By Barbara Kessler
My first glimpse of the Chemex was at a local food show. People were gathered around, craning to see what looked like a chemistry experiment that used an especially elegant beaker.
The local coffee roaster lifted a pot of steaming water and splashed some into the grounds at the top of the beaker. He waited a moment and then poured more water, demonstrating this deceptively simple way of making a pot, or beaker, of coffee. The process, as the Chemex Corp. people like to say, “extracts the best and skips the rest.”
That’s the basic idea. This carefully shaped glass, named the Chemex Coffeemaker by its inventor, chemist Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, brings a precision to the process that’s lacking in some other methods of brewing the bean. The result: A refined, smooth cup of coffee that arrives in your mug, hot and tasty, but without the extraneous oils and fats that can make coffee bitter.
Back when it came out in 1941 the Chemex was hailed as a successful integration of design (there’s one on display at the MOMA) and function. It was appreciated. But then it got lost, somehow. It was still out there. But like other low-tech products, it got shoved aside by the aesthetics of the mid-century and the new modernized the kitchen. This era demanded plug-in devices in its quest for convenience and launched a line-up of electrical drip coffee makers, each adjudged to be more advanced than its predecessor. Coffee that once percolated on the stove hopped into countertop models that worked fast and eventually told time and kept coffee warm all day (much to its detriment).
Mr. Coffee came along with its new design and later, the waste-spewing Keurig arrived, doing for coffee what cable did for TV, clogging our senses with endless flavors, the good and the bad, all sealed up as if for space travel in tiny non-recycable plastic “K-cups.”
The thing was, the coffee didn’t get any better.
And so today, the Chemex and some of its cousins, like the French Press, are enjoying a revival, at least among foodies, Millennials and coffee enthusiasts. Craft roasters and mom-and-pop coffee shops are rediscovering these methods in an effort to serve coffee worth coming back for. They’ve found that the Chemex, with its trademark extra-thick paper filters, really does get the unwanted oils and sediment out, letting the coffee purr through, pure and full. But not bitter.
As a bonus, the minimalist Chemex is far greener than the Keurig (not yet on display at the MOMA) and other highly engineered coffee machines, though some of the gourmet versions at least make good coffee.
The Chemex has always been made of non-porous, non-corroding, durable and completely recyclable glass. Dr. Schlumbohm chose it because it is totally non-reactive with acids, unlike metals, which can become encrusted with mineral deposits.
The Chemex coffee filter also is compostable, as are other coffee filters, though not those plastic/aluminum K-cups. Even the little wooden neck grip on the Chemex is made of biodegradable wood.
All of this wouldn’t matter, of course, if the Chemex made a mediocre coffee. It doesn’t. If you follow a few simple rules, it makes a superior brew.
Rule 1: Use a regular or drip grind, but not a fine grind. The filter is not designed to deal with a fine grind, which will muck up the process.
Rule 2: Use hot, but not quite boiling water (200 degrees is optimal). Too hot and the coffee will release those bitter extracts you’re trying to avoid. This might explain why super-hot Starbucks coffee sometimes tastes like crap.
Rule 3: Be patient. Brewing with the Chemex takes a few minutes; because you’re brewing coffee, not just raining water on grounds.
Read the other finer points of making Chemex coffee at the Chemex Corp. website, under FAQs.
The downside? You can make bad coffee with the Chemex if you don’t get the right grind, or use stale coffee or boiling water. Then you’ll be sorry you donated your Keurig.