In the past few years, I’ve turned into a pretty serious coffee drinker. And I’ve noticed that all coffee is not equally delicious – the bean is often to blame for bad coffee; either the bean is of inferior quality or the victim of negligent care. Or so most people would have you believe – and if it’s not the source of the bean or it’s care, then it’s the roasting and grinding that’s blamed for bad coffee. But the truth is that the method of coffee preparation has a huge effect on the flavor – terrible coffee can be made from excellent beans. Drip coffee typically has a paper filter that traps oils, giving a lighter, less intense brew than a french press. I like both methods, but the press gives a more interesting brew. I had thought that the french press was the king of coffee preparation, but I’ve recently learned about vacuum coffee-makers, which have a reputation for deliciousness and the appearance of laboratory equipment. (A plus for me!)
The vacuum coffee maker is actually a simple contraption, despite looking quite confusing: you fill the bottom with water, and put some ground coffee in the top. Then, you heat the water in the bottom – as it boils, the steam forces the water up a glass tube into the upper chamber, where it mixes with the coffee. Once all the water is transferred, you remove the heat source and the gas in the lower chamber contracts, sucking the coffee through a filter, typically glass or nylon, down the glass tube and into the lower chamber. The upper chamber is removed, and the coffee poured from the lower chamber.
You might wonder how this is better than a french press type system, and the answer is that it isn’t – not inherently, anyway. But the coffee tends to be better, at least according to popular opinion. Why? The answer is that the water used in a french press is usually too hot! High temperatures break down compounds in the coffee, changing the flavor. Now, the water that’s mixed with the coffee in the vacuum system is a few degrees cooler, which doesn’t sound like much – the same compounds do still break down, but they do so at a much slower rate, so there are less of them. There’s a really tedious discussion about chemical kinetics here, but I’m going to abstain in the interest of, uh, your interest. Anyway, the water that hits the coffee is just the right temperature in the vacuum system, which is complemented by the other big brewing difference: brew time. Because the heat is removed at the same time (the water is gone), the brewing time should be very consistent – and it happens to be consistently right, avoiding the over-steeping that results in bitter, pucker-inducing coffee. Finally, the suction action through the filter element will help to pull oils through, while leaving solids behind, in a way that gravity filtration won’t quite match.
The big catch on vacuum coffee makers is that they’re a little bit complicated, and usually pretty expensive – many use an alchohol lamp as a heat source. But I’ve discovered that Bodum makes one called the Santos which operates on a stovetop, and isn’t too terribly expensive – at $60, there are cheaper ways to make coffee, but none that sound like quite as much fun!
Buy the Bodum Santo at Amazon today and know that you have the most interesting coffee maker on your block. Not only will you know just how delicious coffee can be, but also if you use that link we might not have to give up coffee to pay the web-hosting bills!