As I have spent the last month learning about African coffee, I wanted to find a way to finish the series by highlighting what is excellent and unique about African coffee. While there is, of course, much variety within the African region of coffee, African coffees, for the most part, are known for their bright, fruity, almost juicy coffees. For people who think of coffee as a bit ‘one-note’ or bland, a well-prepared cup of African coffee can come as a big surprise. There truly is a vibrancy and depth of flavor that is rarely found in a can of pre-ground coffee or an urn.
So, for people who are pleasantly surprised by the taste of African coffee, what is the best way to explore those flavors further? While there is no wrong way to prepare African coffee (although we could debate the Urn topic), we here at Sagebrush coffee think that the Chemex coffee brewer is one of the best ways to display the unique flavors of African coffee. If you are truly looking for a bright, fruity cup of coffee, the Chemex might be the best way to encourage those flavors out of your beans, and there are a number of reasons why...
But, before we get to the science behind the Chemex, let’s look at its history. The Chemex was invented in 1941 by Peter Schlumbohm. A lifelong student and inventor, Mr. Schlumbohm was known for marrying the practical with the attractive in all his products. Peter never anticipated the Chemex would be his most famous and lasting invention, in fact, he only moved forward on production as a means of funding other, larger projects. Nonetheless, the Chemex drew immediate attention not only for its ease of use and quality of coffee but also for its sleek, attractive design.
Upon Peter's death in 1962, the manufacturing of Chemex moved out of New York City to Massachusetts, and in 1981 was bought by Patrick and Liz Grasley. The Chemex company has remained family owned for over 30 years, and in the last decade has seen a marked growth in sales. Everything old is new again, and it is no surprise that an exceptional product with a mid-century modern design has again captured the attention of the world.
So, what is it that makes this product so unique? Well, as a Chemist, Peter Schlumbohm understood some crucial things that could hinder or contribute to an excellent cup of coffee, and this knowledge fed directly into the Chemex design. The Chemex is formed from a single piece of glass, in an hourglass shape, with a small ‘knob’ on the side to measure water, and a simple pour spout. Glass, unlike so many metal or plastic coffee makers, will not impart any flavor into the coffee. A proprietary Chemex filter is required to brew the coffee. The filter is square and double bonded, and in the process of brewing the coffee removes all oils from the coffee. This lack of oil in Chemex coffee removes any bitterness from the coffee and also allows the coffee to be stored and reheated without a change in flavor.
Brewing coffee in the Chemex is an exercise in patience and precision. You will need a Chemex, a Chemex filter, 30 grams of coffee, and 400 ml of purified water, plus about a cup more for rinsing. To begin, open the square filter with a single layer on one side, and three layers opposite. The three layer section must be placed over the pour spout, to prevent collapsing while you’re trying to pour the finished product. Once the filter is in place, you will need to rinse the filter with about 8 oz of hot water. Skipping this step can impart a paper flavor into the coffee, so rinsing and disposing of the water is preferred. Once the filter is rinsed, and the Chemex is warmed, you can prepare the coffee. You will need 25-30 grams of coffee ground to the consistency of kosher salt. Pour the grounds into the filter, and give them a little shake to even them out. Once this is done, you can begin the timer and the pouring process. Pour 50 ml of water in the first 30 seconds of the timer. You will want to attempt to keep the grounds flat, pouring the water evenly over the surface of the coffee. Give the grounds a quick stir to make sure they are evenly saturated. As the timer crosses the 30-second mark, begin another pour of about 150 ml of water. Give the coffee time to ‘bloom’ and absorb the water. When the timer reaches 90 seconds, you can complete the brewing with the remaining 200 ml of water. Let the process finish naturally, and all the water should have run through the grounds in about 4 minutes total.
Your reward for this scientific precision is a perfectly brewed, bright and not at all bitter cup of coffee. While the smaller size of the Chemex and the attention required may not be ideal for a crowd, the coffee can be pre-brewed, stored, and rewarmed without any change in flavor. It can also be brewed at a stronger concentration, then adjusted with hot water or milk to taste, stretching each batch a bit further. You also have the added “cool-factor” of knowing that you share a kitchen tool with many iconic 20th century characters- James Bond, Mary Tyler Moore, Don Draper, and Monica Gellar have all been spotted using the Chemex coffee maker! Ultimately, you share the company of those who enjoy the finer things in life, who don’t see coffee as just a vessel for caffeine or flavored creamers but instead desire to see the varied flavor of coffee shine on its own. If you are seeking a bright, nuanced, fruity (perhaps African sourced?) cup of coffee, and see the reward in the ritual, then the Chemex coffee maker might be your next well-earned indulgence.