. Stir the coffee with the paddle for no more than 12 rotations. The goal is to create the fastest and deepest whirlpool with the minimum of rotations.
8. Physically separate the siphon pot from the heat source and remember to turn off your burner. The coffee should descend into the lower bowl in 30 to 45 seconds. If it takes longer, the coffee is ground too finely.
9. To remove the upper bowl, gently rock it back and forth as you twist and pull it out of the lower bowl. Rinse the filter (don’t use soap) and dry it with a dish towel. You can store the clean, damp siphon filter in a resealable plastic bag in your refrigerator. If you make siphon coffee sporadically, keep the filter in a covered bowl filled with water and a quarter-teaspoon of espresso cleaning detergent. If you are storing your filter this way, you will need to make one pot and throw it away before making a pot to drink. Hand wash the upper and lower bowls. There’s no need to take the lower bowl off the stand during cleaning.
The Japanese Method:
1. Soak the filter in warm water for 5 minutes. Drop the filter into the center of the upper bowl, then pull the chain to secure the filter and set the top into the holder.
2. Weigh out the coffee; the amount depends on the brewing ratio you’ll use. Grind the coffee to a medium coarseness, a little finer than you would for French press. Transfer the ground coffee into the siphon top.
3. Pour the hot water into the lower bowl in its stand.
4. Ignite the burner. Place the lower bowl over the flame and wait for the water to boil. Test the heat of the water by inserting the upper bowl so the chain touches the water. You want to see a reaction (bubbles), but if the reaction is too wild, remove the lower bowl from the heat and swirl it in a counterclockwise direction to release bubbles.
5. With the lower bowl over the heat, insert the upper bowl into the pot firmly but gently, as you will soon need to remove the top.
6. Once 1 inch (2.5cm) of water has risen into the upper bowl, use the stirring paddle to immerse the coffee into the water. Scrape the edge and plunge the grounds into the water. Resist the temptation to stir.
7. Keep the siphon on the heat, undisturbed, for 30 seconds, then start stirring in a counterclockwise direction, with the burner still on. Stir for no more than 12 rotations. The goal is to create the fastest and deepest whirlpool with the minimum of rotations. (This skill is best acquired by practicing stirring without the coffee grounds.) Think of the coffee grounds as a school of fish that want to stay together. Don’t cut into the mass of coffee with the paddle.
8. Physically separate the siphon pot from the heat source and remember to turn off your burner. The coffee should descend into the lower bowl in 30 to 90 seconds. If it takes longer, the coffee is ground too finely.
9. To remove the upper bowl, gently rock it back and forth as you twist and pull it out of the lower bowl. Rinse the filter (don’t use soap) and store it following the instructions, opposite. Hand wash the upper and lower bowls. There’s no need to take the lower bowl off the stand during cleaning.
Spotting the Differences
While the brew methods are both quite similar and able to produce an excellent cup of coffee, a few differences stand out between the American and Japanese methods.
1. In the American method, users are first instructed to place the lower bowl of water over the flame with the upper bowl already in its stand. After waiting for the water to rise, the directions then say to measure the water temperature and adjust the flame until it stabilizes at 188°F.
Alternatively, the Japanese method advises placing the lower bowl of water over heat without the upper bowl attached. Once the water begins to boil, this method calls for measuring the water temperature by attaching the upper bowl so that the metal chain touches the water. The water temperature is then gauged by the reaction between the chain and boiling water, not by specific temperature.
2. In the American method, coffee is added after the water reaches its desired brewing temperature.
In the Japanese method, the ground coffee is immediately placed into the upper bowl before brewing. The coffee comes into contact with the water as soon as it begins rising to the upper bowl.
3. Both the American and Japanese methods advise against stirring initially. However, the difference is in the timing, with the American and Japanese methods calling for users to wait at least 20 and 30 seconds, respectively, before stirring.
4. Once the heat source is removed, the targeted draw down time is between 30-45 seconds in the American method. At 30-90 seconds, Japanese method can take a bit longer.
For coffee geeks who love to experiment, it really doesn’t get better than the siphon brewer. Whether you use one of the methods above or use them as a guide to create your own, there’s no denying that brewing siphon coffee is an all-around rewarding experience.
We take an in-depth look at several kinds of Japanese-style coffee makers, including siphons, in our dedicated guide.