What is a Siphon Bar?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

People throughout many parts of the world love their coffee. In America, hundreds of thousands of people line up at Starbucks® and other coffee shops every morning to get espressos, mochas, and a variety of other coffees based on espresso shots. The average American who visits a coffee shop each day can spend $90-120 US Dollars (USD) a month, and the price goes up if you buy a scone too. The question to many who would open independent coffee shops is how to compete with the chains, and also whether brewed coffee rather than all the espresso forms has completely lost its charm.

Aficionados of the siphon bar technique say that it makes the "perfect" cup of coffee.
Aficionados of the siphon bar technique say that it makes the "perfect" cup of coffee.

Enter the siphon bar, perhaps one of the most interesting and visually arresting ways to produce brewed coffee. First installed in the US in 2008 at the Bluebottle Café in San Francisco, this $20,000 USD coffeemaker portends a resurrection of brewed coffee in a very different form. Developed in Japan, the siphon bar is the only halogen powered coffee machine in the world, and its look is quite impressive. The siphon bar features a variety of halogen burners, onto which water in round glass pots, which look very much like fat beakers, is placed.

Local coffee shops must offer excellent service and innovative ideas to beat chain stores.
Local coffee shops must offer excellent service and innovative ideas to beat chain stores.

Once the water is heated, a second pot containing coffee is placed on top, and water vapor forces the heated water into the grounds. An employee must watch this step, carefully stirring the grounds with a bamboo paddle. This stirring requires agility and lots of practice. Stirring is quick, and the paddle should not touch the glass sides of the upper pot. Instead, the coffee brewer tries to create a whirlpool effect, which siphon bar aficionados claim creates the perfect cup of coffee.

Since the coffee and grounds are mixed together, the resultant “sludge” must be siphoned back into one of the round beakerlike pots in order to create this perfect brew. This too, takes a little time and workers may need to use a cool towel around the pot to keep the siphoning process from stopping. The entire brewing process can take from about a minute to a minute and a half.

The owner of the Bluebottle Café, James Freeman, claims the results are worth the extra time. He believes that the siphon bar better extracts flavor from coffee grounds and that each sip of the coffee yields a different flavor as temperature changes. There’s something of the reverential quality associated with drinking siphoned coffee, and the siphon bar, as invented in Japan, may reflect a shortened version of the Japanese Tea Service, and the Japanese aesthetic of treasuring each moment and each sip, as it occurs in such a ceremony.

Do expect coffeehouses with a siphon bar to reflect some of its extra work in price per cup, about $3-4 USD. An alternative to the siphon bar is the Clover coffee machine, which allows each person to choose temperature, strength, and brewing time. The Clover, an invention of three graduates from Stanford, is gaining popularity on the West Coast too, with several coffee bars in Oregon and Washington featuring Clover machines.

Today, more Americans visit coffee shops than ever before.
Today, more Americans visit coffee shops than ever before.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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