The History of the Siphon Pot

siphon1If you’re the type to notice the latest trends in café service or if you follow the specialty coffee media mavens, it’s probably not news to you that the siphon coffee brewer is making a huge comeback. Siphon coffee makers are a bit of an anachronism – a throwback to a past where they were cutting edge coffee technology making a comeback as cutting edge coffee technology.

There are a lot of reasons to love vacuum brewers, not the least of which is that they make awesome coffee. They also look cool, make a great tabletop exhibition and, for all you women’s history buffs out there, women played an integral role in their development and adoption.

The Early History of the Siphon Coffee Brewer

The earliest known patent for a siphon coffee brewer was filed by Loeff of Berlin in the 1830s, but it was a French woman, Marie Fanny Amelne Massot of Lyons, France – better known as Mme. Vassieux, the name she used on her patent applications – who designed and patented the first commercially successful vacuum brewer in 1840. Mme. Vassieux’ coffee brewer featured two glass “balloons” held by a frame. It was an ornate delight for the eyes, capped with a metal crown and featuring a spigot for serving from the bottom vessel.

siphon4The design makes it clear that the coffee maker was meant for display in a dining room or drawing room, not for making coffee in the kitchen. And for those who love little tidbits of history, there’s also a strong possibility that Mme. Vassieux was a courtesan who held court in one of the salons beloved by the French nobility and men of wealth. She had the leisure to develop her design, and the connections to have it manufactured in fairly large numbers – large enough that some of them are still in existence.

At about the same time as Mme. Vassieux patented her siphon brewer, a Scottish inventor was also creating a version of the vacuum pot. Unlike the good madam, Napier never patented his brewer, but it was quite popular for some years, and was presented an award by The Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1856 for “exhibiting the Napier Coffee Pot and for his gratuitous entertainment of their guests with coffee” at the first meeting of the institution in Glasgow. The Naperian differed significantly from the double balloon brewer, but it operated on the same principle, which is explained in the instructions which accompanied the brewer:

The theory of the process, like many other clever things, seems very simple when explained. The air which fills the glass globe must be expelled in order to make room for the liquid coffee. This result is obtained by the lamp forcing the heated air through the metal tube, the expulsion of air being actually visible in the bubbles rising in the jar; when these cease to rise, we conclude that the air has been almost entirely expelled from the globe. Now, extinguish the lamp, whereupon the steam which the globe contains becomes condensed by the colder air surrounding it. The vacuum being now completely formed, the liquid coffee immediately ascends to fill the space formerly occupied by the air and steam.

Like the French double balloon vacuum pot, however, the Naperian was also meant for display, as is made clear by the broadsheet that advertised the brewer which “may also be had elegantly fitted up with silver frames and globes if desired.”

The Siphon Brewer Comes to America

These early brewers made their way to the new world via import, but it wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that there’s record of vacuum brewers being manufactured in North America. In 1910, Mrs. Ann Bridges and Mrs. Sutton, a pair of sisters from Salem, Massachusetts, filed a patent for a device they called the “Silex,” a vacuum brewer made of Pyrex glass being manufactured by the Corning Glass Works of New York. Mrs. Bridges and Mrs. Sutton most prsiphon2obably did not develop the Silex brewer themselves, but they did acquire the patent, arrange for their production and set about marketing them to inns, coffee houses and other commercial establishments.

The design of the Silex was much less elaborate than the earlier versions of the vacuum pot – and it’s a design that has continued nearly unchanged since it was introduced in the early 1900s. If you put a vintage Silex vacuum brewer side by side with a Hario Next Siphon Brewer, they look like first cousins. Over the next decades, a number of patents were filed for Silex coffee brewers, many of them by the Silex Company of Hartford, Connecticut and many of them bearing the names of women as the inventor of record. Among the biggest changes were those that made the Silex more amenable for use in the home kitchen: a wider, flat bottom on the pot so that the apparatus could rest on a burner, and a narrower upper globe for better balance.

Speaking of Balance…

No discussion of the history of vacuum brewers would be complete without mention of balance brewers, a variation of the vacuum pot that places the two coffee vessels side by side instead of one atop the other. Unlike standard vacuum brewers, which rely upon you to extinguish the heat source at the correct time, the balance brewer is designed to automatically extinguish the flame on the burner when the water chamber is empty. It does this via a rather elegant combination of balance and a spring-loaded lid.

Balance siphons were highly popular at European court functions during the mid-1800s, and then faded out of favor as people opted for convenience over showiness. But as in all things coffee, the renaissance of interest in vacuum pots also renewed interest in the balance siphon. At least one company is now manufacturing and selling a variety of modern-day balance siphons.

Today’s Siphon Brewers

The market for siphon brewers today is largely dominated by two Japanese glass companies, Hario and Yama, who each sell a variety of vacuum pots and siphon brewing systems for both tabletop and stovetop brewing. The consensus on siphon coffee is that it is showy, elegant and uncommonly good, thanks to the mechanism that uses physics to determine when the coffee is properly brewed.

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Roasting for the First Time – The Process and Results

West Bend Poppery 1 I recently learned that coffee roasting at home is accessible, but I didn’t realize it would merely require a trip to a thrift store and a shipment from Sweet Maria’s. It’s incredible. I found a West Bend Poppery 1 from my local Goodwill for $8 – a little pricey relative to most stores which sell them for less than $5. I then purchased the 4lb sampler from Sweet Marias and read up on popcorn popper roasting.

It’s not all that complicated really. You apply heat to green coffee beans. Wha-la! Well there’s actually more to it than that if you want your coffee to have any sort of flavor, but that’s the basic gist of it. I admit to being a roasting noob. I know next to nothing about the roasting process. However, I intend to learn and grow. That’s all there is to do.

Here are some of the notes I took from roasting.

Sumatra Grade 1 Mandeheling – Sweet Marias

First Roast

  • 30s Preheat – This should have been longer, I think. Much longer.
  • 100g In, 86g Out
  • First Crack: Around 3:00.
  • Roaster off: 4:00
  • Cooling: Colander by 4:15, shook till 7:45.

2014-03-23 18.54.30

Second Roast

  • Already hot from the previous roast.
  • 100g In, 84g Out
  • First Crack: Around 2:35 – This batch definitely cracked earlier than the first.
  • Roaster off: 3:35
  • Cooling: Colander by 3:40, shook till 7:45.

2014-03-23 19.13.06The roasting information is all good and dandy, but the real measure of quality is always taste.

Cupping

I am no pro at cupping, which was evident by my first cupping experience, but I am slowly getting better and discerning tastes and flavors. It’s fun to cup coffees from others, but everything changes when you are the roaster. I felt accomplished to begin with, before I even knew if the coffees were drinkable. And I still feel accomplished.

2014-03-25 20.18.22The two other coffee cuppers and I went through a very informal and relaxing coffee cupping process that lasted about fifteen minutes. After dozens of slurps of perplexed expressions, we were finally ready to reveal our thoughts. Here are some of the notes that were taken and opinions that were expressed. Keep in mind, we kept things fairly basic.

First Roast

Aroma: grape, floral

Flavor: grape (2 votes) , floral (2 votes), citrus, apple, wheat

Conclusion: This batch wasn’t disgusting, but the acidity was overwhelming. Still, very bright flavors are present and the beans remain somewhat drinkable.

Second Roast

Aroma: spice (2 votes)

Flavor: apple, grape (2 votes), herb, dried fruit, tomato, nougat, spice

Conclusion: This batch was much more balanced and drinkable. The acidity was tame and the flavors were present. All three of us were very pleased drinking these beans.

What I Learned

I was really pleased with the way these beans came out – both of them. Neither is perfect, or even close, but they were much better than any pre-ground grocery beans I’ve ever tasted – and that was on my first try! The future looks bright.

From here I would like to play with a few variables to hone in my roasting skills with the Poppery 1. I’ll probably start by using an extension cord to reduce the wattage. This particular popcorn popper is notorious for getting too hot, too fast. 3:30 is much too quick for a solid roast. The further I’m able to extend that time to more precise I am able to be.

I may play around with stirring the beans while they’re roasting too. I don’t know much about that, but have seen it recommended several times for popcorn poppers. Lastly, I will invest in a thermometer so that I can further understand the entire roasting process. This will also enable increased precision.

On the Use of Pour Over Stands – And How I Made Two

If you’re puzzled by the function of pour over stands, take heart. You’re not alone. I had seen several different pour over stands throughout the internet, each with elaborate or minimal designs, but I wasn’t able to really understand the benefits of pour over stands until just recently. It was then that I decided to build my own.

But before we get into my personal project, let’s talk about these stands. Why? That’s the main question. Why would anyone need a pour over stand when setting the dripper on top of a mug or carafe is all you need?

Visibility

Scenario 1: You’re conducting your morning pour over ritual when all of the sudden coffee begins spewing over the sides of your mug onto the counter. You can’t grab the rag quickly enough and the elixir drips down onto your brand new white shoes.

Scenario 2: You’re conducting your morning pour over ritual with a stand and are able to admire the coffee flowing delicately into your mug. All is well in life.

Being able to see the pourage (I just made that word up) and the level of coffee in the mug or carafe can be important when you aren’t being terribly precise with scales. It also looks cool, which leads us to the next benefit.

Appearance

Scenario 1: Your boss walks in and is considering you for a promotion from “garbage man” to “garbage man manager”. You make him a pour over and he is impressed, but your lack of style and newly-stained white shoes result in the promotion going to another man.

Scenario 2: Your boss walks in and is considering you for a promotion from “garbage man” to “garbage man manager”. You make him a pour over with your fancy pour over stand and he is impressed, particularly with your style and new white shoes. You are promoted.

Pour over stands really are creations that emphasize the visual aspects of a pour over, but don’t really affect the taste or brewing process. If you want to be awesome, get a pour over brewer. If you want to look awesome while you’re at it, get a pour over stand.

Building Your Own

If you are interested in purchasing a pour over stand, I recommend checking out the ones created by Bonavita, Hario, Melitta, Clive, and BrewStation. All of these are solid choices, but some will cost you some wallet-mass. There is another option – make the stand yourself.

DSC_0125I am not a skilled carpenter and have only build a couple things in my life. But building my two pour over stands wasn’t hard. It did take some time, however. First I had to pick the design. Did I want to use only wood, or pipe also? What shapes should I use? A single, or double? I eventually chose to build two different stands, both made completely from wood with only a single spot for a pour over brewer. One of these stands is 12″ long, while the other is only 6″. Other than that, they are nearly identical.

I bought a 1x6x10 from Home Depot, but their saw was out of order so I took it home to cut it myself. It wasn’t long before I was at Lowes buying another piece of lumber. To put it simply, I can’t cut lumber myself to save my life. I also bought a couple packs of anti-skid pads, a 2 1/2″ hole saw, sandpaper, and a paintbrush. I already owned the polyurethane sealant.

DSC_0128To keep things simple, had the lumber cut into four 1′ pieces and eight 6″ pieces, which I then sanded to remove inconsistencies and lumps. I then applied three coats of polyurethane over a period of two days to keep the wood safe from spilled coffee. From there I glued the wood pieces together and let it dry for a few hours and eventually screwed the entire contraptions together and applied the anti-skid pads.

The total cost was about $35. I could have reduced that had I not ruined my original piece of lumber. I also have enough wood to make another stand and a half. So each stand costed me roughly $10 and 3 hours. Not bad for a fun and simple project.

As you can see, neither stand is perfect. Both are not entirely straight. But despite their flaws, I am proud of them. They are my creation wrought from my own hands. That’s cool.

I hope you have been informed and inspired. If you decide to construct your own pour over stand, I want to hear about it! You can drop a comment on this article or find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Happy building. Happy Brewing!