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Are Vacuum Brewers Different?
Home >> Coffee >> Vacuum Brewers >> Differences

Are Vac Pots different?

When I first wrote this article, I started off by saying "are vacuum brewers really all that different from each other? The short answer is no..." Since writing this, I've discovered that yes, there are some major differences in vacuum brewers, big enough to change the tone of this article. Yes, vacuum brewers are different. They may all work on the same principal, but they sometimes go about it quite differently.

Click for larger image
Not so subtle differences
This balance brewer may work with the same expansion and contraction methods as conventional vacpots, but it sure does go about it differently.

For a long time in my "vac pot" fascination, I did think they were all the same. This opinion changed in early 2002 when I got to try some unique coffee brewers based on the vacuum brewing technology - balance brewers from Coffee4You. This company builds some of the most unique brewers on the planet. They're called balance brewers, and are functional antique replicas, works of art, or a combination of the two.

The balance brewer is a side by side contraption. I won't go into details here, since I wrote quite the detailed review on them over at the CoffeeGeek site (see the review), but in short the brewer is a side by side contraption that relies on either springs or counter balances to make the process of brewing coffee automatic. Not too shabby for something invented some 160+ years ago.

These brewers do work with the exact same science that other vacuum brewers to, just that they do it sideways instead of up and down, and are not so much influenced by gravity like more traditional vacuum brewers are.

Traditional Vacpots
So does this mean that all conventional, traditional designed vacuum brewers are the same? For the most part, yes, but over the past few years I've discovered some minor differences between vac pots - and how they affect the final brew. Here are some compiled notes on the differences, but remember that for the most part, these are just casual observations, and definitely, your mileage may vary.

Click for larger image
Hario Nouveau
This is my favourite day to day coffee brewer.

I have noticed that some of my vac pots perform much better than others. My favourite day in, day out vacuum brewer is a model by Hario, called the Hario Nouveau. The specific shape of the Hario lends itself to optimum brewing. It leaves very little water in the bottom globe while brewing, a huge plus (less dilution of the finished brew). It also agitates the slurry while brewing a bit more than other vacuum pots because of the beveled design of the top glass. And the bonus is it looks really good while doing it.

On the other end of the spectrum is a particular Yama vac pot I have. Not the one currently sold online at places like www.sweetmarias.com and www.baratza.com , but an older model that, as far as I know, is not sold any longer.  This older Yama 5 cup model has a tendancy to take forever to kick down, and sometimes it just outright stalls. I blame it one two factors - first, the shape of the bottom vessel is pretty wide (a lot wider than it is tall), which probably doesn't facilitate the suction needed. The bigger shape also leaves more water behind. Another factor in the negative performance is the gasket on this particular model, which is this cheezy white silicon type material - not rubber - and I think it lets some air while under pressure "sieve" into the bottom vessel.

In the middle of this spectrum is the Cona vacuum brewer. They look great - in fact they're considered some of the most beautiful conventional vac pots you can buy. But as a performer, they are sorely lacking. I own a Cona "C" model, and it shares one negative aspect with the aforementioned Yama pot - the shape of the bottom vessel is too wide and flat. This combined with a rather short siphon tube leaves too much water in the bottom. This dilutes your coffee too much, especially if you are brewing a half pot. One other thing that bothers me about the Cona is the pour spout on the bottom vessel is really narrow - too narrow even for my special vac pot brush, a question mark-curved bristle brush designed specifically for vacpots with narrow necks and wide bellies. If this brush doesn't fit, that Cona's mouth is really narrow.

Materials play a role
Another difference in vac pots are the metal ones. They tend to retain heat more, and can lead to coffee that is prone to over extraction or even burning, if not watched correctly. But metal based vac pots, including the copper and chrome antiques by Sunbeam, Cory and others, as well as the more modern stainless steel model you can buy at Food Service Direct can brew a spectacular cup of coffee, don't let me dissuade you. They just require more attention, and some more than others.

Recently, we've been treated to a new material for vac pots. Up until 2000, almost all vac pots were either glass, or metal, or a combination of the two. Now with the Bodum eSantos / Starbucks Utopia, we have polycarbonate. Again, if used with care and some fiddling, it can brew a great cup of coffee - rich, full of flavour oils and aromas, and it also has the added bonus of being able to brew 1.5 litres of coffee - the most of any vac pot I've ever tried.

Hario Jet
Just 1 of many types
This is the Hario Nouveau's alcohol-fueled copper tube burner which sends up two jets of flame.

Heating sources are an influence too
Even the heating source plays a role. I own vacpots that burn with all these different types of stoves or heaters:

  • fondue stove / fuel (Bodum Santos)
  • butane gas burner (aftermarket, used with various stand-based vacpots)
  • self contained electric elements (Starbucks Utopia)
  • custom electric stoves (Cona, Silex, GE models)
  • alcohol / methanol wick burners (Balance Brewers, Harios, etc)
  • copper jet methanol burners (Hario Nouveau)

I find I notice a VERY slight difference between butane gas heated vac pots (my favourite method because it is fast, burns clean and is portable) and stovetop or electrically heated. A few years ago I tried a blind taste test - I made about 20 ounces of coffee on the stove using a glass 5 cup Silex I own, and I used a cloth filter. I made 20 ounces of brew in a 5 cupper Hario Nouveau and the butane burner, and a cloth filter. Same stock of coffee, same grind, same kick up time, same brew time, same kick down time, as much the "same" as I could make it. I left the room and had my spouse pour me a cup from each. The cup I picked as the better of the two (a very slight difference) was the Hario unit. The stovetop one seemed a bit more bitter.

Now that was a very unscientific test, but it was enough to convince me that the butane Hario with the cloth filter seemed to work best for me.

Other Parts of the Vacuum Brewers Section.
The Vacuum Brewer FAQ Vacuum Brewing Method
Still not quite 1.0, but here it is, one of the most complete FAQs online for vacuum brewing enthusiasts. Updated for the new site. [ more ] A step by step view (with pictures) on how to use a vacuum brewer. Note, this takes you to my photo directory within this site. [ more ]
Vacuum Brewer Hey Day  
Here's a little article going back to 1999 that I decided to leave very much intact, warts and all. It's a history of vacuum brewers. [ more ]  

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