Your Coffee Maker Has Failed You Up Until This Point

Your coffee maker has failed you.

And, in turn, you have failed your coffee.

You’ve been handed a gift. Coffee beans are from MOTHER EARTH. The Earth pushed them up out of her body for you, and you’re just taking them and, and — what? Pulverizing them in the mouth of a golden retriever with halitosis. Then running them through some stanky drip coffee makes you bought from a flea market for like, seven bucks and is full of insidious black mold. Or, gods, worse, you’re using one of those K-Cup things. Those were invented for people whose tastebuds were destroyed in the war. You know what’s in a K-Cup? Coffee from the Soviet era. Limestone driveway gravel. Pubes from raccoons who died in housefires. If you’re going to drink coffee from K-Cups, you might as well eat grass-fed beef out of a dirty gym sock, or drink Lagavulin whisky after it’s first been passed through the intestinal tract of a sickly flamingo. It’s gross.

You’re just… you’re just bumming the rest of us out.

It is time to fix this. Time to pay your coffee the respect it deserves, a respect it rarely gets with Starbucks out there charring every bean that comes through their door with a flamethrower.

It is time to meet my new friend, The Chemex.

After doing a hasty and lazy read on the history of the Chemex pour-over coffee carafe, I learn that it was invented during World War II and was used as a weapon against the Nazis. Each soldier was given a Chemex when they stormed the beaches of Normandy. Why? Ah! Because the glass bell of the hourglass-shaped Chemex would take the lasers from the Nazis’ ultra-pistols and reflect them back at the bunkers and –

*is handed a note*

Okay, I’ve just been informed that this is all sheer conjecture.

We can’t say for sure that the Nazis had laser pistols and –

*is handed a note*

We can say for sure?

*one more note*

FINE, the Nazis didn’t have laser pistols, whatever.

Point is, the Chemex is awesome and has been around for a good long while. Invented in the 1940s, it now sits in various museums as an example of elegant design and stylistic function. It is also the preferred coffee maker of James Bond. True story.

I decided to check out the Chemex because my current drip maker — a very solid entry from the fine folks at Cuisinart — makes a nice and reliable cup but also seems to lose a lot of the powerful differentiation between beans and roasts. I could buy great quality beans and it would still make roughly the same cup of coffee as a meh-ehh-whatever quality of beans. Light roasts tasted only marginally lighter than medium or dark roasts. Minimal complexity.

Plus, I also learned that my burr grinder — a “Tru” grinder — was labeled a burr but wasn’t actually a burr grinder. (A burr grinder is a series of gnashing burrs plucked from the hide of a forest-trampling grizzly bear and — *is handed a note* — okay, never mind, that is not accurate.)

I’ve always been a half-a-coffee snob, and so I thought maybe it was either time to commit to the snobbery or just bury myself in a giant K-Cup and get it over with. The problem is, to be a full-bore coffee snob might seem at first to be a rather costly endeavor. A quality burr grinder will cost you the innocence of a small child plus a bag of two-headed kittens. A really great drip machine or espresso machine is the same price as a military-grade hovercraft.

I’m a coffee snob, but also occasionally kinda cheap.

Er, “frugal.”

Research showed me a couple things, though:

First, some cheap coffee makers were available. French press, which I already owned (and liked, though my grinder never got the grind right because hey oops my grinder was some Jawa-rigged rust-bucket bean-chewing droid that turned some of my coffee into boulders and some of it into microscopic dust particles). Then: the Aeropress, which was a sort of rocket-scientist version of the French press. And finally:

The Chemex.

Next problem: the grinder.

I saw some folks recommend a hand grinder for something that was cheap and simple and kept a fairly consistent grind. The downside being, hey, you’ve gotta actually put some sweat equity into riding that sweet caffeine-horse to coffee-town.

I went ahead and got a Chemex, an Aeropress, a Hario hand grinder, a Bonavita electric kettle with the swan neck, and a digital scale. I nabbed this from La Colombe, who threw in a bag of coffee.

SO BEGAN MY ASCENT TO SUPERIOR COFFEE SNOBBERY.

Because what happened was, I made one cup of coffee using the Chemex.

And I got the best cup of coffee I’d ever made.

Perhaps the best cup I’d ever consumed.

Here’s how I explain it –

You know how, when you open a bag of coffee, it has that heady, potent, magical smell? And you know how, once you grind that coffee, the smell only intensifies? And your nose detects a wealth of little eccentricities in the ground beans: coffee and wine and smoke and cherry and the sweat from an electrocuted man and a dreams of a sleeping blue whale and the earthen grave-loam of a dead god’s burial mound? And then you brew the coffee and almost all of that is completely lost? Submerged in a wash of straight-up coffee taste? Tang of bitterness?

This was the first time I’d ever brewed a cup that tasted like the beans smelled.

I couldn’t believe it. It was a coffee revelation. Angels descended. They karate-kicked me in the mouth, which gave me 10,000 new tastebuds. They sang songs of Panama, and Haiti, and Guatemala. They replaced my blood with Kona coffee. They made love to me.

It was a very meditative experience, actually. Soothing. Hand-grinding. Pouring the water in slow, deliberate spirals. I felt more involved, more active. I liked slowing it down. Watching all the processes happen. Fascinating stuff.

It’s not a joke when I say I haven’t used my drip maker since.

Mornings for me are either Chemex or Aeropress — the latter making something akin to an espresso pull (sans any kind of crema), the former being a straight-up killer cuppa coffee.

So. Chemex. Try it.

How I Brew It

You’d think there’d be one way to make coffee in this very simple maker, but that’s not true. For every user of the Chemex is, I suspect, a slightly tweaked snowflake method of brewing coffee with it. This is evidenced by the many brew guides and brew videos on the web — each slightly different than the one before it. I thought I’d detail my brew method below, which hews pretty close to the standard but offers one or two notable tweaks.

Fill the kettle halfway with tap water. Boil it. Make it bubble with watery rage.

Get your Chemex. Get your Chemex filter, which is a thick, surly filter — so potent that if you filter blood through it, it allows only the victim’s fear and illusions to seep through into the carafe. That’s some motherfucking forensic science right there, homesauce.

Pour the boiling water through the filter. Wet the sides so it sticks to the glass. You’re saying, HA HA STUPID WENDIG YOU FORGOT THE COFFEE to which I respond by misting you in the eyes and mouth with Axe Body Spray as punishment for your insolence. The goal here is to remove any papery taste from the filter, to help the filter stick to the carafe, and to warm the carafe.

Now: pour into the kettle 20 oz. of good filtered water. That’s two and a half cups.

Time to get out the scale. Put in some kind of container (a glass dish, the grinder container, a lemur skull, whatever) and tare it out. Apply beans until you get to 40 grams. This is roughly like, 2-3 tablespoons, but every bean is different so — eh? USE A SCALE, YOU SAVAGE.

Set your grind to be medium to coarse. Somewhere in the middle.

A moment, now, about bean selection. I get my beans at present from La Colombe, but I also tried a sample from Tonx recently and the beans they sent were aces. For the Chemex I like a lot of light-to-medium roasts. Anything too aggressive is best for the Aeropress, I think.

Grind your coffee. In the grinder. Not under your boot like some kind of thug. Not in your mouth. Not between two bricks. In a good grinder. Hand grinder. Burr grinder. That’s it. You get one of those regular stainless steel grinders for seven bucks, it’s gonna scorch the beans and give you an inconsistent grind and also it’ll kill ten puppies. Maybe eleven. It’s not math, it’s dark magic, so you just don’t know how many puppies will die because of your poor choice of grinder.

Boil the 20 oz. of water.

Take the Chemex and empty the water you put in there originally — you can just pour it out because the pour-groove isn’t covered by the filter. You think, “Oh, jeez, if I tip the pitcher, the filter’s gonna fall out,” except it won’t. Because of miracles. And probably science.

But mostly miracles.

Water should be boiling. Stop it from boiling.

Now: put your ground beans in the filter.

Once the water has cooled down a bit — say, 30 seconds after the boil — you want to pour just a little water over the grounds to wet them all. Enough to cover them. It’s like a wet t-shirt contest or waterboarding an enemy combatant NEITHER OF WHICH ARE GOOD OR ADMIRABLE THINGS so never mind forget I said any of that jeez just wet the coffee already.

You will notice now an effect called a “bloom.” A fungal spore pod will swell from the grounds and corkscrew its way up your nose and into your brain where it will pollinate your cerebral cortex –

*receives a note*

– I mean, the “bloom” is when the water saturates the grounds and they puff up a little before deflating again — which takes about 45 seconds or so. (I time every stage.)

Once that’s done, I begin a fairly assertive pour-over. I’ve actually taken to pressing a small dimple right into the center of the ground coffee — I start right in the center of that dimple and spiral out. Never touching the sides, because it seems like washing down the sides causes the whole thing to pack together and slow the brew. Center only. Fill about a 1/4-inch from the top. Let it drip down a little, then add more water (usually takes me three pours).

The extraction should be about 3-5 minutes.

Any less than that and it’ll taste sad and watery, like your tears.

Any longer than that and it’ll taste grim and bitter, like your dreams.

Now: pour.

Drink.

Exult.

Exalt.

ALLOW THE CAFFEINE TO GIVE YOU SUPERPOWERS.

Ahem.

The Asterisk

To be clear, I’m not actually mocking anybody’s use of K-Cups or drip makers or whatever-your-choice-of-coffee-num-nums. You follow your bliss to wherever your bliss takes you; to quote Kacey Musgraves, follow your arrow wherever it points.

How do you brew your coffee?

From where do you procure your beans?

What coffees you like?

LET US SPEAK ABOUT THIS MOST IMPORTANT OF SUBJECTS.

A Fancy Instructional Video!

This is a great video on brewing with your Chemex. Check it:

A CHEMEX BREW GUIDE from Cartel Coffee Lab on Vimeo.

120 comments

  • Chuck,

    The double-shot press is nice. I especially enjoy it when I’m traveling. At a hole-in-the-wall truck stop with nothing but black tar in sight? No problem. They always have hot water available. Staying in a hotel and don’t trust the cheap single-cup maker in the room, or want to avoid being over-charged for marginal-to-decent coffee pulled by the barista in the lobby? No sweat. Just use the coffee maker in the room to boil some water while you shower.

    I’ll admit there are better cups of coffee out there, but the double-shot press is good, dependable, ready to travel, and cleans up quickly. Grab one for the next time you’re on the road for a convention.

  • I’m English and always believed Americans understood coffee in the same way we understand tea……..until I visited the US.
    I wasn’t a bit surprised to get a pot of hot water, no milk in a jug, but a slice of lemon plus a cup and saucer with the teabag laying there. This was supposed to be tea, neither was I surprised that the waitress would look at me pityingly when she put it all on the table.

    I was astounded to find that the coffee was AWFUL everywhere as well. I’ve been to the US often and drunk coffee in swanky restaurants in San Francisco and New York, I was even ‘treated’ to coffee in the original Starbucks in Seattle. It was all ghastly.
    Incidentally I brew my coffee in an enameled percolator on the hob. Loads of coffee in the basket, cook it, strain it and pour it down my throat hot and black. I bought the percolator. made by Corning, in a thrift shop in Tucson.

    • Just be sure you Google your Corning percolator and be sure it wasn’t one of the ones that was supposed to have been recalled in the 70s due to being dangerously prone to come apart. Other than that, though, almost anything made by the Corning company was wonderful.

      • I googled as you suggested and it is one of the possibly hazardous percolators. I’m really unhappy coz I loved that thing. I’ve now spent an hour on t’internet trying to find a replacement, unsuccessfully. I had to order a stainless steel cafetiere instead. Curses, curses !!!
        BUT Thank you Lady Ashmire. Really thank you. I used it all the time and I live alone so if I’d ended up covered in hot coffee it could have been a bad experience.
        Oh and thank you too Mr Wendig for incidentally and accidentally saving me from a possible fate worse than something or other.

  • Yes, sir! I am an Aeropress fan myself, by way of being an espresso and americano fan. I didn’t realize it, but I’ve been drinking from a Chemex for years at music festivals, as friends of mine own one and bring theirs. It does make a solid cup of coffee.

    I have to argue one point, though. Brewed correctly, the Aeropress can indeed produce crema. It is a little hit and miss, rarely achieving the consistency of a high-end espresso brewer, but every other day I get an eigth of an inch of sheer delight.

    (Please, oh please, do not take that last phrase out of context. It would be both embarrassing and anatomically very odd.)

    So I back you, Mr. Wendig. All hail the snob. Coffee is too magical to treat with the banal cruelty of a Wal-Mart drip brew.

  • Okay, so maybe I’m a drip-machine savage, made this way by consuming two decades’ worth of US Army coffee. I like coffee strong and black (the way I like my collapsed stars), and I don’t have the patience to fool around with brewing single cups. I laugh at the K-Cup and Starbuck’s crowds, with their ludicrous flavor varieties. “But we’ve got Maple Hazelnut Pumpkin Spice Cocaine flavor on special this week.” If you don’t like the flavor of coffee, drink something else. Milk, maybe, or the sweat of a rabid wombat. Coffee-flavored coffee, brewed in industrial-sized quanitities, is the only kind for me.

  • Finally someone who speaks the truth of that awful K-Cup contraption.

    I am a tea drinker, not a coffee person but my husband thinks it’s the nectar of the gods so I read incessantly until I made a cup that made him swoon on first sip. The first thing everyone needs to realize is making coffee is a ritual, the way making tea should be. This isn’t time for briskness and efficiencies. It’s a ritual to be savored and enjoyed so if you don’t have 4 minutes to make a delicious cup of coffee get off the internet porn, stop tweeting and facebooking, put some pants on and attend a time management workshop. It’s 4 minutes people get your shit together.

    Ritual is as follows –
    I keep the coffee in the fridge once opened. I pour cold filtered water into a percolator. This is the coffee drinkers equivalent to a tea kettle only it’s stainless steel. Around $20 brand spanking new at Bed bath and beyond. I put a filter into the ground’s cup. Load one heaping teaspoon per one cup of water. Cover. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, time 3 minutes. Shut off burner, Let rest 1 minute to settle the boiled liquid back through the grounds. Pour into a ceramic mug, Don’t even think about ruining this with awful cardboard to go cups. Sit down, take a deep breath and a quick lava hot sip. ENJOY!!!!

  • Tonx beans. Hario hand grinder and a V60 pourover. I want that Bonavita kettle with greedy caffeinated intensity but for now I use my $30 electric kettle with a regular spout and pour very carefully.

    Milk gives me indigestion. Black coffee gives me nausea. So now I use a tablespoon of grass-fed unsalted cultured butter. Blend that up with an immersion blender and drink it like the heavenly nectar it is. Preferably along with a chocolate-filled croissant. Yes.

  • I’ve been around the horn with coffee, but I haven’t tried the Chemex. Drip coffee makes suck, and the french press was good but WAY too much trouble in the morning rush to work. The cleaning was even worse. I’ve settled on a Bialetti-type stovetop espresso maker and ground Cafe Bustelo cuban coffee. It makes a nice fat cup with minimal fuss and I can make my lunch in the mornings while my coffee perks. It also travels well when camping, although it’s too bulky to take backpacking.

    The first time I saw a Bialetti an older Italian gentleman was making himself a cuppa. When I inquired he responded “What, you think every peasant in Italy has one of those big expensive machines? You think we only started making espresso when we could pug something into the wall?”

    I was sold.

    I have been thinking of investing in a burr grinder, but the whole routine around a Chemex just won’t fit in my morning routine right now.

  • Sorry to disappoint, but I just drink whatever one of my underlings hands me in the morning… I don’t have time for any of that fancy-schmancy nonsense. *drinks paper cupful of student employee spit mixed with day-old starbucks*

  • Being a long-time barista pretty much cements me into coffee snobbery I think. When espresso is the thing, I’m usually paying someone reliable for it, though an earlier poster’s mention of the stove top espresso brewer and the advice of the Italian man has re-stoked my curiosity of those things. However, most of the time a cup of strong black coffee is the order of the day (in multiples). I’m a fan of the pour over method, though I use my trusty Melita cone and brew straight into my cup. I haven’t been able to get anyone to give me a compelling argument for the Chemex differing much in final product other than costing 10x more, which isn’t a criticism of the little beast. That thing looks awesome, and like science. Who doesn’t want to start their morning drinking some mysterious black liquid poured out of an enormous beaker? Also, ordering your external universe according to certain aesthetic sensibilities is very reasonable. However, living under-employed in a small apartment full of cats with no real kitchen, I’m going to stick with the cheery red cone that won’t break when I chuck it into the back of my car in order to brew coffee on the curbs of gas stations west across IA, NE, WY, UT, NV and the width of CA in the middle. You need a lot of coffee for that. I’ve checked. 3 times.

    • I didn’t find the Chemex expensive, though. (The whole set up around the Chemex can be, but that’s a setup you could use with most coffee extraction methods.) Not to say the little cone is a bad one! Not at all. I like the Chemex’s shape, the ease of cleaning, the thickness of the glass, and in particular, the thick filters (which are, I suspect, the secret of the Chemex brew).

  • As a long-time espresso/americano guy, I had read so many accounts from pour-over-converts that I was shopping Amazon for a Hario V60 and a gooseneck kettle before my wife spoke words of wisdom: “Why don’t you go somewhere and try it before buying all that stuff?” Yeah, duh.

    So, I took a trip to a local barista (in Austin, we’ve got good ‘uns) and talked them up while they made pour-overs in Harios, Chemexes, you name it, and got some great tips. I sat down with mine, prepared to have my world rocked. And, lo and behold – I hated it.

    Weak. Bland. Lame. Like mud poured through an old lady’s pantyhose.

    I tried, man! I tried so hard to be hipster, but I just couldn’t do it. I suppose I’m an espresso guy to my dying days. I am curious about those moka-style makers, though, for sure… I mean, who can argue with ancient Italian gentlemen?

  • Great article. I love Chemex and V60 for pour over coffee. I love proper pour overs so much I built an app for iPhone called KoHi. It is a timer, calculator and recipe manager made for manual brew methods. Check it out at: kohilabs.com

  • Hey Chuck, I’ve recently caved and admitted to having a budding penchant for coffee snobbery, so I’ve been playing around with an Aeropress and Hario grinder (partially inspired by this Chemex post, so thanks). Since you only mention an Aeropress here as a quasi-espresso shot device, I was curious if you had tried out the various inverted (or, alternatively, “Viking”) brew techniques on yours that directly brew something more like the twisted love child of a French press and a pour-over. I’ve been getting pretty delectable results with, say, the following technique: http://www.wecravecoffee.com/inverted-aeropress-brewing-makes-better-coffee/ I usually use 175-185F water temperature, with 1:30 steeps after filling. Since I haven’t tried a Chemex myself, and since you have both, I’d be curious what your thoughts are to how it compares to this style of Aeropress brewing.

  • I’d never heard of a Chemex before today, but I’m struggling to see its benefits over a stove top espresso maker, which I what I use. The latter is cheaper, faster, easier and (so Google tells me) probably better than a Chemex. Am I wrong?

    • Well, that’s like saying any cup of coffee is a cup of coffee no matter how you made it.

      A Chemex is a pour-over, whereas a Moka pot is going to use steam and pressure. Water goes down in the Chemex — water goes up in the Moka.

      Moka’s likely to make a stronger brew — closer to espresso than drip coffee, though not exactly espresso.

      Chemex has a number of other differences: the glass carafe, the shape of it, and most importantly, the method coupled with the particular filters.

      Neither Moka or Chemex is “better” than the other — but they do make different cups of coffee.

      – c.

  • So, you have a filter basket, full of coffee grounds, and water is poured over it gradually but fairly regularly…

    How is this significantly different from what happens in a drip coffee maker?

    I believe people who say it tastes different, but the basic mechanics all seem the same. It seems like the problem is probably the size/shape of the hopper or its opening, or something, rather than the concept of drip coffee.

    My parents got us one of the Keurig coffee machines for Christmas. It’s actually pretty nice, particularly if you get a reusable pod and use your favorite grounds rather than the overpriced K-cups. It makes a nicer tasting cup of coffee than my drip machine did.

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