Kevin Burk greets me with a smile as I cross the threshold into Angry Catfish Bicycle + Coffee Bar on a bright Monday morning. He sets out the siphon brew gear on sunny counter while enthusiastically thanking me for coming down and chattering pleasantly about siphon brew and the coffee he’ll be making - the beans were grown by Nicholas Colque in the Collasuyo region of Bolivia and roasted by Intelligentsia. Kevin brewed a cup before I arrived and assures me, “It’s tasting really great in the siphon today.”
As Kevin weighs out his grounds and fills the siphon’s bottom glass chamber with water, he informs me that siphon brewing actually began in the 1830’s. “It was developed separately but simultaneously by a German chemist and a housewife in France. People were interested in fluid dynamics at that time, so that became integrated with coffee.” Positioning and starting up the butane burner, he remarks, “Back then, if you left the siphon on for too long, there was a danger of the vessel blowing up, because tempered glass hadn’t been invented yet. So in the 1915, when Pyrex came out with tempered glass, it was very good for siphon, because otherwise you ran the risk of having shards of glass and boiling water explode everywhere.”
Bubbles begin to rise from the base of the glass chamber. As the water heats and converts to vapour, it rises through the cloth filter and metal disk and up through to the top chamber. “The ideal brewing temperature is between 195 and 205 degrees. The biggest issue with any manual brewing method is heat loss. Once it’s in the kettle off the element or in the French press, it’s just sitting there losing heat. The one thing that siphons can do that others can’t is keep the water at the same temperature throughout the entire brewing process. That means you’re at the ideal temperature for extraction the whole time,” Kevin says.
The bottom chamber is now empty, and Kevin’s ready to go. He tosses in the grounds, starts the timer, and begins to stir the coffee rapidly. Pulling the stir stick from the grounds, he allows them to float to a crust at the top, then breaks it up, stirring again after thirty five seconds. Depending on the bean, Catfish usually allows the water to sit with the grounds for a minute thirty. For this particular coffee, a little over two minutes brings out the best flavours.
The timer goes off and he quickly turns off the butane burner and pulls it out from under the bottom chamber, then begins blowing on it to cool the vessels and coffee as quickly as possible. Kevin tells me, “We want the draw down to happen less than 45 seconds.”
Rapidly, the water sinks down, leaving the grounds in a surprisingly dry rounded heap. “It’s good if the coffee creates a dome at the top, it means that the coffee didn’t have time to settle out, which lets you know that your draw down was fast enough,” he informs me.
Finally, Kevin pours the steaming hot liquid into two mugs. Since the water’s stayed hot throughout the entire process, it’s best to let it cool for a few minutes. We chat more about siphon before taking the first sweet sips.
FULL: You mentioned that the siphon technique was invented in the 1830’s, what else can you tell me about the history of this method?
Kevin Burk: Siphons were a really big seller in the home market, in the U.S. especially, before the percolator was invented. You had companies like Faberware and KitchenAid that made siphons for brewing on the stove-top at home. They were pretty widely used in the thirties and forties in the U.S. When the percolator was invented, convenience took over and they fell out of use entirely until people started getting more creative with specialty coffees again.
FULL: One criticism I’ve heard is that temperature can be difficult to maintain. Siphon method isn’t used in many coffee shops.
KB: There are also a lot of steps, and a consistent heat source is important through that. Sometimes it’s temperature control, but also it has a lot to do with training your baristas to do them well consistently. They definitely have a learning curve.
I would say that they’re not the easiest method to be consistent with. It’s easier with a pour over bar to train baristas in order to make that fairly standardized. Siphons are just a bit fussier, so they require more training to do them really well every time.
FULL: What qualities does the syphon method bring out in the coffee that you like?
KB: I like it because it’s a combination of the two different brew methods. You have full immersion methods like French press, Eva Solo, where coffee is trapped in the vessel with the water, you brew it, then pour it out. With drip methods like pour over and Fetco, the water is always moving through the grounds, and this one’s a little bit of both. It’s nice because you get the full-bodied flavour of immersion, when the water’s stuck up here with coffee, and then you have the draw down at the end, when the water’s pushed through the grounds like a pour over, which produces a clean and even flavour.
FULL: What advice would you have for people interested in trying siphon at home?
KB: It’s a lot of fun to do. I would definitely do some research to find a recipe or brew guide online. Ours is from Intelligentsia’s website. We use that as a starting point, and then we’ll dial in the coffee to where we want it from there. Intelligentsia is a great resource for brew guides. They have all the different methods available on PDFs for free.
A good burr grinder and filtered water is also important for getting reliable results.
Kevin works as a coffee educator and manager at Angry Catfish Bicycle + Coffee Bar in Minneapolis, where you can get an excellent cup of coffee and have your bike serviced all in one spot. If you live and Winnipeg and want to play around with syphon, Thom Bargen’s downtown location sells the gear for brewing at home.