Coffee from a vintage 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. When coffee has drawn down properly it creates a mound over the filter and appears dry, like this:

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.

Making hot cocoa from scratch

This past week we were out of hot cocoa mix and Chocolate Abuelita so I looked up how to make hot cocoa out of baker’s chocolate powder. Believe it or not I’d never done this before.

Turns out it’s quicker than melting Chocolate Abuelita and tastes better. It’s one of those rare “from scratch” recipes that’s actually quicker. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Mix about 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup cocoa, and 1/4 cup powdered sugar in a pot
  2. Heat the mixture and stir until blended
  3. Add 3-4 cups milk and blend
  4. Heat until desired drinking temperature. Take care not to boil it
  5. Pour into mugs

That’s it! Enjoy your hot chocolate, everyone.

Irish Brown Bread and the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline

King Arthur Flour send out a regular catalogue with their products and to encourage you to read to the end they intersperse it with recipes. I saved this Irish Brown Bread recipe from there before recycling it. The recipes often use the specialty ingredients that they’re featuring at the moment, in this case Irish-style flour.

Given that I only had normal flour, I made use of KAF’s most ingenious idea for brand loyalty: the Baker’s Hotline. Have a problem with a bread recipe? You can call, chat or email them at any time.

Tess, Baker Support Specialist from KAF, advised me by email that substituting one cup whole wheat flour with two teaspoons of buttermilk will give the same consistency as the Irish-style flour.

So I made the bread, additionally subbing in 50g of cooked Irish oats for some of the flour and using a Pullman loaf pan instead of a baking tray, and it turned out great.

Developing my simple Vietnamese and iced coffee recipes

My last post was about Vietnamese iced coffee and searching for that ideal restaurant-style recipe. I bought a phin, which is a metal drip brewer, and I found some Trung Nguyen coffee in Chinatown.

My first stop was the recipe on the coffee can, which suggested a 3:25:1 water to coffee ratio. I think in the end, I ended up with roughly 4:1 or 6:1. It took roughly 10-15 minutes to drain. Then you mix in a big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk before pouring it over ice in a pint glass. Upon trying it, it’s straight gasoline. It’s not bad, it’s just way too strong, even at lower strength and over ice. It could half done with maybe half a glass of milk to further dilute the flavor.

Getting it right

My second recipe was roughly 30g of Ethiopian coffee, ground medium. I had some sitting around and decided to see if the long drain time was from the coffee brand or my approach. Since the phin holds roughly 240g of water, that’s an 8:1 ratio. After 10 minutes it made a strong but less abrasive coffee that I then poured over ice and added half and half. Given the amount of coffee and the brew time, I expected more flavor, but it was a light roast, so it’s not surprising.

My third try was 24g of Trung Nguyen coffee. Other sites have suggested a 10:1 ratio. Hario, the Japanese brand, suggests 11:1 in its Japanese iced recipe, so there’s a precedent there. It made a strong coffee, ready for sweetened condensed milk and ice.


From this experience, I’ve developed two recipes, a modified Vietnamese coffee recipe and a standard iced coffee recipe for use with any coffee.

The Vietnamese recipe is spot-on and mostly measurement-free and the iced coffee recipe is great for a lazy day that you don’t want to do precise pour-over or use a paper filter.

Modified Vietnamese coffee recipe

  1. Wet inside of phin
  2. Add 24-30g Trung Nguyen coffee, roughly 4 even tablespoons, and place top filter
  3. Add a splash of boiling water roughly equal to the amount of coffee
  4. Wait 30 seconds then fill water to top of phin, place cover on phin
  5. Once handle on top filter is not submerged, lift it to encourage quicker draining (if you’d like)
  6. Once dripping is complete, add one big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk and stir to dissolve
  7. Pour coffee and condensed milk into a pint glass full of ice and stir to chill coffee.

Iced coffee recipe

  • Follow steps 1-5 above, using 30g of freshly ground coffee of any type.
  • If grind is correct, coffee should drain in under 10 minutes. If it doesn’t, adjust grind slightly coarser, aiming for 6-8 minutes.
  • Once dripping is complete, pour coffee over ice in a pint glass (16 oz) and add half and half or milk, stirring to chill coffee quickly.

Bread Illustrated, my pick for top breadmaking cookbook

This past month I was deep in the early learning phases of making yeasted bread and I came across this great book, Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen. After looking through dozens of cookbooks, it was exactly what I was looking for.

I was struggling to understand the timing of everything: When making a bread, why wait for an hour, what am I waiting for, can I move to the next step? Bread Illustrated has step-by-step instructions with photos at each step. It includes useful tips for common issues like under-kneading or sticky dough. For a beginner, it does a great job of laying out the basic transferable concepts in breadmaking, which are often lost in other books because of their focus on individual recipes and glossy photos.

Here’s a bit of the basics that I learned from the book: The basic steps of breadmaking are mixing, kneading, first rise, shaping, second rise,  baking, and cooling. The steps are, in order:

  1. Mixing brings the ingredients together (3 minutes)
  2. Kneading develops stretchy gluten and brings the dough into a ball (10 minutes, by hand)
  3. First rise is waiting for the bread to double in size (about an hour)
  4. Shaping is when you roll or ball the dough into a shape to fit its baking pan (a few minutes)
  5. Second rise is an hour or so where the dough rises again to nearly fill its pan (about 45 minutes)
  6. Baking creates the final loaf with its crust and fluffy, risen texture (from 25-45 minutes, depending on the recipe)
  7. Cooling allows the bread to finish baking and release steam (about 3 hours)

Bread Illustrated is available online and as a NYPL ebook.

Honey Smacks Honey Brown Ale

The following recipe was of my own design for our Brewminaries cereal beer showcase, pouring mid-August.

I chose Honey Smacks and decided to make a brown ale to showcase the cereal and for nostalgia reasons, since when I was in Syracuse we used to drink J.W. Dundee (Genesee) Honey Brown fairly often, it being a cheap Upstate New York beer and all.

This is actually riff off one of my oatmeal stout recipes, the base malt is a 95% 2-row and 5% rye mix from a beer kit they were giving out at this Beerland event and I swapped out the oatmeal for cereal.

Recipe and steps

It’s my usual 3 gallon brew-in-a-bag batch, so I’ve shown both percentages and weight.

  • 6.2% – 6.4oz – Caramel / Crystal 60L
  • 5.2% – 5.3oz – Chocolate Malt 350L
  • 5.1% – 5.2oz – Roasted Barley 300L
  • 60.9% – 3lb 14oz – 2-Row Barley
  • 3.5% – 3.8oz – Honey Malt
  • 1.2% – 1.3oz – Midnight Wheat 550L

Mash for 45 minutes at 152F. According to Bru’n Water, I should make the mash more alkali, so I added 0.5g of pickling lime to the mash. Turns out I could’ve also just diluted the mash to reduce the acidity, though on a positive note the lime added calcium, it’s Ca(OH)2, which I’ve read improves the character of the beer. Pickling lime can be found at Kalyustan’s in Manhattan, it’s also used for softening corn for pozole.

Next step, add the cereal for 30 minutes and add some rice hulls so the wort drains properly.

  • 15.6% Honey Smacks cereal (Malt-o-meal version)
  • 0.25lb rice hulls

Boil for 60 minutes, 30 IBUs. I got a little extra in the 1oz hops package, so I put it in as an aroma addition.

  • 0.5 oz East Kent Goldings 60 mins
  • 0.3 oz EKG, 30 mins
  • 0.25 tsp Irish moss, 15 mins
  • 0.27 oz EKG, 10 mins

Danstar London ESB yeast.

Brew day went as expected. I followed all the additions and then used the chiller coil to get the wort down to 65F in around 20 minutes. I topped off the fermenter with some boiled water, added in rehydrated yeast, and put the fermenter in the minifridge on 64F to ferment. OG was 1.055.

The yeast started off quick and was bubbling like crazy by the next morning. By 36-48 hours later, it was completely done and wouldn’t budge from a FG of 1.024-1.025. Quick ferment but low attenuation, same as last time with this yeast. In the future I’ll try a more attenuative yeast like Nottingham or S-04.

Final stats and conclusion

OG 1.055
FG 1.024
ABV 4.1%

Tastes like Honey Smacks and had a bit of a funky taste at 14 days (3 in keg) that has completely disappeared at 18 days (7 in keg).

The beer was ready quick, tastes even better now, with the roastiness really coming through. It’s a mild, poundable summer beer, since it’s cold, sweet, and only 4.1% alcohol. It will be roughly 5 weeks old by the time I bring it to the August Brewminaries meeting for our showcase, so the malt character may smooth out further by then and taste even better.

Breaking the rules: Grodziskie, a Polish smoked wheat beer

Of all the beers I’ve tried over my life, for better or worse, none is more indelibly stamped into my brain than the Kosciuszko Polish Smoked Wheat from Yards Brewing in Philadelphia. Nearly ten years later I still remember its intense smokiness.

Brewed alongside their popular Ales of the Revolution series honoring Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, it was named after Tadeus Kosciusko, a Polish general who volunteered in the American Revolution.

In taste, Yards’ smoked wheat was akin to an American wheat. In aroma, it resembled a large crispy plate of bacon. Unfortunately, it was never served outside the brewery. Regardless of its historical accuracy, Yards’ beer served as my introduction to Grodziskie, the style from which this beer was inspired.

Grodziskie is described by BJCP as having a gentle oak smoke flavor, a light body, pale yellow to medium gold, and crisp finish with high carbonation. Notably, “a bacon/ham smoke flavor is inappropriate”, as are murkiness or sourness.

Vital Statistics (BJCP)

OG: 1.028-1.032
FG: 1.006-1.012
IBUs: 20-35
SRM: 3-6
ABV: 2.5-3.3%

Recipe Research

Luckily, stumbling through Google and Wikipedia led me to a historical research paper by a Polish brewing association which described everything from water chemistry, to grain selection, to step mash procedure gleaned from the original brewery records, as Ron Pattinson does on his blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Much like Mr. Pattinson’s recipes, Grodziskie breaks a lot of rules for what we consider “standard”, starting with the grist. According to their research, the most popular version of the beer was made from 100% smoked wheat malt and surprisingly low in alcohol for a Central European beer, only 3.1%.

Next, the mash. Strangely, the prime saccharification rests are skipped, heading straight from a protein rest at 126F up to 158F by infusion, presumably to promote body despite its low alcohol content. The high mineral content of the wort water adds further to the beer’s unique flavor.

Next, it combines both lager and ale yeasts in an open fermentation. Yet, unlike open-fermented German Hefeweizen, an ale, brewers sought to minimize phenols and esters by fermenting cool and adding finings to reach a crystal-clear final product.

Historical Statistics

IBUs: 22
EBC: 9-9.6
ABV: 3.1%

Step mash: 30 min at 100F, 30-60 min at 126F, 30 min at 158F, 168F

Fermentation: ale and lager yeast for three days at 57-61F

Bottling: fined using isinglass, high carbonation, bottle conditioned for 3-5 weeks.

My Recipe

Grain: 3.7 lb Oak smoked wheat malt, 1.1 oz Midnight wheat (oops!)

Mash schedule: 30 min at 126F, 30 min at 158F, 10 min at 168F

Boil: 2 hours

Hops: 0.85 oz Hallertauer (2.5% AA) at 105 min, 0.36 oz Hallertauer (2.5% AA) at 30 min, roughly 22 IBUs total

Yeast: Nottingham

Chill to 65F. Ferment in low 60s for at least 3 days. Carbonate to 3.5 vols.

Brewing My Recipe

Since the Polish research was from the original brewery in Grodzisk, I figured I’d let their exact estimates guide my recipe. However, with no gravity estimates, I used BeerSmith to calculate roughly how much malt I would need.

I misread EBC as SRM, so the beer will be a bit darker than expected from my accidental corrective addition of Midnight wheat. In the future, the recipe would be fine without any additional color, 9.6 EBC is rougly 4-5 SRM, nearly identical to the color of the smoked wheat malt alone.

For my mash, I decided to use water additions of gypsum and calcium chloride to achieve the right pH balance, similar to the reported values from the brewery’s well. After starting with New York’s neutral tap water, this called for adding roughly 1.1 g/gal of gypsum and 0.44 g/gal of calcium chloride. These were impossible to measure with my hops scale which is only accurate down to the gram, so I eyeballed it. Next time I’ll have a 0.1 gram scale for better precision.

Starting the mash, I skipped the acid rest suggested in the literature and went right to the protein rest, followed by saccharification and mash-out. What a gooey oatmeal-like mess an all-wheat mash makes with brew-in-a-bag! After a while, it’s impossible to squeeze any extra liquid out, next time I’ll have to compensate by adding more grain.

Historically, this beer had a boil of 2-2.5 hours. I was in no rush, and using infusion instead of direct heat sped up my mash, so I boiled for the full 2 hours.

It was called for 80% of the hops to be added after 15 minutes and the remaining 20% at 30 minutes from the end of the boil, a rule which I roughly followed.

Lastly, a mix of clean and attenuative lager and ale yeasts was used historically to ensure complete fermentation. I split the difference and went with the most lager-like and attenuative ale yeast that was in-stock, Nottingham.

After chilling the wort to 65-70F and adding it to the fermenter, I set my temperature control at 63F and called it a night.


Fermentation was nearly complete after three days, going from OG 1.031 to 1.010. This put me right in the middle of the BJCP range. My first impression was the subtle smokiness, which has only a slight “bacon” smell and its impressive body despite the low ABV.

Hoping to get up to 3.1% ABV suggested in the aforementioned historical recipe, I gave it a little extra shake, raised the temperature, and let it sit for another few days, a week in total, and then it’ll be kegged. I’ll post an update once it has lagered and is fully ready to serve.

Featured image by Kpalion (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons