The first time I encountered a siphon coffee maker, it was at Hi-Collar, a Japanese Kissaten-style cafe in NYC’s East Village. Nothing excites me quite like trying a new brewing method, so I ordered the siphon coffee with no real context. It was some of the smoothest, most balanced coffee I’d ever had, and the Hario siphon brewer they used had a sculptural, vaguely steampunk quality to it that was at once intimidating and enthralling.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite the collection of coffee makers. I went through Aeropress and Nanopresso phases, fell in love with a string of French presses, and tried every pour-over option on the market before I committed to a relationship with my Clever Dripper. I’ve dabbled in drip machines and stovetop percolators, and fell down the espresso rabbit hole after acquiring my first Breville espresso machine—a Bambino, which I eventually upgraded to the Barista Express Impress. Despite all of that experimentation, I was still too nervous to try a siphon. That is, until I started watching Lessons in Chemistry.
The show, which is based on Bonnie Garmus’ wildly popular novel, follows Elizabeth Zott—a chemist who eventually becomes the host of a beloved 1960s cooking show. In the pilot, a co-worker asks Zott to make her special “beaker brew,” perfectly illustrating the show’s commentary on gender discrimination in 1950s STEM jobs.
Zott uses actual chemistry lab equipment to make her vacuum brewer: a bunsen burner functions as her heat source and she fashions a combination of tubes, flasks, and beakers into a coffee brewer. The moment encapsulates her character’s dilemma: she’s a brilliant (and resourceful!) chemist, and also an attractive woman who knows her way around the kitchen. In the context of her time, no one knows what to do with her.
As I continued to watch the show, I started to believe that I, too, could use science to make better brewed coffee. Setting aside the fact that I barely scraped by with a C-minus in chemistry, I ordered a Hario siphon brewer.
When I opened the box, I remembered why I was nervous about siphon coffee. A siphon brewer really does look like lab equipment. Two glass flasks—one round, one more of a cylinder with a tube coming out of the bottom—are held up by a stand, and it comes with a tiny burner. I started having flashbacks to failed high school chemistry experiments as I put the pieces together. The heat source for the Hario Technica is an alcohol burner, which meant I had to go out and buy some fuel. Denatured alcohol is the cleanest-burning option, but my local pharmacy carried 97% isopropyl alcohol, which also works. Many people choose to buy a separate butane burner instead, because it’s easier to adjust the flame.
The basic process goes like this: First, prepare your heat source. If you’re using an alcohol burner, fill the chamber with fuel and adjust the wick—you want to have the smallest possible amount of wick exposed, which I learned the hard way. Next, weigh out your coffee beans and water at a 1:15 ratio. I pre-heated the water to 206°F using my gooseneck kettle, and then ground my beans. For siphon coffee, you want a pretty fine grind, so I used a setting between three and four on my Fellow Ode grinder. The Hario comes with a cloth filter attached to a metal chain, which you thread through the tube of the upper chamber. Then you pour the water into the bottom chamber, light the alcohol burner, and position the flame underneath.
While the water is heating, place the upper chamber into the opening of the bottom chamber at a slight angle: You don’t want to create the vacuum seal until just before water comes to a boil. When the water is hot enough, adjust the upper chamber, pour in the ground coffee, and watch the magic happen. The hot water will pass into the upper chamber, at which point you’ll give the coffee a quick stir and start a timer. Over the course of my testing, I found that a 60-second brew time was best. Once your time is up, extinguish the flame and watch as the brewed coffee flows back into the lower chamber. Break the seal by rocking the upper chamber back and forth to remove it, and the lower chamber turns into a coffee pot.
No matter how many times I brewed coffee in my siphon coffee maker, I did not get tired of watching the theatrics of the process. I found that the method pulled forward the subtler flavors of my favorite beans, but most of all, I loved the way the process required all of my attention. It’s not the simplest way to get caffeinated—even pour-over coffee is lowkey by comparison—but it is unquestionably my new favorite way to take a coffee break.
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