Power vacuum

Once popular across the world, the vacuum – or syphon – brewer is now only popular in Asia. But with more and more speciality cafés giving it a go, is it time for a revival? Photo by Gary Smith

The vacuum coffee brewer – also known as the syphon – is a rarely seen piece of coffee equipment these days, appearing to have fallen out of favour with home brewers and professional baristas alike. But here at Caffeine, we believe this quirky coffee kit could do with a change of fortune.

The coffee syphons available today have actually changed very little from their predecessors. The first coffee syphon was created in the 1830s by the German company Loeff. Subsequent patents filed around this time each improved on the initial design until 1841, when Madame Vassieux of Lyon filed a patent showing the double glass globe design we recognise today.

Brewing coffee in this way was very fashionable at the time, especially in Paris. Yet within 10 years it was cast aside in favour of the rather Heath Robinson-esque royal balancing syphon, in which the water and brewing chambers are arranged side by side and act as counterbalances to each other.

However, the traditional syphon was doing better across the Atlantic. By 1915, Pyrex coffee syphons were being manufactured in the US. The heatproof glass made these syphons far safer than their European forebears, which had a tendency to overheat and crack. The Pyrex versions were sold en masse to hotels and coffee shops, leading to the rediscovery of this wonderful brewing technique by the American public.

Taken to the hearts of US coffee drinkers, the golden era of syphon brewing took off and lasted from the 1930s through to the 1950s. Inevitably, though, as American consumers looked towards greater convenience and automation in the home throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the vacuum coffee brewer’s appeal declined. The simpler auto-drip machine took its place, and continues to be omnipresent.

Although syphons have never regained their popularity in the west, in Asia they are as popular as ever. The World Siphonist Championship have existed since 2009 and are dominated by the Japanese, who have won or podiumed every year so far.

But it seems that all is not lost for the syphon in the west. Championed by the likes of Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee in the US and some third-wave cafés here in the UK, the romance of this brewing technique is once again capturing the imagination of baristas and customers.

The notoriously intimidating brewing technique plays straight into the hands of speciality cafés that are constantly looking for ever more ingenious ways to set themselves apart from the high-street chains. One way to do this is to bring back a sense of performance to the bar. With well-trained staff and controlled conditions, a good café can consistently make a beautiful brew with a syphon.

“It’s the way most people get into filter coffee here at Colonna & Smalls in Bath,” says Seb Stephenson, 2014 UK Brewers Cup champion. “People see it when they’re drinking their flat whites and want to know more. It’s the sense of theatre involved.”

“I came into Colonna & Smalls as a customer for the first time specifically so I could try syphon coffee,” says Jason Gonzalez, the 2013-14 UK Cup Tasting champion. “It may seem like a lot of trouble for cafés, especially when they already produce great results on their brew bar. But even during a busy service, the syphon doesn’t take much longer than most brewing methods. It’s not as actively hands-on as it may seem”

The syphon is a unique coffee brewer in many ways. “It’s a bit of a cross-breed,” says Anson Goodge from Ozone Coffee Roasters. “The first minute of brewing is full immersion, but once you turn the heat off and the brew drops through into the bottom bowl, it turns into more of a filter coffee. This means you get slightly more sweetness than with a traditional filter but a cleaner cup than with full immersion.”

The key difference, however, is the syphon’s inverted heat curve. Most brewing techniques use hot water that then cools as it brews, but the syphon uses water that is continually heated, which results in a shorter brew time. The other distinct difference and part of its mystique is the way the water bubbles up to top chamber initially and is then sucked back down again. While this may look like witchcraft, it’s actually a simple case of physics.

As the water boils in the lower bowl, the air above it expands and forces the water up the syphon pipe into the upper chamber. The trick is to lower the temperature enough to keep the liquid up without creating too much turbulence for the required brew time. Then, as the heat is removed, the gas in the lower bowl contracts, creating the vacuum – from which the method gets its name – and pulling the brewed coffee back through the cloth filter and into the lower globe.

For a crisper feel, you can use paper filters and even double them up. “The washing and storing of the cloth filter can be a real pain, and soiling the cloth filter can taint all your coffee,” says Paul Whitehead of Alchemy Coffee. “Paper filters are much easier to work with.”

If you’re looking to try this method at home, we’d recommend using a lightly roasted coffee – speak to your local roaster or café and let them know how you’re intending to brew the coffee. “Sometimes a problem coffee can really shine on a syphon,” says Gonzalez. “Often if a coffee tastes very slightly green and I’m having trouble getting sweetness out of it, I’ll save it for the syphon.”

The syphon has a loyal following, but it also has a reputation for being a tricky method to get right. Much of this is down to the sheer amount of heat energy going into the process. “Get a thermometer and learn to adjust your heat source,” says Whitehead. Goodge concurs. “If you’re not in complete control and don’t understand what’s going on, the water temperature can easily rise too high and cause the coffee to over-extract quickly,” he says.

However, everyone we spoke to agrees the results can be amazing. The syphon is a unique brew method that will not only give you an incredible cup of coffee but will make you look like a coffee god.