The syphon, or vacuum pot, is probably the most visually striking of all the manual brewing methods. It consists of two delicate glass vessels suspended over a flame. The water bubbles up from the lower vessel into the top, where the coffee is brewed. Once the flame is extinguished, the coffee is rapidly sucked back down through a filter separating the two vessels.
Compared with other brewing methods available at the time it was invented, the syphon was fast and efficient, extracting coffee fully and filtering it effectively. However, with the rise of the percolator and the automatic drip pot, the syphon gradually fell out of use, and by the mid-twentieth century this charming brew method had all but disappeared.
It is perhaps the syphon’s visual appeal, more than any practical advantages of this method, that led to a resurgence of popularity in the early days of third wave coffee shops. A row of these brewers lined up on a bar more closely resembles a science lab than a coffee shop, casting the barista in the role of a modern-day alchemist.
This similarity to scientific equipment is no coincidence, however, but reflects the syphon’s origins, in a physics classroom in early nineteenth-century Germany.
Origin of the Syphon Brewer
The physicist Johann Nörremberg is the unsung hero of the syphon (Delprat 2013). In 1826, while working as a teacher, he invented the brewer as a way to demonstrate the power of steam to his students, using materials that he had lying around in his laboratory. He published a description of the brewer in a German physics journal (Nörremberg 1827) but made no attempt to patent or profit from his work, so his contribution to the world of coffee is often overlooked.
The earliest vacuum-based coffee brewers had been designed some years earlier —