Chemex in NYTimes Mag
From the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Thanks to our lovely Nicky Devine for the link!
The Chemex coffee maker has hardly changed since first introduced by Peter Schlumbohm in 1941. It still has that familiar hourglass figure, that bentwood collar tied in place with a rawhide strap threaded through a wood bead. The Chemex you can buy today is essentially the same object that was added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art almost 70 years ago.
It could get by on looks alone. The Chemex feels timeless and a little unfamiliar, as if it’s from a slightly more rational and groovier future not so far away.
Often, a pedigree like this speaks to form more than function – plenty of gorgeous, impractical things are found at MoMA. But the Chemex really works, a cult object within the world of coffee. I know a few professionals who will start the day by flipping on an espresso machine that costs about the same as a BMW 5-Series just off the lease and, while it warms up, make coffee for themselves on a Chemex that retails for less than $40.
The appeal is simple. It’s for purists.
You’re in control: the water temperature, the flow, the pacing are up to you. It means the extraction is up to you. It’s as straightforward as a drip cone (except for the filters; more on that below), only it’s more elegant and feels better in the hand. Once you invest the six minutes it takes to learn how to use a Chemex, you’ll run circles around that plug-in machine you have cluttering up your counter.
But first you have to choose which model you want. There are three, though they’re basically the same.
That is, the classic, glass handle and handblown all have similar forms and make coffee the same way. The difference is in the glass.
The handblown (pictured above) is for fetishists. The glass is from the German company Schott, and it has a satisfying heft. (It’s available from Chemex and at the MoMA Store.) It also has the clean hourglass shape of the original; the classic and glass handle both have a slight roundness to the bottom. And if the handblown is more expensive, expense is relative. The six-cup coffee maker, which serves one or two coffee drinkers (according to Chemex’s math, one cup equals five ounces, so the six-cup has a 30-ounce capacity), costs around $78.
The glass in the classic and glass handle is manufactured in Taiwan. (The glass handle is favored by coffee bars – there’s no wood or leather, so it can go in the dishwasher.) Both cost the same, around $36 for the six-cup. Both are easy to find.
Originally, the glass for Chemex coffee makers was manufactured by Pyrex for Schlumbohm, who worked out of an office on Murray Street, in New York City. Schlumbohm, who immigrated to the United States in 1935, lived a vivid New York City life. According to the article “Dr. Chemex,” which was published in Gourmet in 2008 (the slide show is worth it), he drove a late-model Cadillac with a gold Chemex bolted to the driver’s door and only hired women. He had a penthouse on lower Fifth Avenue, where he kept German beer on ice and several pairs of binoculars handy so he could spy on his neighbors. By my count, 21 Schlumbohm creations are in the collection of MoMA. Most have to do with coffee or cocktails.
Schlumbohm died in 1962. Chemex moved to Pittsfield, Mass., shortly after, and was bought by Patrick and Liz Grassy in 1981. Though the coffee maker never fell completely out of fashion, Liz Grassy, the company president since Patrick passed away in 1998, told me that business began picking up in 2007.
“When sales started spiking, I couldn’t really trace it to any one thing,” she said over the phone. “It crept up on us. The spring was always a very slow time, and now we’re busy all year long.”
Everything about Chemex feels family-owned, from the ’80s packaging on the filters to the AOL e-mail address on the Web site. Each Chemex coffee maker is polished and tied by hand in Pittsfield. Today the small company exports to a handful of countries that might seem anomalous to the casual reader but that others will recognize as a roll call of obsessive coffee cultures. “Now we’re in England,” Grassy said. “And recently the Czech Repubic. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia. Russia, too. We have a very large market in Japan. And it’s growing in Korea.” (France and Italy? They barely register.)
Which means exporting more filters to Japan and Korea. Because a Chemex coffee maker calls for an unusually bulky, thick filter made with 36-pound-weight paper.
According to many in the business, the filter can impart an unpleasant, almost cardboardy taste. Most instruct you to rinse the filter thoroughly. What that means is up to debate. Some say 32 ounces of hot water are necessary, but I feel that’s excessive. Especially if you’re using the oxidized white filters instead of the natural, unbleached filter squares introduced by Chemex in 1990.
You’d think the natural squares would be popular among the coffeescenti, a group that seems to like their produce organic and their transportation people-powered. But almost every coffee figure I contacted fervently endorses oxidized filters.
Are they that different? I decided to test one against the other. I picked up two coffees from Counter Culture Coffee — Michicha Natural Sundried from Sidama, Ethiopa, and Kiryama from Kayanza, Burundi, both five days out of the roaster — then grabbed some croissants at Patisserie Claude for ballast and cleared my morning.
I tested the filters against themselves, rinsing each with a different volume of water; I tested the filters against each other; I switched coffees, going from the fruity and faintly funky Michicha Natural Sundried to the cleaner and more citric Kiryama; I switched back. I made coffee in my French press as a control. I ate croissants. It was a full morning.
And I came to the conclusion that everybody else is right. Kind of.
The oxidized filter is superior, though I think both can make beautiful coffee. The unbleached squares had a distinct papery-ness that was more pronounced on the nose than on the palate, though it dissipated the more I rinsed the filter. At 16 ounces of water, I give a slim advantage to the oxidized paper. But at eight ounces of water, I feel the oxidized is clearly better. And eight ounces of water is about right for rinsing. Any less and the coffee suffers; any more and it feels wasteful. Besides, eight ounces of just-boiling water does a nice job of warming up the flask.
There are further Chemex discussions one might have: the asymmetrical triple-ply filter, the shape of the cone, the effect of ambient temperature. I leave them to the comments, below.
If you want some Chemex coffee without the commitment, it’s offered at a handful of New York coffee spots, including Ground Support in SoHo and Third Rail in the West Village. It’s also an off-menu item at Ninth Street Espresso, Alphabet City location only.
But first, do two minutes and 17 seconds’ worth of homework and play the video below from Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. It’s a smart, breezy introduction to a way of making coffee that’s been at the cutting edge for almost 70 years.
Ultimo Coffee brews Chemex coffee every morning between open and 11am and sells 6 – cup Chemex brewers for $40.