TIM EUSTIS: Advice to the coffee fanatic: Think Chemex for the perfect cup
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
- Boil water. (We do recommend an electric kettle. It frees up a burner on your stove and is both faster and more efficient.)
- 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.
- Measure out 55 grams, about 2 oz. or about 10 tablespoons (not heaping), of medium/coarsely ground coffee, and scoop into the filter.
- 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.
- 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.
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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
11 Veterans Drive
Chicopee, MA 01022
Assembly Coffee Roasters
814 East Street
Pittsfield MA 01201
No. Six Depot
6 Depot Street
West Stockbridge, MA 01266
Barrington Coffee Roasting Company
165 Quarry Hill Road
Lee, MA 01238
31 Railroad St
Great Barrington, MA 01230
Aerobie® AeroPress® Coffee & Espresso Maker