A centerpiece of Blue Bottle Coffee's Mint Plaza shop in San Francisco is a siphon coffee bar that looks like something out of a steam punk science lab. Watching the coffee brew in the glass orbs is magical (and so is the resulting coffee). Lest you think this fine brew is limited to artisanal coffee shops, siphon (also called vacuum) coffee brewers for the home are in easy reach.
What sets these coffee makers apart is a brewing process that's entirely sealed off so that no aroma can escape. When the water reaches the coffee, it is said to be the perfect temperature to extract the oils and rich flavors. The coffee has a great body similar to French press but without the chewy sediment.
Vacuum coffee brewers are made of stovetop-safe borosilicate glass, which is extremely strong, scratch and heat resistant, and won’t become cloudy over time. Heated water creates pressure in the lower bowl, pushing the water up to mix with the coffee grounds in the upper funnel. The heat is then turned off and the pressure drives the coffee back down to the lower bowl through a filter. For a thorough primer, see Coffee Geek's Using a Siphon Coffee Maker, which includes the whys, the hows, and what you'll need to achieve the perfect cup.
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Above: Cona, out of the UK, has been making vacuum brewers since before World War II, and the design has remained unchanged. The Cona Vacuum Brewer is the home vacuum brewer against which others are compared. This one is not a stovetop variety; instead, it is heated by a spirit lamp fueled with denatured alcohol. As seller Sweet Maria's says: "it's the brewing method for romantics." The classic size D maker is $215 (a smaller size C is available for $209) at Sweet Maria's.
Above: Bodum has been making a siphon coffee maker since the 1950s. The Pebo Vacuum Coffee Maker, their latest iteration, has a 34-ounce capacity and features a stay-cool handle and a stopper to keep coffee warm; $79.95 at Sur La Table.
Above: Bodum's Pebo Vacuum Coffee Maker on the stovetop. It comes with a coffee scoop and resting stand (and is dishwasher safe).
Above: The Hario Mini, a one-cup stainless and glass coffee maker from a Japanese company that offers a range of siphon designs; $100.72 from Amazon.
Above: The Yama Vacuum Brewer is a stovetop model from Japan. It is a utilitarian vacuum-siphon brewer that can stand up to daily use. The Yama Vacuum Brewing Pictorial is a useful guide for getting started; $35 for the 5-cup size and $40 for the 8-cup size at Sweet Maria's.
Above: The vacuum brewing method fell out of favor in North America with the introduction of the electric automatic coffee makers in the 1960s. Wonderful vintage makers ranging from complex 19th-century contraptions to the 1925 Sintrax Coffee Maker (shown here), a Bauhaus interpretation by Gerhard Marcks, can be found through auctions and vintage sellers.
N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on October 2, 2012 as part of our North by Northwest issue.
More caffeine? See 10 Easy Pieces: Stovetop Espresso Makers and Design Sleuth: The Elusive Red Espresso Coffee Pot.