Coffee snobbery may seem like a recent phenomenon, but the quest for the perfectly brewed cup has been going on for a very long time.
Behold the Continental Balancing Siphon, above — a completely automatic, 19th-century table top vacuum brewer.
There’s an unmistakable element of coffee making as theater here… but also, a fascinating demonstration of physical principles in action.
Vintage vacuum pot collector Brian Harris breaks down how the balancing siphon works:
Two vessels are arranged side-by-side, with a siphon tube connecting the two.
Coffee is placed in one side (usually glass), and water in the other (usually ceramic).
A spirit lamp heats the water, forcing it through the tube and into the other vessel, where it mixes with the coffee.
As the water is transferred from one vessel to the other, a balancing system based on a counterweight or spring mechanism is activated by the change in weight. This in turn triggers the extinguishing of the lamp. A partial vacuum is formed, which siphons the brewed coffee through a filter and back into the first vessel, from which is dispensed by means of a spigot.
(Still curious? We direct you to Harris’ website for a lengthier, more eggheaded explanation, complete with equations, graphs, and calculations for saturated vapor pressure and the approximate temperature at which downward flow begins.)
The balancing siphon was to 1850’s Paris and Vienna what Blue Bottle’s three-foot tall Japanese slow-drip iced coffee-making devices are to early 21st-century Brooklyn and Oakland.
Does the flavor of coffee brewed in a balance siphon merit the time and, if purchased in a cafe, expense?
The coffee from a syphon can best be described as “crystal clear,” with great purity of flavor and aroma and no bitterness added by the brewing process.
If you do invest, be sure to up the coffee snobbery by telling your captive audience that you’ve named your new device “Gabet,” in honor of Parisian Louis Gabet, whose 1844 patent for a counterweight mechanism kicked off the balancing siphon craze.