Essential Chemex

Brewing coffee is part of a roaster’s life.  Brewing is a process.  I like processes.  

I remember watching Reading Rainbow and Mr. Rogers as a kid and marveling when they showed how Crayons were made, and M&Ms and submarines and stuff.  I like how all the parts fit together to make a final product.  Brewing coffee, especially using a sophisticated pour over method, is a process.  

It’s important for me as a roaster to be able to brew coffee well in order to taste it for quality control.  If I’m not good at brewing, I’m not going to accurately asses the roast profile.  Even though cupping is the industry standard for assessing coffee, it is not the prefered home brewing method of our customers.  Although, nowadays we don’t roast coffee for a specific brew method; for example, it used to be popular to roast coffee for espresso deliberately darker and smokier than drip coffee.  However, it does help to know which brew method best showcases the coffee.  I don’t think one brewing method trumps any other but, some methods lend themselves to certain situations and coffees.  I’ve discussed my opinions on the French Press in My Coffee Crush: Morning Rituals.  

When I’m at home, my go-to brewing method is the Chemex.  I like the shape of the vessel.  I like the tri-fold cone filters.  I like the wood neck.  And I somehow feel like an actual chemist in a laboratory when I’m making coffee.  (Maybe it’s just subconscious on account of the name.)   

I totally thought I had found some new scientific way to brew coffee when I discovered the Chemex in 2008.  But when I learned it was invented in 1941, it somehow felt like a gift from the future.  Certainly an object that melds organic heat resistant material flush against the sensual curves of sterile lab equipment is ahead of its time.  Its post-modern, less-is-more design that harkens a futuristic idea of antiquity, yet bridges the gap from retro to the third wave of minimalist hipster culture, is certainly a classic.  By definition, anything that withstands the test of time is said to be a classic.    

Perfecting the Chemex is a challenge and I must admit, when I first started Chemexing I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  I completely lacked all necessary equipment for success, but I didn’t care.  I didn’t realize how delicate the procedure was until I burned through a box of filters without actually enjoying any of the coffee.

In the beginning, I wrestled with grind setting and brew time. To counteract a long brew, I would just grind coarser and coarser to speed up the flow.  Consequently, my coffee lacked soul.  It just didn’t have the body and flavor I knew it could have.  To put things in perspective, the suggested brew time is roughly four minutes.  My all-star average brew time was just under six minutes.  I was setting world records for over-extraction on a weekly basis.  The Chemex’s hourglass shape mocked my lack of time management.   Once I was brave enough to grind at an appropriately fine setting and got my hands on a goose-neck kettle, I drastically improved my game.

After I learned how precise a gooseneck kettle pours, gently agitating the grounds and dispensing the water with a graceful stream, I maximized the blooming phase of the brew.  My previous crude method of sloshing water from a saucepan was no way to go about accurately brewing anything.  Life lesson.  

Brewing a Chemex is a wonderful sensory experience.  As the water first hits the little pile of dry grounds in the bottom of the filter you can hear the soft crackle of absorption.  A bouquet of fragrant waves froths up from the slurry.  The conical neck funnels the steaming aroma up to your nose and the bloom comes alive as tiny bubbles threaten to climb the sides.  Using my lucky hand-blown glass stirring paddle with a ruby infinity ball, I vigorously swirl the sudsy grounds to completely saturate the surface area of the coffee.  Finally, I slowly pour a steady stream of hot water in concentric circles around and around until all the water is in before the two minute mark.  

The special weave of the paper is where all the magic happens.  The proprietary heavy bonded paper filter removes more oils than other paper filters and may potentially capture cafestol, a type of cholesterol found in coffee oils.  The result is a tasty, clean cup of coffee.  

Learning how to Chemex is like learning how to grill a steak.  Once you learn how to do it yourself, you’ll never pay for someone to do it for you.  There’s a struggle in the perfection and sweet sweet delight in the payoff.  For me, the culmination of struggling through grind settings, learning how to pour from an industry approved apparatus, and juggling time are essential components to my personal chemistry and interactions with coffee.  I don’t like when things are easy; yet I need to do it myself in order to understand it.  

Relish the challenge and savor the victory.  


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