This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Halogen heat lamps, glass beakers, siphon hoses and wood stirring sticks -- when John Piquet brews a cup of coffee, it's not a mindless morning ritual. It's more like a science experiment.
With these lab-like utensils and the simple laws of physics, Piquet creates what serious coffee drinkers believe is one of the clearest, most complex cups of coffee on the planet. So perfect it doesn't need to be doctored with cream and sugar.
"Siphon coffee has twice the complexity of the finest wine," said the 40-year-old co-owner of Caffe d'Bolla in downtown Salt Lake City. "You wouldn't add cream or sugar to wine, so you shouldn't have to add it to coffee."
The siphon or "vacuum pot" brewing method -- which makes one cup at a time -- originated more than a century ago, but fell out of favor with the development of percolators and drip coffee makers, which makes multiple cups at the same time. Of course, aficionados believe flavor was sacrificed in the name of convenience.
Today the single cup brewing method is making a resurgence, and has become especially popular in Japan. But now the taste of such complex coffee is making its way to boutique coffee shops in major metropolitan cities across the U.S., including three Salt Lake City shops -- Caffe d'Bolla, No Brow Coffee and Jack Mormon Coffee -- offering different variations of siphon brewing.
Costs vary depending on the shop and the quality of coffee beans being used, ranging from $5 to $12 for a 5- to 7-ounce cup.
Caffe d'Bolla's Piquet and his co-owner and wife, Yiching, began offering siphon brewing about a year ago at their shop at 249 E. 400 South, across from the Salt Lake Main Library. It took two years of planning, studying and traveling to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan, to learn the proper techniques. "It's harder than you think," understates Piquet, who recently demonstrated how siphon brewing works.
The siphon is made of four parts, including: a heat source (either a halogen lamp or an alcohol burner); a bottom container made of glass that holds the water; an upper chamber, also made of glass, where the cotton filter and finely ground coffee sit; and a siphon tube that connects the two.
As the water in the bottom container is heated, it creates vapor that forces the water up the siphon tube and into the upper globe. When all the water is in the top chamber, it's stirred by hand to circulate the coffee grounds. At just the right moment the glass containers are removed from the heat.
Without the heat, the vapor in the lower chamber cools creating a natural vacuum that pulls the liquid back into the bottom chamber. The force is so strong that the grounds are practically sucked dry. The whole process takes less than two minutes, but is considered by aficionados to be the perfect coffee extraction method.
Siphon coffee is always poured into a tapered china cup -- don't ask for it in a Styrofoam cup to go -- and allowed to cool. The shape of the cup helps bring out the flavors, which change as the coffee cools.
"You get a more robust flavor with siphon coffee than what you get out of your pot at home," said Joe Evans, owner of No Brow Coffee, at 315 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City. "Bright flavors of fruit that are muddled in regular coffee, jump out more."
This perfect brewing technique only works when paired with the highest quality beans and roasting methods. Don't even consider using grocery store coffee.
Piquet and Evans both use beans from small producers in numerous coffee growing regions including Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica and Columbia. Piquet buys the beans raw and roasts them in small 5-pound batches.
Much like a good wine or chocolate, these beans will impart different flavor, depending on where they are grown and how they are processed. A bean from Guatemala may initially have notes of cocoa and pecan flavors, but as it cools will take on red grape and dark berry flavors. A different bean from Kenya may taste of peach and mango, followed by toffee and caramel.
It's the flavors -- and the spectacle of the process -- that attracts customers such as Sean Tibbitts, "I love watching them brew it right in front of me and then the coffee is so exquisitely clean and bright and complex, "said Tibbitts, who works at the Salt Lake library and enjoys a cup of siphon coffee about once a month. "I always ask the owner to describe the coffee, then I try to identify the flavors in the cup. I love how distinctive and lively each kind is."