The strange world of the Coffee Syphon

At the risk of exaggeration, there are almost as many ways to make coffee as there are different blends of the stuff. From the French Press and the humble filter, to the Espresso Machine and the innovative Aeropress. But for sheer theatrics, nothing beats the weird-as-all-get-out Coffee Syphon.

It’s certainly not the most convenient method to make your cup of joe, best approached on a quiet Sunday afternoon, but it does produce an amazingly clean and balanced brew with little to no leftover grit.

Invented in Germany in the 1830s, the Coffee Syphon, also known as the vacuum pot, is one of the older methods of producing coffee. It was actually quite popular in most households up until the 1960s, when more convenient coffee machines and instant coffee appeared on the market. They normally consist of two parts made from heat-resistant glass – a lower flask and an upper chamber with a long glass tube and a rubber seal. When placed together, a seal is created allowing a vacuum to be formed. A filter made from metal or cloth is placed between the upper and lower chambers.

The principle of the device is pretty straightforward. Heat some water in the flask, the water expands up the glass tube into the upper chamber where the coffee grounds reside, allow the brew to steep for a minute or two and remove the heat. The liquid then contracts as it cools and moves back down to the lower chamber, getting filtered on the way.

The setup

The particular syphon that I have is a TCA-5 made by Hario of Japan, where these things still seem to be reasonably popular. There are many different possible heat sources, stove-top models also exist, but this particular syphon comes supplied with an alcohol burner that sits below the flask. It consist of a cotton wick and alcohol container, the wick is immersed in the alcohol a few minutes before use. Clean-burning alcohol such as methylated spirits should be used, which can be obtained from most chemists.

The alcohol burner.

The TCA-5 comes with a cotton filter secured to a metal disk. The disk also has a spring-loaded chain that you attach to the bottom of the glass tube of the upper chamber. It’s important not to let the cotton filter dry out after use, otherwise stale coffee flavours will stick around, so I keep it stored in a small lunch box filled with water.

Cotton filter stored in water.

A small clip holds the spring loaded chain to the glass tube. I always try to center the filter in the upper chamber as much as possible, this ensures that no grinds can bypass the filter.

Attaching the filter.

The best grind size for the syphon seems to be something between filter and espresso. Not too fine but not overly coarse either.

Adding the coffe grinds.

I always boil up some water beforehand, you can use the burner to do this but I’d imagine it would take a very long time. The burner is then lit and the upper chamber is placed onto the flask.

Lighting the burner

Once the flame looks clean (more blue than orange), it’s placed under the flask and the whole apparatus is sealed by pressing the upper chamber and the flask together.

Soon after, the water will quickly shoot up into the upper chamber, creating bubbles and a nice coffee aroma.

Bubbling coffee.

Once most of the water is gone from the flask, a very small amount will be left in the bottom, allow the coffee to steep in the upper chamber for a minute and stir it. Then the heat is removed and the vacuum takes over.

Heat removed.




Pouring out the coffee.

There’s very little left in the bottom of the cup once the coffee is drunk, especially if you compare this to what’s left after a cup of french press coffee.


Time to dust off this blog

So this blog has gone a little fallow recently – 6 months without a post…er…it’s overgrown with brambles at this stage :) Hopefully I can make it a bit more regular again. Either that or replace it with a black times new roman font on white background page.

Some interesting material on the new architecture for to follow.

Dumb insurance ads

Axa are running a particularly irresponsible series of ads on the radio at the moment.

One shows a Dublin 4 type who’s overjoyed at not ever having to take the 46A bus ever again since she’s got her car insurance from Axa. The other is one of those “idiot conversations” – two guys are going to Slane, and one of them tries to impress his friend by saying he’ll be driving there from now on instead of taking some “smelly coach”.

They are basically promoting a “losers take the bus” attitude with this. Not to mention that the ads are hysterically mis-informed: The 46A is widely acknowledged as the best bus route in Dublin, it’s frequency is almost German-like and it always receives the newest vehicles – it also has a quality bus corridor most of the way into town. As for the Slane ad, yeah, try driving to a concert there and see how far you get :)

Abandoned Power Station

There’s something cool about abandoned industrial buildings, and they don’t come much better than this. I just dug up some photos I took last year when myself and Bee went wandering around inside the old power station in ESB poolbeg. From what I can gather it was opened in 1900 and was in operation until the 1970s when the existing power station was opened.

Note: I wouldn’t recommend you venture in there alone, there are quite a number of unknown hazards in a building like this.