Simply Good Coffee: The Chemex Coffeemaker
Call me a cynic, but the days are numbered for my electric coffeemaker. How can I be so sure? Well, it's not the first one I've owned, and after three or four years, they all die. I predict it will simply stop brewing, or the heating element that keeps the carafe warm will short out, or some other seemingly simple, yet sufficiently complex issue will require that I scrap it for another.
Perhaps all this mechanical failure in the objects around us suggests something about the overly-mechanized nature of our world. Coffeemakers brew coffee, keep the coffee warm, wake us up in the morning and tell us the time. With all of these bells and whistles, aren't we signing on for the failure of a bell here or a whistle there each time we choose a hyper-produced item? How revolutionary would it be if coffeemakers just made coffee? What if I decided not to solve my "coffee-brewing dilemma" with another nuclear option?
Recently, I stumbled on a brewing throwback that has always had somewhat of a cult following among serious coffee connoisseurs and is enjoying a growing respect among us regular folks too. The Chemex coffeemaker looks deceivingly simple — there are no moving parts. It doesn't light up, it doesn't tell time, and there are no alarms that I can see. It is, simply, a glass carafe perfectly designed to efficiently brew the ideal cup of drip coffee.
Chemex coffeemakers quietly entered the coffee-brewing world in the late 1940s. Invented by chemist Peter Schlumbohm, Chemex brewers are made from heat-resistant Pyrex glass. Short of a drop kick or bar fight, they're indestructible. The conical shape of the top portion of the carafe, together with a special paper filter, removes sediment, oils, and fats from your final cup — no bitterness, no grounds, perfect every time. The narrow neck of the carafe fits your hand perfectly and protects it from the hot surface by a band of wood secured with a leather strap. A subtle groove molded in the glass serves as a spout. Just remove the filter and grounds in one disposable package and your brewer becomes your carafe.
Chemex brewers may require a bit more hands-on effort, but they are by no means labor-intensive. Simply bring a kettle of water to a boil, insert the Chemex paper filter and grounds into the upper cone of the carafe, slowly pour the hot water over the grounds and voila! The slow drip result is better than your bitter taste buds can imagine.
The success of the Chemex's design lies in its restraint. It attempts to do nothing other than brew coffee. Its shape is purposeful, the collar of wood and leather around the neck a functional nod to the Arts and Crafts Movement, when our household objects weren't divorced from the materials around us every day. Brewing and taste aside, it looks absolutely elegant next to my big, clunky, black plastic and stainless steel groaning behemoth. The Smithsonian and The Museum of Modern Art thought so too — a Chemex is part of the permanent collection of each.
So, when your old coffeemaker's brewing days are over (and they will be, sooner than you think), consider a Chemex. I'm not an investor or a salesman — simply an admirer of good design that gets back to the heart of a thing and pares back form to essential function. Let's skip the Brewmaster 4.0 (with optional iPod docking station, LED nightlight and remote control) and embrace Chemex's 1.0 solution. It will last forever.
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