Simply Good Coffee: The Chemex Coffeemaker

by Kentin Waits on 18 October 2010 12 comments

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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Guest's picture
Mary

Can you comment on whether this is any different from other non-mechanical/non-electronic filtering systems? I use a size 2 Melitta filter for single-cup brewing.

Kentin Waits's picture

Hi Mary, yes -- the filters are slightly different for Chemex and I don't believe they are interchangeable. The filters for Chemex are slightly heavier and filter more slowly. More sediment and oils are removed by slowing down the filtration. Thanks for your question!

Guest's picture
Guest

Well, I am from India and we have been doing this for atleast a century. You can find the indian version here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Disassembled_South_Indian_coffee_filte...

-Sans

Guest's picture
Guest

This will do the same thing and it sits directly on your mug. Even fewer bells and whistles.
http://www.amazon.com/Melitta-64008-Ready-Filter-Cone/dp/B000YA7OUK

Guest's picture
Erin

this is definitely a great brewing system, and is visually appealing to boot. however, i feel like its one drawback is that if you make more than you can drink in one cup, the remainder quickly gets cold in the glass carafe. (of course, you can always just stick it in the fridge and have an iced coffee that afternoon...)

i prefer the Aeropress. it makes a single (or double, or triple) shot of espresso right in your coffee cup or travel mug, to which you can then add hot water for an americano, or steamed milk for a latte. it is very compact and can be stored in a drawer, or packed in a bag for traveling. it won't break like glass, and you can reuse the included paper filters over and over. plus, the end product is delicious! and it is only $25.

Guest's picture
Guest

You can keep the Chemex pot on the stove top on a low setting to keep it warm if you have a glass top range. If you have electric coils, you can buy a metal wire grid for 7 or 8 bucks to place on the coils, so you can keep the Chemex on it to keep the coffee hot.

Guest's picture

My dad's parents had one of these - it was the only place I ever saw one, but my father seemed to think it produced wonderful coffee. I just remember my grandmother standing at the stove pouring water from the kettle, waiting, pouring more, waiting, pouring more, waiting :) Not sure if this is a fond childhood memory, but it's stuck in my head. I tend more toward the coffee press for the least amount of bells and whistles.

Guest's picture
Heather

I used a chemex for a while and loved it. It made really good coffee when you used good beans; being able to control the drip speed and the water temperature makes a difference.
A couple issues - biggest one is that it's glass, and so is breakable. It's expensive to replace, too. The other is that you can't turn it on while you get ready for work. If you have a hectic morning, it's one more complication.
Otherwise, I loved my chemex and I miss it now that it's broken.

Guest's picture

the only machine i use is the Bialetti single shot expresso maker (percolator). it's the best little thing ever, and it will go with me to the grave lol ... the coffee i use is LavAzza espresso grounds.

Guest's picture
Jess

Is it possible to use regular filters with this, or do you have to have the special ones? Not sure if I want to get something that I have to buy the filters online all the time.

Kentin Waits's picture

Hi Jess, yes -- the Chemex does take a specific filter that is heavier/denser than other paper filters. It slows down the filtration process a bit and allows for a better final cup. I'm not sure if two regular filters would do the same trick -- does anyone have experience trying a Chemex filter hack? Thanks for the question.

Guest's picture
Andre

Common larger size Melitta paper filters work with Chemex just as well. You may have to fold the filter a little to create a cone shaped end.