Diguo TCA-C3 Siphon

This is as much a story about social media as a coffee brewer review. I first read about the Diguo TCA-C3 Siphon in a post by its Chinese manufacturer on LinkedIn. I was instantly enthused and invited them to CoffeeCON 2013. Next thing I knew they brought the spanking new brewer to CoffeeCON 2013, where is was a definite attention getter. The Diguo TCA-C3 is a glass siphon that makes three five-ounce cups of coffee. This is about one cup short of idea, but it’s perfect for a couple of cups of coffee.

Everyone’s calling them siphons but they have been known as vacuum makers for many years. The concept is: Water is heated in a sealed lower container. As it heats the steam pressure  forces near boiling water up through the center tube into the upper bowl. The upper bowls mixes with grounds in as the pressure from the lower bowl keeps feeding it air bubbles, resulting in a nice agitation during brewing. When the heat shuts off the brewed coffee returns through a filter, in this case cloth, and the brew is hot, almost too hot, but beautifully extracted. Vacuum brewing is among my favorite methods. I chose it to demonstrate in my Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD released five years ago.

What’s new – The Diguo TCA C3 offers semi-automatic vacuum making. This is great because if you’re used to heating one up using an alcohol lamp, you already know how long it can take. The procedure with this unit is easy and straightforward.

How to use it – You simply put fresh water to the fill line in the lower bowl. Then turn the dial up to maximum to start heating the water. While it heats up, take the cloth-covered metal filter and install it, using the spring to secure it to the inside of the upper bowl’s tube.

At just over five minutes you’ll notice bubbling in the lower bowl, the water is at or near boiling. Once it boils, Lower the temperature dial to about half way (12:00 o’clock) and put the two bowls together. All this takes longer to write than to do. I’m sure I’m over communicating but after a couple of times you will find it easy to perform.

Once the bowls are joined and sealed, the water from the lower one will start rising into the upper bowl. Once the water has risen into the top bowl, add the ground coffee. Be a little careful if the coffee is ultra fresh as it may foam up and cause a messy overflow. If it does this, know that it’s happened to everyone who uses a vacuum method at least once.

The moment the grounds and water are in contact, start noting the time. Also start stirring the grounds and water together with the supplied stirring rod/scoop to facilitate mixing and to ensure the grounds all come in contact with water as soon as possible, as they grounds cannot being extracting their oils until they are wet. At just before 3 minutes contact time, shut off the heat power completely. The coffee will continue sitting up there and bubbling for around 10 to 15 seconds as if nothing’s happend – it takes a moment for the bottom bowl’s air to cool enough to contract. Then the finished coffee will begin its descent through the filter and into the lower bowl.

The coffee will be sucked back down through the cloth filter, hence the term vacuum. Once the coffee is completely down in the lower bowl, carefully remove the upper bowl (it is hot and may even be slippery) and place it in the black lid, which when turned upside down is a stand.

If all this was done right, it took a total of four minutes for your coffee to be extracted, perfect for the fine grind you chose. You are ready to enjoy your coffee.

If you’ve never had siphon coffee you’re in for a treat. Unlike drip method the grind is only used to expose more surface area. It  does nothing to control contact time. Freed of this second responsibility you can experiment with different grind sizes to suit your palate. I use a quite fine grind.

My tests were performed with lighter roast coffees. I had Metropolis Coffee’s Sulawesi and reliably made many batches. It seemed each time I made three cups, a fourth person would show up and I’d make another batch, which allowed me to test consistency. Overall it was very consistent as long as I followed the same procedure and timing. I called it semi-automatic because you are required to shut off the temperature control when you wish to coffee to be done. I realize for some this will be a deal breaker. They are entitled but they are missing a much better cup of coffee, night and day superior to a Keurig machine and matching the best pourover.

A siphon cup differs from a pourover drip cup in the following ways:

  • Hotter beverage temperature. If you like a steaming hot cup of coffee or find a Chemex cup too tepid to add cream, you’ll appreciate this.
  • Heightens acidity, but never acrid-tasting. If you’ve found some lighter roasts too bright and acrid (sour) tasting you may find the higher overall brewing temperature of siphon brewers maintains the cup brightness minus that acrid note that I think is more pronounced when brewing at lower temperatures.
  • The cloth filter matches the superclean mouthfeel of the best paper filter (think: Chemex) but with just that slight extra viscosity you can only get using cloth and that paper filter manufacturers keep trying to emulate doing things like poking micro holes into their filters.

The darkest coffee I used was Oren’s Sumatra. This is my favorite Sumatra Lintong ever from Oren. I was beginning to think he and I had a different idea of what’s perfect for Sumatra taste and then I took a sip of this coffee. Those who fear the siphon will be overlit or harsh due to the powerful air infusion during contact time can rest easy.   It’s just a perfect cup. While I didn’t have anything resembling a French roast or darker during my test phase, I wouldn’t hesitate to try it out. However, if you’re a dark roast fan, I suspect you will find non-turbidity Presses or the Sowden SoftBrew will be more your cup of… coffee.

The last piece of maintenance advice is a bit of a hassle but I assure you it’s worth the hassle. Thoroughly rinse your cloth filter after each use, perhaps with a drop of Dawn or Free and Clear dish detergent just to enzymatically remove any traces of coffee oils. Cloth filters get rancid easily, their main drawback. You need not disassemble it. Keep it tucked away in a water-filled glass jar in the refrigerator. Never let it dry out.

Highly recommended to the coffee aficionado.

HAMILTON BEACH: THE SCOOP

The Scoop: A true one-cup at a bargain price.

The single-cup coffeemaker is currently the marketplace Holy Grail. It makes sense. More people are drinking coffee for taste, not just energy and as they slow down to enjoy it their coffee, it makes sense to drink less at one sitting. Also, we who buy high-end coffee start noticing the extra cost of making a full pot, one that in my case would go to waste after a couple of cups. Pod machines are inherently inferior because the pre-packed pods cannot be fresh, not to mention their increased waste.

The ideal solution is a machine much like the Hamilton Beach’s The Scoop. The concept is perfect: A brewer that creates one or two perfect cups. One cup is 8 ounces, so its maximum yield is 16 ounces. It’s designed with this clever reverse cup stand which moves a smaller cup closer to the spigot. I actually like the hobo pour you get from a more distant relationship, but no matter.

This is a frustrating review. Why? Because Hamilton Beach’s new The Scoop coffeemaker is so close to perfect and yet so far.

Drip makers almost never work at two cup sizes. A major part of brewing cup of coffee is how long the grounds and hot water are in contact with each other. When a drip machine offers two sizes, one of them must be wrong because the contact time changes.

The Scoop gets the water to 200°F right off the bat. I tested it repeatedly because I have rarely found a brewer that starts with the right temperature water. This one does, and it maintains altitude throughout the brewing. The brewing contact time is a bit short, even for the larger cup cycle. It takes from 2 to 3 minutes depending upon the size cup you choose. This alone would not disqualify it, especially if you could either increase the grounds or lengthen the contact time by grinding more finely. But you can’t.

When you use regulation brewing recipes for your coffee, it causes a backup. The only way to get this brewer to behave is to lower the grounds-to-water ratio, or use coffee so stale it does not expand when the water hits it, which presents other taste problems.

More bad news. It cannot handle truly fresh coffee. Fresh out-of-the-roaster grounds foam up. The Scoop has a cute but undersized grounds holder. The coffee gets nice and wet, but it has nowhere to go but up and that makes a mess. It can even cause a backup so bad that if overflows over the sides, which is otherwise well sealed.

My sample brews included Passion House Rwanda Dukunde Kawa, Kaffeeklatch’s Mocha Java and Oren’s Daily Roast Nicaraguan La Ampliacion , all wonderful coffees. The Nicaraguan La Ampliacion is a Cup of Excellence winner that sells for $30 per pound, a perfect justification for a single cup brewer because I do now want to waste a drop of it, much less make unneeded cups. No doubt, the Hamilton Beach was able to extract the ample acidity from this and the other coffees. The Rwanda’s Pomegrante notes jumped out of the cup. But, clean-up was a mess, and in each case I know these coffees have more flavor than this brewer was getting due to waste. Why? Because they are all fresh coffees and when they expand, the grounds swell up and this causes an overflow, underextraction and a mess.

The only way it worked was to make the smaller 8 ounce cup size and then the contact time is too short. The best extraction I got was using pre-ground coffee past its freshness date, what John Martinez would call dead coffee. My guess is they built this coffee around supermarket pre-ground coffee and perhaps even used smaller grounds-to-water ratios.

Remember, the coffee brewing recipe is 10 grams or on 2 tablespoon scoop for each six ounce cup.

Look at the sides and you'll see fresh grounds that foamed up and never participated in the brewing process. Sad, because otherwise The Scoop showed such promise. Will Hamilton Beach issue a 2.0?

Then you’ll have the brewer for that perfect one cup that really works and I’ll be the first to say so.

The two things I will not do is use less-than-fresh or less-grounds than the recipe calls for. Sorry, Hamilton Beach, not in my house.

Since it’s so close, I have some friendly counsel for Hamilton Beach. Retool it using a larger filter holder and issue The Scoop 2.0.

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