I had been warned that a cup of siphon coffee would set me back seven dollars or so. If the line into Blue Bottle Coffee weren't so long, I don't think having a cup of siphon would have intrigued me. It's true that most people in the line weren't getting siphon. Blue Bottle is also famous for all the other kinds of coffee they serve—lattes, espresso, cold brewed coffee, and more.
What’s a siphon? A true siphon causes liquid to move from one location to another using gravitational force. Let’s say you have a 5,000 gallon tank of water and you want to move it to a tank that’s located downhill. You can place one end of a tube in the top tank and the other in the bottom tank. The water will first go upwards through the tube to get over the edge of the upper tank, then travel down to lower tank. All due to gravity
Siphon coffee doesn’t work that way, so it is not really a siphon. The water for siphon coffee starts in a lower chamber of a two-chamber device. When heated, the water flows upwards through a tube to the upper chamber. It’s not gravity that’s responsible. It’s vapor pressure. When the water in the lower chamber (which is closed) is heated, the vapor pressure increases. The upper chamber is open, so it’s at normal atmospheric pressure. When the difference is big enough, the water gets sucked to the upper chamber. That’s when you add coffee grounds, wait precisely one minute and ten seconds, remove from the heat, and then watch the coffee drain to the lower chamber as the vapor pressure decreases.
Siphon coffee operates on the same principle of the percolated coffee of the past. Percolated coffee recirculates over the grounds while siphon soaks the grounds.
Now that you know the science, here’s the ordeal of getting a cup of siphon joe.
Day 1. I decide I’ll walk over to Blue Bottle, grab a siphon to go, and get back to hear a talk at a conference that I’m attending. I allot a half hour. After 20 minutes of waiting I haven't quite reached the front door so I bail in time to get back to the conference.
Day 2. I realize I need to allot more time to stand in line. I figure I'll pop in early in the morning on the way to the conference, grab a siphon to go, and get to the conference on time. I leave 45 minutes. Within 20 minutes I get to the cash register, but I notice that the menu mentions that customers are expected to drink the siphon on the premises. It’s part of the ritual.
I was prepared to break protocol and ask for a siphon to go. When I arrived at the counter and requested a siphon, I was told it would be at least 20 minutes before the Siphonista would be able to start making the siphon. It was too long so I ordered a latte. It was the most beautiful latte I've ever had, and tasty too. The latte was worth the 10 minute wait. The artful design on the frothed milk was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to use a to-go lid. The design persisted even as I drank, a testament to the thick, foamy milk Best ever! Now I really wanted to try the siphon.
Day 3. I allocated 90 minutes in my schedule to wait in line, wait for the Siphonista to catch up with the orders, and to enjoy the complete ritual on the Blue Bottle premises. The line was not quite as long, so I was very hopeful. I reached the counter within 15 minutes. I had my siphon flavor picked out—the special Panama with hints of chocolate and berries. My mouth was watering. I ordered. The hostess said "I'm sorry but the Siphonista is not here now.” “Could anyone else make it?” I asked. Of course not. This method of boiling water is so special that it requires a barista with a specialization in siphon, hence the occupation of Siphonista. Disappointed, I settled for a latte to accompany a breakfast of eggs and cauliflower.
Perhaps on my next trip to San Francisco.
If you want to try making siphon coffee at home, Blue Bottle Coffee provides complete instructions.