If you watched (obsessed over) Breaking Bad, you might remember the moment in the second half of season five (episode 603 entitled “Sunset”, to be precise) when Gale Boetticher introduced Walter White to his coffee-making apparatus over a fresh cooked batch of meth. The machinery looks complex, but the brewing apparatus was essentially a siphon filter system. And fortunately, you don’t need Gale’s chemistry acumen to enjoy a similar creation, because several joints here in the city will brew a cup for you.
A siphon, sometimes referred to as a vacuum, is a dual chambered glass coffee brewing system that combines immersion of the grinds — like a French press, though in a relatively short time frame — with the option to filter as restrictively as Chemex paper. The resulting cup of coffee can be clean, bright, and nuanced, but the greatest appeal is that the equipment and ritual provides great theater at a coffee bar. The high cost of some siphon versions, the diligence required in brewing, and the relatively extensive clean-up render this the most expensive brewing method.
Siphon brewing systems appeared in France in the early 1840s and then fell out of favor, but they were resurrected by coffee geeks in the late 1990s. Single-brewing kits were available sporadically and as a novelty — craft beer fanatics at The Blind Tiger Alehouse even offered it briefly in 2006 when it operated as a coffee shop. However, later that year, Blue Bottle took the concept to another level by importing the first siphon system using halogen beams into the US from Japan at a five-figure cost. Early last year, the roaster installed another halogen-based system when it opened its Chelsea café.
The procedure may look like a high school chemistry experiment, but you didn’t need to ace that class to understand how it works. The lower chamber is filled with water, the higher chamber with grinds. A flame or other heat source (such as a focused halogen beam) heats the water to start a conversion into vapor. Vapor pressure begins pushing water up through a narrow tube into the higher chamber, immersing the grinds. The heat source continues to produce enough vapor pressure to keep the water and grind mixture from flowing back down, so removing it finishes the brewing period. As the chamber cools and reduces pressure, brewed coffee passes back down the narrow tube and filter into the bottom chamber.
Where to find it:
Blue Bottle, 450 West 15th Street, 510-653-3394
The upstairs coffee bar at Blue Bottle across the street from Chelsea Market is out of view from the main space. Some customers may not even be aware of it. This back bar is narrow, and it allows the barista to command the focus of all seated customers. Several options are offered, including Chemex and nel (flannel filter), but the highlight is indicated by its name, siphon bar. It is still the only system in the city which uses the halogen beams. Halogen bulbs allow greater control — crucial, since the heating temperatures throughout the brewing process remained at least 10 degrees below boiling.
There are usually two choices: On my visit, I was offered a Guatemala Acatenango Gesha ($12 for two small servings) or Kenya Gikirima ($9), and I opted for both for $20; they were ceremoniously prepared and served in delicate glassware. The barista was equal parts showman and educator, detailing the origin of the beans, the siphon brewing steps, and how to taste (flavors emerge as the coffee cools).
Is the coffee worth it? That may depend on your preferred brewing style and experience. There are less expensive siphon options with single siphon brewers:
Stumptown Café (30 West 8th Street, 347-414-7802) Siphon is offered in the back room brew bar, which does not have seating, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Hi-Collar (214 East 10th Street, 212-777-7018) Offers siphon brews until 6 p.m.
If you don’t happen to be near one of the three places in NYC, all downtown, offering siphon coffee, there are some amazing videos of the process, which might prompt you to venture out to try it — or build your own — firsthand.