TOP FIVE: Chemex Essentials
Is there any piece of equipment that better embodies beauty in coffee than the Chemex? It’s hourglass shape, unique wooden handle, thick glass exterior, all put this brewer in a class of its own. No surprise this brewer has been featured in shows like Friends, Mad Men and even landed in the Obama White House. Would you like to turn your kitchen into a Chemex-powered mini-cafe? It’s not too difficult, you just need a few items to get you started:
Chemex Brewer (duh)
Of course the first step is to find your brewer. In this case, we’re using the Chemex 10-cup brewer as the cornerstone to your home coffee set-up. The Chemex has been around since 1941 by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, who was anything but a pragmatist. His inventions included full-room lighting systems, various writing utensils, something called “unburnable gasoline,” among dozens of other war-time gadgets and gizmos. However, Schlumbohm had his biggest eureka moment with his “filtering device,” known as the Chemex.
What is a Chemex? It’s an hour-glass shaped, glass device used for brewing one to four servings of coffee (don’t let the ’10-cup’ description fool you, they’re not using standard cups). Its thick glass walls are excellent for holding in heat. It is famed for its modern and sleek design, even landing it a spot in New York City’s MoMa Museum. It’s been called the prefered brewer of Fleming’s James Bond character. It’s even been gifted to U.S. Presidents, such as Lyndon B Johnson.
However beautiful this device is, the greatest asset of the Chemex brewer is actually in its filters. Chemex’s patented filters are notably thicker than most other coffee filters on the market. What does a thicker filter achieve? Quite a lot actually. Consider brewing methods such as the French Press. The French Press produces a bold and hefty cup, and you’ll notice no small amount of ‘soot’ or coffee particulate which passes through the French Press’ metal filter. Think of the Chemex as being totally opposite of the French Press. Its thick filter captures all of that sediment that would have otherwise landed in your cup. The result? A crisp, clean cup, some have called it “wine-like” in clarity and pointed flavor. This is excellent for washed-processed coffees that have a load of bright and fruity notes.
Brewing with the Chemex can be a bit challenging, however. Especially if you are used to a more traditional pour-over brewing experience, such as the Kalita Wave. The thick filter requires you to use a much coarser grind than you’d typically use for a normal pour-over or drip cup. Are you in a hurry? Well, the Chemex isn’t the best when it comes to speed. Once again this is due to the thick filter, which slows the draw-down time of the brew. Some might be frustrated by this extra time, but the excellent results are hard to argue with.
Ask any barista, the only way to make any kind of pour over coffee is to use a reliable digital gram scale. Why is that? Because the ratio of coffee to water that we use when brewing will always determine the strength of the final cup. Our tongues are great receptors for determining flavor. We can spot a sour apple from a sweet one with just one taste. Coffee however, is a finnicky thing, and a minor misstep can make a huge difference in the final cup.
So how do you use a scale to achieve a great cup of coffee? Well, in a perfect world we would measure volumes of water (milliliters) when brewing coffee, however, measuring volume is a difficult when your goal is to also keep water at a proper brewing temperature (approximately 200-210 F) and using a measuring cup just won’t do. Thankfully 1 ml of water actually equates to almost exactly 1 gram of water, and that fact makes the scale our most powerful tool when brewing coffee.
When brewing with a scale, you’ll want to take your entire brewing set up, including any filter and dry coffee, and place it on the scale. Nearly all scales have a ‘tare’ or ‘zero’ function, and you’ll want to have your scale read out zero exactly before adding any water. From here you’ll follow proper brewing technique to dispense exactly the amount of water needed for the brew. The golden ratio for coffee is 1:17, or one part coffee to seventeen parts water. You might want to keep a calculator handy for figuring this out. You may also find that adjusting that ratio will produce slightly better (or worse) results. It’s worth playing with, but, for a single cup of coffee, we’d recommend using 20 grams of coffee and dispensing 340 grams of water.
We sell Jennings’ CJ4000 as our favorite home-use scale, but we also strongly recommend Acaia’s Pearl digital scale as well!
One of the most important purchases you’ll ever make for your home coffee setup isn’t as obvious as it might seem. It’s not the brewer or the coffee itself, but the grinder you choose. Freshly ground coffee, when prepared correctly, can add the highest amount of quality to your cup. An excellent, even grind can do magic to a coffee. It can liven up even the most burnt and oily beans into something totally palatable. Yet, the market is absolutely flooded with grinders, and finding the right grinder for you can feel like a maze. There’s a few aspects you should consider before buying, those include, price, function, lifespan and grinder-type.
Thankfully, when considering these aspects, there’s a top contender, one that we’ve trusted for years for our home grinding needs. Baratza’s Encore grinder is both affordable, well-built, and long lasting.
The Encore is a versatile burr grinder which more or less ‘crushes’ coffee into a desired particle size. This has a huge advantage over the spinning-blade spice grinders you often see at home goods stores. While blade grinders are far cheaper than most burr grinders, you ultimately get what you pay for in this category of equipment.
The Encore is ideal for most manual brewing styles, including Chemex, Aeropress, French Press, pour over, stovetop espresso, siphon brewing and many others. Essentially any type of brewing that isn’t commercial espresso or Turkish style coffee.
But specs aside, one of the best aspects of the Encore, or any Baratza grinder really, is that Baratza sells replacement parts for every single part in this grinder. That means, if you crack your bean hopper, burn out your motor, or bust a burr, Baratza has you covered. With a simple tool set, you can have your Baratza back up and running, no matter how much you’ve put it through.
This may be our oddest suggestion for your home set-up, but believe me it’s going to change the way you brew pour-over style coffee.
Why? Surface area.
Think of a single coffee ground. It’s barely anything, like a crumb or a speck. However, if you look very closely at these teeny tiny structures, you’ll see that they’re quite jagged and filled with nooks and crannies.
These nooks and crannies work like tiny pockets on the surface of your coffee. What’s inside of those pockets is air bubbles. Air grips to the sides of each coffee ground, and sometimes doesn’t let go.
That’s where your paddle comes into play. After about 20-25% of your water is poured onto your coffee, take your paddle and perform a very gentle and very very quick stir of your grinds. Too much will result in bitterness, but if you do it right, it will force those tiny air pockets off of your grinds. When that occurs, you’ll now have a significantly greater amount of contact between your water and coffee surface, which results in a more even brew.
If you’ve found that your pour over coffees are often too weak at the suggested 1:17 brew ratio, we’d strongly recommend agitation with a paddle or spoon.
Is this cheating? As I said before, the Chemex’s most unique and special feature is its thick filters which provide a ton of clarity and cleanness in the final cup.
The Able Kone is different. It’s a reusable metal filter with hundreds of precision cut holes which allow for an equal drawdown and even brew with your Chemex. What’s better is that there’s no waste at all, just dump out the grinds and give it a quick wash and you’re set to brew again.
For folks that love French Press’ heavy body and syrupy flavors, the Able Kone is worth checking out. However, I’d definitely suggest trying out your Chemex with the original paper filters at least once, the difference in the final cup is actually quite noticeable.