Siphon Coffee: Because Single Origin Brew Wasn't Elitist Enough

My body is nothing more than a mechanism for processing caffeine and beer. Actually, the folks at Gawker said something much worse. But fuck those guys. If they're so smart, why haven't they unionized yet? Anyhoo, I love good coffee, but I'll even drink the slime at the Shell station because, you know, addiction doesn't give a fuck.

Moreover, coffee, even bad coffee, makes you smarter and more productive. For real, you can go ask science if you doubt me. Science will tell you I'm right 1.

Yet there's no reason to drink bad coffee given the wide variety of caffeine delivery systems. Coffee drinkers, like potheads, have come up with a staggering number of ways to extract the feel-good chemicals from a simple agricultural product. Many of these transcend mere function and are as beautiful and entertaining to watch as, say, a small brotherhood of grizzly bears gang raping Lou Dobbs.

The best of these, both in terms of flavor and fun, is the vacuum pot, or siphon brewing system. While you don't see them that frequently here, they're somewhat more common in Japan. Vac pots—unlike a proprietary $4000 pod-based espresso maker—have been around forever. Or at least for about 160 years. Much like a bicycle, it is absolute mechanical perfection.

You dump coffee (freshly ground) in the top chamber, water in the bottom, and set it on the stove. The stove heats the water, causing pressure to force the liquid up into the top chamber, where it mixes with the grounds. Kill the heat, and the lower chamber starts to cool, creating a vacuum down there. That sucks the water back down again, passing through a filter on the way. You end up with a smooth, delicate brew with little to no bitterness; certainly one of the best ways to draw out the flavors of an individual bean.

And while you can fork out for them—the Japanese system at Blue Bottle cost a cool $20K—you can also snag one on eBay for about $50.

(1) Ha! See how smart I am from all that coffee? That was a trick. I linked to something else I wrote. You're just going to have to take my word for it. Or not.

About Mat Honan

I enjoy drinking things that are made out of liquid
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24 Responses to Siphon Coffee: Because Single Origin Brew Wasn't Elitist Enough

  1. Enochrewt says:

    Ya know, I was watching One Piece and every time Sanji the love cook makes coffee for the crew, he does it this way. I thought it was just a quirky One Piece thing. Now I know better.

  2. KurtMac says:

    Isn’t this what the master barista demonstrated as the “ultimate nerd’s way to make coffee” for Mark F. at Intelligentsia for that BBTV episode?

    It also reminds me of those novelty Hand Boilers/Love Meters that are made of glass and you hold the bottom bulb and the liquid travels up the tube and into the top bulb and “boils.”

  3. guy_jin says:

    isn’t this basically how percolators work?

  4. jitrobug says:

    How does it compare to an Aeropress?

  5. feedingfashionistas says:


    Percolators work by cycling hot water through a bed of coffee grounds. The problem is, the water/coffee often passes through the grounds multiple times at higher-than-optimal temperatures, creating a sludgy, burnt-tasting brew.

    The vacpot simply steeps the grounds once for an optimal time then gets the brewed coffee away from the spent grounds.


    The Aeropress is somewhat similar in that it provides a full-immersion brew cycle in the chamber before passing the coffee through a fine filter under pressure (although the coffee is technically filtered under suction in a vacpot).

    A lot of the appeal of a vacpot, I think, is in the magical way it works. Water rising up into the the top chamber seemingly of its own accord, then moving back downward as nicely brewed coffee as if on cue.

  6. Horselover Fat says:

    Vacuum (double bubble) systems do make great coffee. Glass units for stove top are best but you have to kind of babysit them. Silex made metal ones that automatically reduce the heat and trigger the vacuum process. They show up on ebay regularly. Search for Silex C20 or C30.

  7. BastardNamban says:

    Strangely enough, while I’ve seen these vacuum pots in Japan everywhere, I’ve never come across a place that actually uses them to make coffee. The best Japanese cup of coffee I ever had was at a Miyakoshiya cafe in Odori, and that was done with a cloth-filtered slow-poured hand drip holder. All he did was pour hot water into a tamped bed of grounds in a cloth filter, siting in a ring with a handle. It was really, really good.

    That said, I have an Aeropress, and I recommend it if you don’t drink a lot of coffee and like to experiment. I drink a lot, so I miss pots or carafes. The Aeropress really does make crema, coffee froth, but you have to be careful with temperature of the water. Still, I add water afterwards, per their directions, and no matter what, it tastes like watered down coffee. For straight espresso shots, it’s incredibly good with the right grind and good beans!

    The best coffee I ever had was at the Harlingford Hotel in London, from a large French Press. It had the consistency of hot-chocolate, but it was coffee.

    Can anyone recommend a Japanese cafe chain that uses these vacuum pots for coffee, and isn’t just in Tokyo? I’d like to try it, as I’ve tried almost every other concievable way of making coffee I can think of.

  8. Mat Honan says:

    @Jitrobug I think @feedingfashionistas and @BastardNamban described the difference pretty well. Pressure vs. suction and the aeropress is more espresso drink oriented, while vac pots are really just for coffee. I *love* my Aeropress, and use it to make americanos and caps all the time. But for straight up coffee, the vac pot really brews a wonderful beverage. And of course it’s great fun to watch.

  9. Anonymous says:

    i don’t know how far the franchise has spread but the use of siphon vacuum pots are common in the UCC coffee chain of Japan (or at least the branches of this chain in the Philippines).

    – chudez

  10. Bobsledboy says:

    The vacuum/siphon method is my favourite way to make coffee. You can control every aspect of the coffee making process including the brew temperature, brew time, brew mixing and the grind coarseness; so you can really nerd the shit out of it. If you have a portable butane burner for the pot, making coffee for friends becomes a form of entertainment as well.

  11. damageman says:

    I live in Tokyo but this way of brewing does not seem to be popular at all. Who really cares how it is made I just need the sweet, life giving caffeine.

    There is this drip coffee place in the basement of Tokyo station, it is very expensive for Japanese coffee but it looked really interesting and possibly tasty. After paying 320 yen for a tiny 8 ounce cup, that was only 3/4 full I found it tasted like crap, very weak! I will stick with Starbucks I cannot risk a weak cup of coffee, Japanese meetings are way to boring for that!

  12. Narual says:

    <3 my siphon. Makes the best coffee... but it's a lot of work.

    Pretty sure these aren't originally japanese. They used them in the US for a long time.

    These have almost nothing in common with a percolator, and nothing at all with an aeropress. An aeropress is basically a faster french press; a percolator pushes coffee over grounds repeatedly; A siphon creates steam, pushing almost boiling water into coffee grounds, which are then agitated by the rising steam from what little water is left; when the heat is removed, the coffee is sucked back down by the vacuum created. The coffee itself never boils.

    Assuming you use a glass siphon and a glass filter rod, the coffee will retain all its oils; and the taste won't be changed by metal since there isn't any.

    The coffee can be strong, but it's a light, clean cup. If you want a heavier, thicker cuppa, you should use a french press.

    I tend to use the press when I'm actively drinking coffee, and the vacuum pot when I'm making a cup of coffee for myself and a friend or two and know we're not going to want refills.

    Of course, if I had one of the old kind that makes a volume comparable to a press or a drip brewer, I'd use it more. It's a lot of work for a pot that basically comes out to two and a half 'coffee cups' or a bit over one decent sized mug. But it looks really cool. :)

  13. strider_mt2k says:

    I love coffee.

    Trying new coffees is fantastic and far more fun and educational than I EVER thought.

    Two great coffee experiences: Puerto Rico and Miami with a Cuban client/guide.

    Hey my cup’s empty, be right back…

    -anybody want some while I’m up?

  14. strider_mt2k says:

    Too late, sluuuurp.

    Your turn to make another pot anyway…

  15. Narual says:

    I’ll second Puerto Rico, Strider. Every year I go there for a week or so & spend at least 3 days at the Casa Grande, near Utuado. In addition to being incredibly beautiful and peaceful, they have killer coffee “from the plantation just up the mountain.”

    I always buy some of the really overpriced top end 20/64 or caracoli from Café Cola’o in Old San Juan, a bag or two of beans from one of the local plantations, and I hit the little grocery store in Utuado whose logo is a total ripoff of Jane Jetson ( and buy 8 or 10 pounds of assorted local brands (and pay maybe half the price of a couple 12 ounce bags from Café Cola’o) to bring back as gifts for friends & family.

  16. Graham Anderson says:

    Bodum make a version, and I just ordered a version for £42 from

  17. Bryan Price says:

    My parents had an electric coffee pot that did this. The bottom would boil the water up into the upper chamber where the coffee was, it then turned itself off, and then the vacuum sucked the coffee back into the bottom. It was already used when we got it, and I don’t think it lasted long because it was too shortly thereafter that they got another percolator. We’re talking 45 years ago IIRC.

  18. Mat Honan says:

    If Wikipedia is to be believed – and I’m not saying it is! – they originated in Germany in the 1830s

  19. The Life Of Bryan says:

    A friend of mine has one of these and it has a small alcohol burner in the base of it.

  20. ptsd says:

    Judging by what you see isn’t always fair, but honestly: Either they didn’t put enough coffee beans in there, they put to much water in it or a combination hereof.

    What’s in those containers look more like strong tea than anything even resembling coffee!

    Having to pay for that weak pot of p*ss would make me complain instantly!

  21. J France says:

    … or $15 from my local continental store. Us classy folk call them “stove tops”.

    I thought these were the stalwarts of a coffee conessuiers arsenal. Make a great cup of coffee with zero effort.

  22. AirPillo says:

    You know, looking at it right now, I bet I could do this at home with a vacuum flask and my handy buchner funnel.

    Just clamp it to a stand, plug the T joint, and place over a gentle bunsen flame.

  23. Anonymous says:

    a coffee shop on in the 20’s on the west side of Manhattan has a vacuum machine that makes one cup at a time. i think they call it the clover.
    pretty cool , you see the grounds get filled with water and than watch the water sucked out.
    its a good cup of coffee, pretty expensive , but a good cup,

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