Taste The Coffee

How to Use a Balance Brewer


First came the siphon coffee maker. But within a few years, the balance brewer came about, with the idea of taking the siphon coffee maker, turning it on it’s side, and doing something special: for the first time, automating the process of making coffee.

The balance brewer works, much like the siphon brewer, on the principle of expansion and contraction of gases; more specifically, steam. Water sits in a kettle on one side of the device, and that kettle is usually made out of metals or ceramic. Coming out of the kettle is a siphon tube that stretches over to a glass jar where the actual coffee brewing takes place. When water is heated in the kettle, steam forces it up through the siphon tube embedded within, and the water travels over to the glass jar where it mixes with coffee grounds.

As the water evacuates the kettle, the kettle gets lighter, and eventually, a counterweight attached to the kettle overcomes the kettle’s decreasing weight, and lifts the kettle up. The kettle’s base keeps a counterweighted cap from closing onto the cloth wick burner used to heat the water, but once the kettle lifts up enough, the cap comes free and slams shut on the cloth wick, extinguishing its flame.

Once that happens, the steam inside the kettle begins to contract and convert back to water, creating a vacuum inside the kettle. This vacuum draws the brewed coffee back from the glass jar, through its filter, and deposits the brewed coffee into the kettle, where it is eventually dispensed from.

Later on in this article we’ll dig deep into the history and development of the balance brewer, but first up we’re going to present you with two How Tos, one featuring a modern take on the balance brewer, and the second with a look at a faithful replica of an 1850s design for the appliance.

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Good coffee in the cup means several things: a good brewer, good water, great coffee, and a great grinder. For this How To, we’re using the fantastic Breville Smart Grinder Pro, set a slightly fine drip grind. At under $200, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more capable full featured grinder. For the coffee, we’re using a selection from Bird Rock Coffee, one of the best coffee roasters in the western United States.

The two balance brewers we’re featuring are from a now-defunct company called Coffee 4 You: one is a modern design called the Cafetino, and it works via calibrated springs (instead of counterweights); the other is a faithful reproduction of an 1850s balance brewer. These models sold for over $500 back in 2001; today however, you can pick up a balance brewer for as little as $130 on Amazon, or even less, and they function exactly like the traditional balance brewer of old.

Let’s get into the How Tos! And if you continue reading, I’ll provide more background and history on balance brewers.

Cafetino Balance Brewer How To

The Cafetino Balance Brewer, designed and manufactured by Patrick Van Den Noortgaete, a Belgian engineer, is one of the most strikingly beautiful coffee brewing devices I have ever seen or used. It brews coffee on the balance brewer principle, but without the use of counterweights. Instead, it uses calibrated springs to lower and raise the brewing kettle, which in turn causes a spring loaded cap to close down on the appliance’s cloth wick alcohol burner.

As far as I can tell, Van Den Noortgaete discontinued manufacturing this design in around 2010, and whenever these models do turn up on eBay, they go for well over $1,000 these days. I’m honestly surprised that the Chinese have not “knocked off” this model like they have the more traditional balance brewer.

Let’s get into the steps involved!

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Set up your balance brewer
In setting up your balance brewer, make sure all the parts are clean and ready to go. Your choice of fuel is important too. Denatured alcohol / methyl hydrate burns the cleanest, but the fumes can be a problem indoors if used in a very enclosed area (like a tent). In this how to, we’re using 99% Isopropyl alcohol which does produce soot, but not as much as <91% IPA does.
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Remove the kettle’s siphon connector
At this stage, remove the Cafetino’s siphon, which doubles as it’s seal (on traditional balance brewers, there is both a cap for pouring water, and a separate siphon connection hole; on this Cafetino, the siphon does double duty on top). ¬†Get ready to pour water in.
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Adding water – hot or cold
At this point, you’ll add a premeasured amount of water to the kettle, and you can choose to use heated (near boiling water), or room temperature or cold water. Keep in mind, if you add cold water, it will take the alcohol burner as much as 15 minutes or longer to heat it up to brewing temperatures. Because of this, we start with just-off-boil water.
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Add the coffee
Add your fresh ground coffee to the glass brewing side. Try to settle the grounds so they are even. The ratio is 8g of coffee per 100ml of brewing water used, because of the extra water remaining in the kettle during the brewing process. The grind, depending on your filter should be slightly finer than drip, but not by much.
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Seal things up
After adding water, replace the Cafetino’s siphon with its built in gasket into the top of the kettle. I should point out the Cafetino’s gasket for the siphon tube is aged and a bit of a loose fit on top; when everything’s hot, it does seal up a bit more, but it’s not a perfect seal. As explained in the video below, I haven’t replaced it because I think the tiny amount of air it allows to leak into the kettle during the vacuum stage aids with overall brewing in this device (not by design!).
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Lift kettle (carefully) and open burner cap
The kettle is almost literally boiling hot, so very carefully and with the aid of a cloth, glove or silicone guard, raise the kettle so you can open the alcohol burner’s flip down cap in order for the cap to be held open by the lowered kettle.
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Light the flame
At this point, light the alcohol burner’s cloth wick. As you can see, it produces a fairly wide flame that pumps out a decent amount of heat (compared to the smaller wicks you typically see on siphon brewers).
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Wait for the action
At this point, sit back and watch, and listen. You’ll soon hear the water in the kettle reaching boiling point, and the steam it produces will start forcing water up and over to the brewing glass side.
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A quick stir (optional)
When the glass brewing side looks like it has about half of the kettle’s hot water, give the grounds a quick and confident stir to fully saturate all the grounds.
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Watch the action
At this point, you can sit back again, and watch the brewing glass continue to fill up with brewing water. At some point very soon, the kettle will empty out enough (and be raised on its springs high enough) to allow the alcohol burner’s spring loaded cap to shut down. In the traditional brewer how to coming up next, I show you at this stage how you can prolong the brew, but for this Cafetino how to, we’ll let the kettle work in full automation mode.
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Flame extinguished
When the kettle lifts up enough, the cap on the alcohol burner will slam shut, extinguishing the flame. Because of this, no more steam will be produced in it, but instead the steam will contract and phase change back to water, creating a vacuum inside the chamber. That vacuum will draw back the brewed coffee from the glass brewer side via the siphon.
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Drawback time
Depending on the condition of your kettle, the siphon and its gaskets, the brewed coffee can be drawn back over into the kettle portion in as little as 20 seconds, or as long as 75 to 90 seconds. This Cafetino’s gasket is a bit loose, so the drawback is longer. I like it that way, as it extends an otherwise-too-short brewing time.
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Drawback completed
Once the drawback is completed (you can tell by the grounds in the brewing glass looking dry, with lots of popped air bubbles), you can serve the coffee. Keep in mind you need to create an air flow for the coffee from the kettle.
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Loosen siphon gasket
Very, very carefully, loosen the balance brewer’s siphon gasket to create the airflow necessary to release coffee from the brewer’s spigot.
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Open spigot and serve
Put a cup under the spigot, and pour out your brewed coffee!

We also have a detailed video walk through on using this brewer. Have a look.


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And that’s how this particular balance brewer works. For the most part we’ve left it work in full auto mode without any modifications of hands-on control to better saturate the grinds and extend the brewing time (which these brewers can benefit from). In the next how to, we’ll include these optional steps.

Traditional Balance Brewer How To

This walk through features a very traditional balance brewer. It was designed and manufactured in Belgium in 1999, and features a lot of brass and copper; the design is very faithful to an 1850s example of balance brewers. This is also very similar to the typical models you can find on Amazon these days. I’m going to be doing some additional steps with this session, showing you ways to improve the brewed coffee.

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Set up your balance brewer
We’re still using 99% pure isopropyl alcohol here, but methyl hydrate would be a better fuel choice. Make sure everything’s clean and ready to go. You can insert and check the seal is tight on your siphon, and remove the kettle’s top cap to ready it for pouring in water.
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Modify height of alcohol stove (optional)
One trick to extend brewing times (as well as getting more of the brewing water over to the brewing glass side) is to raise the alcohol stove by placing layers of paper or some other material underneath the glass stove, so it sits closer to the kettle. Check the height to make sure the counterweighted cap can still close when the kettle is in its highest position, but on this particular brewer, I can raise the alcohol burner by 4-5mm (using disc paper filters underneath it) and still have its cap clear the kettle once the kettle is fully raised.
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Adding water – hot or cold
Because it can take over 15 minutes to heat up water from room temperature in a balance brewer, you can shave off brewing time by starting with hot water, like we’re doing here.
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Add ground coffee
We’re adding the ground coffee (ratio of 8g to 100ml water used) to the glass brewer side a bit earlier in this walk through because of an optional step we’re taking, listed below.
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Optional – saturate the grounds
While filling up the kettle with a premeasured amount of water, pour 50-75ml of that off-boil water directly onto the coffee grounds in the glass brewer side, to saturate them and get them prepped for doing a proper extraction.
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Tighten the top cap
Once you’ve added all your pre-measured brewing water to the kettle, tighten down it’s top cap.
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Lift kettle (carefully) and open burner cap
The kettle is almost literally boiling hot, so very carefully and with the aid of a cloth, glove or silicone guard, raise the kettle so you can open the alcohol burner’s flip down cap in order for the cap to be held open by the lowered kettle.
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Light the flame
At this point, light the alcohol burner’s cloth wick. As you can see, it produces a fairly wide flame that pumps out a decent amount of heat (compared to the smaller wicks you typically see on siphon brewers).
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Wait for the action
At this point, sit back and watch, and listen. You’ll soon hear the water in the kettle reaching boiling point, and the steam it produces will start forcing water up and over to the brewing glass side.
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A quick stir (optional)
When the glass brewing side looks like it has about half of the kettle’s hot water, give the grounds a quick and confident stir to fully saturate all the grounds.
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Watch the action, make a choice
At this point, you can sit back and let the brewers’ full automated mode take place. As the kettle lightens, its counterweight eventually becomes heavier than the kettle and any remaining coffee, so the kettle lifts up getting ready to extinguish the alcohol stove’s flame. Or you can extend the brewing time by holding the counterweight up, to extend the brewing water’s contact time with the ground coffee. As long as the counterweight is held up, the cap on the alcohol stove stays open, applying heat. I usually extend the brewing time by about 30 seconds by doing this.
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Flame extinguished
When the kettle lifts up enough, the cap on the alcohol burner will slam shut, extinguishing the flame. Because of this, no more steam will be produced in it, but instead the steam will contract and phase change back to water, creating a vacuum inside the chamber. That vacuum will draw back the brewed coffee from the glass brewer side via the siphon.
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Drawback time
The gaskets are nice and tight on this brewer, so the drawback time takes about 30-40 seconds in total. Watch as the liquid level lowers on the glass brewer side.
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Drawback completed
Once the drawback is completed (you can tell by the grounds in the brewing glass looking dry, with lots of popped air bubbles), you can serve the coffee. Keep in mind you need to create an air flow for the coffee from the kettle.
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Loosen the top cap, serve
Very carefully unscrew the kettle’s top cap, to create airflow for dispensing the coffee from the spigot below. The coffee is now ready to serve.

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Pretty much any balance brewer you buy today will work just like the one detailed in this second how to. Most have metal kettle portions, but if you buy one that has a ceramic kettle side, just exercise a bit more care in the handling and flame application to it.

Diving More Deeply into Balance Brewers

Most how tos start with background and history and personal reflections of the authors, which can be rambling (our website is no exception)… when all you wanted to do was learn how to make something!

So we decided to mix things up here on CoffeeGeek, getting you right into the How To (or method, or recipe), and then give you the additional meat at the tail end of the article, should you decide to read on. So thank you for making it this far!

I’m a complete history nerd on coffee, and have done a fair amount of research into the origin of the balance brewer; the information is a bit more scattered compared to siphon brewers, but some is out there. Let’s dive in a bit on that.

Balance Brewer origin and history

The siphon coffee maker was invented in the 1830s on paper, and realised in the early 1840s in France, with models being sold to well-to-do Frenchfolk. During this time, there was another coffee device invented and manufactured in England, called the Naperian. Invented by the Scotsman James Naipier, it was a side-by-side brewer that moved liquids in one direction, only, via internal steam power generated in the brewer.

Gabet Patent
Original Gabet Patent Drawing

And in 1844, a fellow by the name of Adrian Emile Gabet filed a patent for something that married the two devices, calling it a Gabet. It was the first design for a balancing siphon, or a balance brewer. It self regulated and self extinguished its flame once the brewing was done. It was the world’s first true automatic coffee maker. It’s design was such to overcome some of the early siphon coffee makers’ biggest limitations.

1840s siphons had a serious problem: they were fragile. The glass was not heat proof, and if the person using a siphon didn’t pay attention to the flame heating the water, it could easily run dry and crack the glass. Even if that didn’t happen, the possibility of the glass exploding from heat was very real, creating a serious hazard, as well as the loss of a very expensive home appliance.

Several innovative minds of the time found a solution to the siphon brewer’s issues, and their inventions became known as the balancing siphon, or balance brewer. Its design solved two problems while still using the siphon brewer’s method of making coffee. First, water was heated in a ceramic or metal “kettle” on one side, and a siphon travelled horizontally over to a glass brewer side where the ground coffee resided. This meant it was safer and less prone to explosions. Second, by making the kettle portion “balance” via a counterweight (or internal springs), a weighted cap could be automatically closed on the cloth wick oil stove used to heat the water once enough water had transported from the kettle to the brewing side.

One of the best things about the appliance was how “magical” it appeared to observers. Using science and the power of steam (which was foreign to the vast majority of people in 1850), the device would automatically brew coffee and move it from one side of the machine to the other, without human intervention. Entertaining… and magical.

The appliances proved their worth and improvements over the fragile siphon brewers, but their worth was pretty exceptional too. A balancing brewer could cost a household over $4,500 in today’s money, back in 1855. Because of this, not many were manufactured, and few from that era survive today in good shape. I’ve never seen one come up on eBay, for example, but I have seen a few come up for auction on famous auctioneer websites, and they typically go for $5,000, $10,000 or more depending on condition and materials used.

Balance Brewers Fade Away

There are many designs of balance brewers to be found in various collections around the world (including the Enrico Maltoni collection, the Bramah Collection and the Bersten collection) that were manufactured between 1850 and 1910; many were super ornate, featuring gilded porcelain or gold and silver designs. They were, in many ways, the ultimate presentation of coffee in an upper class home. Here’s just a few of them.


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Two things killed off the balance brewer market: the introduction of safety glass (borosilicate from Schott, and Pyrex from Corning) for siphon coffee makers made them very safe, and Europe was moving more towards the espresso style beverage, with small, steam driven home machines popping up in Italy and France from 1918 onwards. The balancing siphon was still being made in Germany right up until 1930, including some electric models, but, according to Enrico Maltoni, one of the world’s foremost historical coffee machine experts, none were manufactured after 1930, and the last ones manufactured during that time were not of the best quality. The balance brewer market essentially died.

Here’s some of the last balance brewers made in that period, from Maltoni’s book, “CoffeeMakers: Macchine da caffe”.


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Last known vintage balance brewer, made in Germany between great wars.

The Balance Brewer Revived

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Fast forward to the 1990s, and a Belgian’s fascination with historical balance brewers. His name is Patrick Van Den Noortgaete, and he took it on himself to design and manufacture a balance brewer for sale in the modern age. He produced two models (both the subjects of our visual how tos): the Royal Coffee Maker, a replica of an 1850s model, and the Cafetino, which is Van Den Noortgaete’s modern design of the brewing method.

Van Den Noortgaete sold the siphons for several years, originally manufacturing them in Belgium, then moving manufacturing to Mexico. Because it was such a neat brewing method (and one that got a lot of publicity on websites like CoffeeGeek in the early ‘aughts) several Chinese manufacturers decided to copy the designs or design their own balance brewers based on historical designs, and began flooding the market with them around 2008. It was too much for Van Den Noortgaete’s business, which shut down several years later.

Today, you can find a variety of balance brewers listed up on Amazon’s website, or buy them more direct (in bulk) from the manufacturers via websites like Alibaba. They all work great, though the brewing sizes are smaller than Van Den Noortgaete’s revival appliances. And where Van Den Noortgaete’s brewers can fetch upwards of $1000 or more these days on auction sites, You can easily procure a modern model for under $130, and sometimes much less. Pair it up with a great grinder like the Breville Smart Grinder Pro and you’re good to go.

Balance brewers are such a fascinating brewing method, and one you’d do well to consider owning for you home, if for no other thing else than the show it offers. Not to mention some good tasting coffee.
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Taste The Coffee 2019