Brewing coffee in a vintage steel vacuum pot

Maybe two or three years ago after returning from Japan, I decided I wanted to try replicating the siphon coffee that we were served for our first breakfast. I some research and found out that they used to be very common in the US before auto-percolators took off in the 1960s and were known as vacuum pots because the brewing process created a vacuum, in the bottom chamber, drawing the brewed coffee down into it. I then bought a Nicro Model 500 off Craigslist with the metal filter, figuring it would be less prone to breakage than glass and easier to clean than a cloth filter, which is the style that is used today in Japan.

The problem is, I could never make good coffee. The water wouldn’t heat up to the suggested 205 degrees and it would clog instead of draining.

Then, this past month, I tried it again and it made excellent coffee. It was complex, deep, clean, and even warmer at first sip than a pour-over. I used:

  • a light generic breakfast roast
  • a 17.5:1 ratio
  • a grind size similar to pre-ground drip coffee
  • 900g of water, enough for three mugs of coffee
  • no temperature measurement, only turning down stove and waiting for water to stop bubbling in the upper chamber
  • coffee steeping for around a minute, then turned off gas and let coffee drain

Full brew time was somewhere from 5-7 minutes.

I started thinking how I might have lucked into such a good cup and I realized that a big batch, high ratio, drip grind generic coffee, and no temp control is probably how the device was meant to be used in a 1950s kitchen or diner, where there wouldn’t have been fancy grinders, temp probes, or even time to fuss over the coffee like I would with a manual pour-over.

Fresh off a few great cups, I tried brewing an Ethiopian light roast and it went right back to clogging from all the fines. I guess to use this siphon, I have to keep my coffee styles from the 1950s as well.

For those of you interested in more historical detail, I was able to find old manuals to research my process, and old advertisements to roughly date my coffee pot at this site.

A perfect cup of coffee requires a perfect grind

Whenever I find a particular beer that I love, I take note and try to replicate it myself. Lately I’ve been trying the same with coffee — I love Blue Bottle, and I’ve been trying to replicate the taste of their pour-over coffee for the last few months. It’s been quite the journey, which actually started out over a year ago when I began roasting my own coffee.

Isolating the variables: Technique and water ratio

First, I bought an East African blend that would have the subtle flavors of the coffee used by Blue Bottle. These coffees often have a sweetness and fruit flavor that is distinct from more balanced Latin American coffees. This blend smelled great when freshly ground, but in the end the coffee didn’t quite turn out how I expected. It was somehow both sour and bitter, and didn’t have the flavor I expected.

There are plenty of guides out there (here’s a good one), and Reddit has plenty of discussion of the best water ratios, pour-over techniques, and brewers. So much discussion, in fact, that I figured that technique must explain why I wasn’t getting the right results.

I had a nice new Hario V60 brewer, a gooseneck kettle, and a scale, so I started trying nearly every approach suggested, starting with water-to-coffee ratio: 12.5:1, 15:1, 16:1, 17:1. Then I tried water addition and blooming (pre-wetting the coffee to release CO2): 2x coffee weight for the bloom, then adding remaining water, then I tried 3 equal water additions. I tried swirling the water, then I tried swirling the entire brewer.

No disrespect meant to the coffee nerds that developed these processes that surpass even the arcane technique needed for a “perfect pour of Guinness”, but none of them gave me the results I had tasted previously.

Unfortunately, the instructions to grind finer or raise water temperature if your coffee is under-extracted and sour, or to do the opposite if your coffee is bitter, don’t apply when your coffee happens to be both sour and bitter simultaneously!

It turns out the fine coffee dust produced by my Hario Skerton hand grinder was a big problem. In fact, I wasn’t getting a much more consistent grind than the cheap blade grinder it was meant to replace. Those coffee “fines” tend to over-extract, producing burnt or bitter notes. Then the larger coffee particles were under-extracting, producing that odd mix of sour and bitter.

That was my issue to solve, so I tried one last-ditch idea.

Isolating the variables: Grinding the coffee

Nearly ready to give up, I went to the professionals. Variety Coffee, one of the dozens of local third-wave coffee shops in the area that roast and sell their own beans, ground me a bag of coffee to suit a pour-over brewer. I’m pretty sure they used the industry standard EK43. The next morning, I could smell the coffee from its hiding place in Paola’s backpack, it was so strong.

I pulled out the pungent roast and followed the pour-over instructions printed on the back of the box: 24g coffee, 50g bloom, 250g remaining water, a 12.5:1 ratio.

The coffee was excellent, rivaling anything I’d had at a coffeeshop.

The employee at Variety had insisted that this excellent coffee would keep for the next two weeks. Color me skeptical, but I took him at his word. The coffee remained pungent and wonderful through the end of the weekend, roughly 3-5 days.

Two weeks later, it’s still good, though it’s lost the overwhelming sweetness and fruit notes. Incidentally, Prima Coffee talks of a similar drop-off around days 4-5 that matches my observations.


Freshness and a consistent grind solved my coffee issues, though to get that consistent grind I had to go to a coffeeshop with a machine that cost a few thousand dollars. Plus I had to grind all my coffee at once, which left me using stale coffee after a few days.

My next challenge is going to be finding a grinder for home that has the same results without the price tag so I can have consistently fresh beans when needed. Stay tuned for that discussion.

DIY: Roast Your Own Coffee (RYOC): Technique

Perhaps you love coffee and would like to experiment, you may be looking to replicate the fresh coffee you tried in some cafe, or you may simply be starting to question why you spend so much to buy roasted coffee from someone else. Coffee is an industrial product like beer, and also like beer, you can create it yourself, giving up some quality control but gaining  a much fresher product.


There is a lot of information on roasting your own coffee, starting with green coffee beans, none of it particularly definitive. If there was one book that touched all aspects of the process, it was Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival by Kenneth Davids. Sweet Marias, a sourcer for green coffee, also has an excess of material (for free).

Generally, there are three characteristics to consider when roasting your own coffee:

  • color,
  • sound, and
  • temperature.

Experience with these variables will allow you to know when your coffee is done roasting. Keeping track of your results is key to recognizing a pattern of complete roasts.

To vastly oversimplify, coffee is done roasting when it has started “popping” and then concluded and has a uniform brown to dark-brown color. There is a simple technique to hand-roasting, which involves rotating the beans so they don’t scorch, either using a Whirley Pop, as I do, or another machine, such as an air popper or home roaster.


Roasted coffee is grouped by color, which makes sense because it’s the most apparent feature for the consumer. Dark roasts tend to have more caramelized or burnt flavors, while lighter roasts tend to showcase brighter fruit flavors. Too light, however, and the coffee will look inconsistent and have a grainy, not pungent smell once roasted.

Home roasting is not particularly precise, though it is fairly simple to stop your roast somewhere between City+ and Full City+ on the color scale above.


After constant agitation and a low flame, my coffee starts to “pop” after around 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I’ve tried at lower temperatures and drawn out this phase for 6-8 minutes though have found I can repeat my results with a slightly faster roast. After usually 1 1/2 or 2 minutes more, the “first crack” is complete and there is a brief lull at 6 minutes. This is a signal that the lighter roast process is complete. Depending on your level of heat, this process may take as much as 10-12 minutes.

You may stop your coffee here and transfer to a strainer to cool if you prefer a typical East Coast roast. The diagram below shows the interaction between first and second crack:

Another minute or two, often around 8 minutes for me, the “second crack” begins. Following the roast process to this point begins to create a Vienna or French roast. At this level, burnt flavors start to overwhelm the coffee pungency. You’ll know you’ve reached this level by the dark brown color and spots of oil that appear on the coffee beans. After the second crack, the beans also appear both larger and lighter than previously. Vienna will be sligthly oily, while French roast beans will be larger, lighter, very dark, and very oily. Going past French roast risks a fire.


While I am able to create consistent results controlling my stove heat, time, and color, I have also inserted a metal candy thermometer into the lid of my Whirley Pop. I heat the empty container to 400 degrees before dumping in 1/3 lb of green beans. After a few minutes the air temperature in the roaster tends to bottom out slightly over 200 degrees before it starts to rise again. When my roast is complete, around 5-6 minutes, the air temperature has risen to around 385 degrees.


After I’ve roasted my beans, which tends to take around 10 minutes from start to finish, I quickly dump the beans into a strainer. There is a lot of papery skin that flies everywhere at this point. I pour the beans back and forth between the strainer and a Pyrex container, constantly shaking and wiping to remove any of the papery chaff.

Once the coffee is cool enough to touch, I leave it in the Pyrex and cover lightly overnight. This is to allow the initial carbon dioxide released from roasting to off-gas. Before the roasting process, incidentally, coffee can be stored somewhat haphazardly at room temperature and doesn’t have to be vacuum sealed. While green, the beans are hard like kidney beans and take a year or more to go stale.

Following the roast and overnight rest, I place my coffee in Mason jars where it continues to off-gas. The coffee smells and tastes great after about 3 days, if not closer to a week. Some suggest 24-48 hours, but I leave mine a bit longer. Leave the beans unground and it will maintain its smell and flavor for weeks, if not months.

DIY: Roast Your Own Coffee (RYOC): Equipment

Roasting your own coffee is a fairly simple process that requires a minimum of finesse. Even better, time investment is only slightly more than making a batch of popcorn. Whether you’re looking to roast for your own daily consumption or to add flavor to a home-brewed stout or porter, here’s a primer on how to get started with a minimum of equipment.


There are several approaches to equipment, from a simple to complex, and from garage sale to barista level budget. Here are some of your options, starting with the simplest:

Iron skillet and wooden spoon

According to various sources, a simple skillet over a flame was how coffee was once roasted and is still roasted traditionally in Ethiopia and elsewhere. When the beans heat, they tend to pop, so some kind of lid would be in order.

Manual popcorn popper and candy thermometer

Many 19th-century kitchens had a revolving iron drum that was held over the flame, rotisserie-style to more easily toast the beans without burning. The Whirley Pop works on a similar principle, rotating the beans with a metal arm at the bottom of the pot.

This method is simple, inexpensive, and allows roasting of half a pound or more at each sitting, though you’ll need a gas stove for maximum effect. This is the approach I’ve chosen to start.

Electric air popper (1980s-style)

Most vintage air poppers have over-engineered heating units that are up to the task of roasting green coffee, though the paper-like husk may pose a fire risk if it isn’t vented up and out of the beans by the popper. Many newer models have a thermostat to shut off the roaster should it get too hot which must be disabled to get the proper results. This is a fire hazard, though I haven’t verified it myself.

Home roaster

Various companies sell purpose-made home roasting devices that function by heating the beans inside a rotating metal or glass drum. These devices, which run from $150 to $1000 or more must be rested between batches and handle a maximum of half a pound of green coffee.

Since I was looking for a minimal initial investment, I didn’t choose this approach.

Sample roaster

Commercial sample roasters cost several thousand dollars and are the way the pros develop their recipes with small batches of green coffee beans.

In Japan, it’s always time for coffee

There is a well-founded stereotype of Japan as a place where people take their job seriously. One sip told me they take their coffee seriously here as well. For a country associated with green tea, this was a big surprise.

There is no watery diner coffee here. If even grandparents make this strong a drink, you know Japan must really love its coffee.


Our first morning in Tokyo, fresh off the plane and jet-lagged, we stopped for a simple breakfast. Next to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa, a mostly low-slung neighborhood of covered shopping arcades and quiet alleyways near the center of Tokyo, we found a small cafe run by an elderly couple. It main features appeared from the outside to be warmth and tiny cuteness, two ubiquitous attributes in Japan.

We were served a hard boiled egg, buttered toast sticks, and coffee. It was 400 yen or around $4, and was just what we needed to get the motor running at 9am. That is roughly 9pm New York time. This simple cafe meal served as our introduction to both the simple Japanese breakfast and Japanese coffee.

Note: Japan doesn’t seem to be big on breakfasts, many establishments, even those that serve coffee or pancakes, don’t open until lunchtime. Those that do serve simple plates like the one we had.

Coffee Everywhere

Brewed on what looked like an hourglass with water in the bottom and thick black liquid in the top, our first coffee was strong. Later I found that this scientific-looking device is called a siphon and is similar to the Italian Bialetti or moka pot.

Further exploration found little coffee shops around nearly every corner. Strong coffee would prove to be a trend. Some offered fresh-roasted beans and pour-over coffee. Most memorably, the elderly owner of a tiny nameless coffee roastery we stumbled upon on a corner in Osaka took time away from his equally aged machinery to fix us a fresh cup in the corner.

Others, such as Enseigne d’angle, offered jet-black French-press at a wood-paneled bar with white-suited waiters and a vibe straight out of the 1930s. Sitting down in a quiet corner with plastered walls and dim light-shaded illumination, we took a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Tokyo.

The most “mod”, such as Rokumei in Nara, offered airy seating, third-wave coffee cred, and a meal of fresh salad, yogurt, and a card with tasting notes and bean origin. Awards from coffee championships hung on the wall above brewed samples of the different origin beans for sale.

Still others, like the top-notch Vie de France offered fresh French pastries and the aforementioned siphon. The most humble offered toast, a machine espresso, and little pods of concentrated creamer.

When in Japan

Yet when you’re in the process of adjusting to jet lag, those rules about coffee in the mornings and none after dinner go out the window. Who remembers what time it is anyway? Any hour is potentially a good time to sit down with a warm cup, and any coffee shop has a great pour waiting for you.