TIM EUSTIS: Advice to the coffee fanatic: Think Chemex for the perfect cup

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By Thursday, Jun 25 Farm and Table  22 Comments
Tim Eustis
The mise en place -- getting ready -- for making the perfect cup of coffee.

Great Barrington — There’s nothing like that first cup of coffee in the morning. There’s not much like your third, to be honest, but the first is always special. It says “here you go, old bean; here’s the day to enjoy as you will. Have at it!” But it hasn’t always been that way.

It may come as some surprise to us coffee-loving hipsters that in the early 1980’s, the National Coffee Association felt the need to advertise their product. See the video below. Perhaps there was waning interest.

 

Today, however, such a need seems superfluous. Like the growing interest in food and wine, coffee has benefited from our desire to have every element of our culinary experience enhanced to its logical — or illogical — conclusion. In the world of wine, to achieve the ultimate understanding of a glass one must learn where it comes from, what region, what vineyard, and the climate of that particular year or vintage. The researching opportunities are endless.

Coffee, on the other hand, is only beginning the process; it offers the end-user the opportunity to learn about the provenance of the coffee bean. There is, however, a strong element of ensuring that those who pick the coffee cherries, from which comes the bean, are well taken care of. The Fairtrade organizations, of which there are four, ensure that the coffee has been produced according to Fairtrade practices, ensuring that there is no child labor and that farms are using sustainable environmental practices, among other elements.

The options available to the coffee fanatic are searching out a roaster (somewhat akin to the winemaker) and how you make the coffee. Choosing a roaster is of course a key element in getting to that perfect cup of coffee. In the Berkshires, we are blessed with three excellent roasters, of different sizes and locations, all of whom roast some fine coffee: Barrington Coffee Roasting Company, No. Six Depot and Assembly Coffee Roasters. More on each of them in a subsequent article.

Where we are fully empowered is how we choose to make our coffee. The method, which can be as intricate a process as one might imagine, can still be made quite simply.

There are essentially five ways to make coffee:

The old-fashioned percolator.

The old-time percolator.

The Percolator — old school; makes terrible coffee. There is a romance, however, of brewing up a pot outdoors, over a campfire, and should not be overlooked. Otherwise, it just reminds one of those after-church coffee hours with dried, cheap pastries.

The Press — the French Press, and the relatively new AeroPress; the former is simple, with instructions that could fit into a 140 character or less tweet. Mix 4 tblspoons coffee with not-quite-boiling water in press. Let sit for 4 min. Press. Enjoy.

The AeroPress is new, and makes a brew that has elements of an espresso mixed with the French Press; a bit quirky, but it makes excellent coffee! (My afternoon cup of choice. $32–$34)

The Vacuum Pot or Siphon — a theatrical enterprise, it’s fun to watch, but perhaps not for the everyday cup. A bit tricky.

Espresso — certainly the most expensive approach out there. The ne plus ultra of the coffee beverage. When it’s good, it’s ethereal, but certainly a commitment. Simply put, it’s the process of pushing water through 12-22 or so grams of finely ground coffee at 8-10 atmospheres of pressure for around 27 seconds. The Moka Express, though not able to reach such high pressures, makes a not dissimilar brew.

Drip or Pourover — Pourover is the new hipster term for what was previously known as simply drip coffee. Mr. Coffee and other electric machines make drip coffee. (Bonavita, for example, makes a line certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. These machines heat water to the perfect temperature, which many others do not.) The Neapolitan machine pictured uses a metal filter, and while it is a romantic approach, is almost sure to burn you. (As an aside, this coffeemaker and the smallest of the Moka Pots were both my father, from when he was a bachelor in NYC, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Little is new these days.)

Six-cup Chemex coffee maker.

Six-cup Chemex coffee maker.

The acme of the pourover approach is the Chemex coffeemaker, a classic. (6-cup, wooden collar $41.99) With its iconic shape, it just says good coffee. There are others in the laboratory-esque library of pourover, frequently Japanese, options, such as: Hario, Kalita, or Melitta (the old standby).

One element of coffee-making which should not be overlooked is the filtration process. Chemex uses 20–30 percent thicker filters, which reduces the sediment one somewhat frequently finds in coffee made from a more porous filter, such as French Press. They also ensure the proper brewing time.

The Chemex coffeemaker has had the same design since Peter J. Schlumbohm, Ph.D., invented it in 1941. You will find the original wooden collar, tied with its leather strap, though it also comes with just a glass handle — my favorite! Having been a chemist, Dr. Schlumbohm was familiar with the beakers and funnels of the laboratory, and used those ideas when designing his coffeemaker. The coffeemaker and the Chemex water kettle are both in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Museum and the Corning Museum located in Corning, N.Y. Chemex was based in Pittsfield, Mass., for years; a few years ago the company moved to Chicopee, Mass., in the Pioneer Valley.

Baratza Encore grinder

Baratza Encore coffee grinder.

We present here instructions for the Chemex coffee maker, as it makes a superb cup, and though it is somewhat forgiving, technique is important, and so we will focus on that. First, if at all possible, and as they say, if good coffee is important to you, get a good grinder. Not one of those cheap blade grinders. They are better suited to spices, but will maul the coffee beans, producing an equal measure of dust and coarsely ground coffee, which makes for dreck. A burr grinder is what you want. For the home enthusiast, you can spend upwards of $500-900. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Cuisinart and Bodum both make a decent burr grinders, but the one I use for pourover coffee is the Baratza Encore. ($129) I like this company, as they make things that are designed with proper maintenance, to last a very long time. And it is a fine grinder.

Blue Bottle Coffee Company. COFFEE PROCESS, BOILING WATER AND STEAM

Chemex coffee grind samples.

We recommend grinding the coffee somewhat coarser than regular drip, almost as coarse as for a French press.

Beyond the grinder, other important but not required coffee accessories are a scale, a pourover kettle, and/or an electric kettle.

Steps
  1. Boil water. (We do recommend an electric kettle. It frees up a burner on your stove and is both faster and more efficient.)

    Rinsing the filter with hot water.

    Rinsing the filter with hot water.

  2. Unfold your Chemex filter so one side has three layers, putting that side next to the spout in the coffeemaker. Pour some hot water into the filter, to rinse it. Empty the water.
  3. Measure out 55 grams, about 2 oz. or about 10 tablespoons (not heaping), of medium/coarsely ground coffee, and scoop into the filter.

    Weighing the grounds.

    Weighing the grounds.

  4. After the water has come to a boil, LET IT SIT FOR A MINUTE. This is a rather key element. Just chucking the water at 212°F into the grounds has a negative effect on the flavors, to say the least.
  5. Pour just a smidge, 2–4 tablespoons or so, of hot water over the grounds, just to wet them. This lets them bloom, getting rid of the CO2 and other undesirable elements. Wait 30 seconds.
  6. Let the grounds bloom.

    Let the grounds bloom.

    Gently pour, in a small stream, the water over the grounds. One’s tendency is to pour down the sides, so as to keep the grounds in the middle. Resist. Doing that forces the water to elude the grounds, and produces a weak brew. Pour into the middle, and when you’ve arrived at about a half-inch below the top, stir the grounds gently with a spoon. Slowly continue to pour, with a side-to-side motion. (The pourover kettle, with its gooseneck spout, makes for a more accurate pour. Essential? No. Fun? Yes.)

    Measuring the water.

    Measuring the water.

  7. The truly compulsive, of which yours truly is one, will pour the water while the coffeemaker is on the scale — adding exactly 850 grams of water to the 55 grams of coffee, so as to produce a consistent brew each time. This is not required. Try to pour to just below the spout, to get the full 30 oz. of coffee. (30 oz., depending on the size Chemex you have. Ratio is what’s important here.)
  8. Toss the filter (coffee grounds, including the filter, are compostable. (We recommend this!), and enjoy.

As I noted, technique is important — as in much of life. In fact, you can make a bad cup of coffee with a Chemex. But it is hard to do. Following these instructions, you can begin every day with the perfect cup.

Et voilà. Enjoy!

Et voilà. Enjoy!

Resources

Chemex® Corp.

11 Veterans Drive

Chicopee, MA 01022

800-243-6399

http://www.chemexcoffeemaker.com

 

Assembly Coffee Roasters

814 East Street

Pittsfield MA 01201

413-443-0280

http://assemblycoffeeroasters.com

 

No. Six Depot

6 Depot Street

West Stockbridge, MA 01266

413-232-0205

http://sixdepot.com

 

Barrington Coffee Roasting Company

165 Quarry Hill Road

Lee, MA 01238

413-243-3008

http://barringtoncoffee.com

 

The Chef’s Shop

31 Railroad St

Great Barrington, MA 01230

(413) 528-0135

Aerobie® AeroPress® Coffee & Espresso Maker

aerobie.com/products/aeropress.htm

 


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22 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Dominic Lydon says:

    In my opinion it is the best way to make a “colder than you’d like” cup of coffee unless you preheat all the moving parts and then store the made coffee in a preheated thermos.
    My favorite is the clever dripper, one cup at a time. Conserves the coffee a bit because the apparatus allows the coffee to steep and bit and strengthen to your taste.

    1. Tim says:

      Good feedback. The rinsing of the filter with hot water is designed also to preheat the Chemex. Preheated carafe is also an excellent idea. I have a gas stove, and from time to time, will put the Chemex on burner at lowest heat. My coffee doesn’t sit all that long, so it doesn’t get cooked if I do that. Though, were you to leave it there for too long, it would taste nasty.

      I do like the Clever dripper; good approach. The AeroPress is also a good, one-cup solution. With similar ability to tailor timing, if you make it upside down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_8MMWZ_mW4

      1. Milton says:

        None of you have given any thought to using a coffee warmer!?
        A Bunn or any other brand of warmer will keep the coffee hot. Or the vintage Chemex electric or current Chemex Ottomatic..
        But I totally disagree on the water~coffee ratio….850 gr(28.7oz) to 55 grams coffee.
        Chemex instructions tell you to use 1 heaping TBL per 5 oz water.
        1 heaping TBL of medium-coarse ground coffee weighs 6.5~6.625 grams.
        So for a 6 cup Chemex (30oz) water, figure 6.5 x 6 = 32.5 grams of coffee beans.
        Even if you measure 6.625 grams/5 oz that only equals 39.75 grams of coffee.

        Typical drip coffee makers say to use 2 level TBL per 6 oz of water…so that is 10 grams per 6 oz..
        The math tells you that using a Chemex uses less coffee per ounce. Not more, as in using 55 grams for 30 oz.

      2. Tim says:

        Good morning Milton,

        I’ve found that keeping coffee warm for longer than a half hour or so tends to strip away any flavor. For ease of coffee delivery in AM, we’re currently using a wonderful Bonita drip machine. We chose the glass model as the coffee doesn’t last longer than a half hour, thus we don’t need the stainless carafe, which is another solution. (For example, if we wanted to keep coffee warm, i’d invest in the Zojirushi carafes which are very nice.)

        Your math is good and makes sense, but gets complicated by switching back and forth from grams to tablespoons. And ounces of water. Tablespoons are a measurement of volume, which can vary dramatically in weight from scoop to scoop. Ergo, we have found the most accurate way to make consistently good coffee is to use a scale. And to stick with metric measurements, as it’s just so much easier. NB: a gram of water is the same as a milliliter (ml) of water. So, 1000 grams of water = 1000 ml = 1 liter.

        The standard ratio, adjust as you see fit, starts at around 6.5–7% of coffee to water. Hence 65 grams coffee to 1 liter (1000ml = 1000 grams) of water. 55 grams coffee to 850 ml water, then. If you wish a stronger brew, go to 60 grams, etc. We generally use 800 ml of water, adding 20-30 ml to counter the absorption of the grounds, and use about 50 grams of coffee. And we adjust depending on our mood.

        Let me know how it works out!

  2. Eva Sheridan says:

    Tingling with nostalgia, Tim. Thank you for the excellent history lesson of such an iconic coffee experience. My parents used a Chemex for years. As a child, I thought that pour over was the only method for brewing and was fascinated by that crazy leather-bound wooden collar. I remember my father at one point replacing the leather belt and all he could find was a curiously orange colored strap. I opt for a Melita filter these days and drip by the cup but now I’m heading to the attic to dig out that beautiful relic and return to the scientific method of coffee making!

    1. Tim says:

      Excellent. Note that the chemex is quite flexible and can make as much coffee as you can stuff into it, or a single cup, should you desire. Glad to hear it.

  3. Nancy Fitzpatrick says:

    I totally trust Tim’s coffee judgement, and am with him on pour over. It sounds so much better than “drip.” That said, there is nothing more comfortingly nostalgic for me than the rhythmic sound of a percolator…Not that I’ve heard it much these days!

    1. Tim says:

      The sound of a percolator reminds me of the witches from Macbeth

      Double, double toil and trouble;
      Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

      And it tastes just like that! Though, the romance of a campfire percolator has a certain romance, for sure.

  4. Alison Sneider says:

    I’ve used Chemex exclusively for more than 40 years, since my college days in Michigan. Imagine my surprise when I moved to the Berkshires and found Pittsfield to be its corporate headquarters. (I didn’t know the company has now moved to Chicopee….)

    After all this time, I have a nice collection of wooden collars and leather thong ties – I’ve broken more than a few of the beakers over the years. But even my clumsiness has a silver lining. Friends were visiting from Boston and I was making coffee for them in the morning with my two Chemexes (one for regular, one for decaf). One of them remarked on the Chemexes and said they had other friends who also had a Chemex but who for some reason were missing the collar and tie. She asked if I knew where she could get a replacement for them. I went to the pantry and pulled out my zip-lock bag full of them and said “take your pick.” And she did.

    1. Tim says:

      Nice of you. I like the wooden collar, too. But I have found the glass handle coffee maker to be that much easier to clean. Though it does lack the cool design of the wood and leather.

      1. Alison Sneider says:

        I love the look and feel of the combination of sparkly glass, Scandinavian-inspired molded wood, and rustic leather. Cool, as you say. And classic.

  5. Nancy DuVall says:

    Having just had the perfect cup of coffee, I must respond. Filtered coffee is the best, but the Chemex doesn’t allow for a second cup, as there is no way to keep it hot. I recently bought the perfect vacuum container for my filtered coffee, and I now look forward to my hot second cup. In appearance, however, the Chemex IS the more attractive.

    1. Tim says:

      Hi, thanks for your reply. As I noted to Dominic, a preheated carafe is also an excellent idea. I have a gas stove, and from time to time, will put the Chemex on burner at lowest heat. My coffee doesn’t sit all that long, so it doesn’t get cooked if I do that. Though, were you to leave it there for too long, it would taste nasty. If you have an electric stove, you can use a Stainless Steel Wire Grid http://www.chemexcoffeemaker.com/stainless-steel-wire-grid.html which will protect the glass from the heat of the coil. We carry them at the Chef’s Shop, and will be in next week, week of 29th some time. thanks for reading!

  6. Robert Flower says:

    Chemex made a great cup of coffee, unfortunately the second cup was always cold, and reheating just didn’t cut it. Here’s a not too fresh article on the benefits of coffee.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/more-consensus-on-coffees-benefits-than-you-might-think.html?WT.mc_id=2015-KWP-AUD_DEV&WT.mc_ev=click&ad-keywords=AUDDEVREMARK&kwp_0=18206&kwp_4=135233&kwp_1=157706&_r=0&abt=0002&abg=1

    1. Tim says:

      Hi, thanks for your reply. See the above reply that mentions the Stainless Steel Grid, which will protect the pot from cracking on an electric stove. That should work, though you wouldn’t want to leave it on the stove for too long.

      best and thanks for reading

  7. Lincoln Russell says:

    Terrific article!

  8. Lincoln Russell says:

    Vive la France!

  9. Didier Steven says:

    Tim, great article. Alas, I spend considerable time commuting to Albany every morning and time is spare. You might kill me, but I run a Lungo pod through my Nespresso twice. Produces one cup of coffee with nice crema and it is very good – relative to the effort I have to put in.

    1. Tim says:

      Sounds like a good plan for you. I assume you use two pods? 🙂

      They do make good coffee. We sell those machines and stand by them. V. convenient too.

  10. GMHeller says:

    Tim Eustis’ article omits discussion of a cup of coffee’s main ingredient: Water.
    Don’t even bother crafting that ideal cup of coffee if you’re using city water or your home system is chlorinated.
    Chlorine, being reactive, even in the relatively small concentrations required by law in city tap water, binds on a molecular level with various of the elements contained within your freshly ground coffee beans. This results in a drink that does not compare to coffee brewed using a high-quality spring water.
    Restauranteurs take heed: Coffee at ‘your table’ will taste a whole lot better, and your savvy customers will note the difference, no matter what method is used to brew, if the liquid used to brew is from a spring source and not the tap.

  11. Ira Skop says:

    Hi, Tim. Was in the shop a week ago and you persuaded me to buy a digital scale, weigh my coffee and water, and read your article. Which I did. Drinking my first cup now and it is indeed excellent. Question about scaling to an 8-cup chemex: you gave me some specs on the fly but I didn’t write them down. Just increase amounts of coffee and water by a third?

    1. Tim says:

      Hello, forgive the delay in replying. Increasing by same ratio will work fine. What you’re looking for is a 6.5-7% ratio of coffee to water. That is to say, 65 grams to 70 grams of coffee (at appropriate grind) to 1000 grams (same as 1000ml, same as 1 liter) of water. Adjust as you desire. Some people like 7-8%. I also always add 20-30 grams of water as that is about the amount that gets left behind by the grinds. Your mileage may vary.

      good luck!

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