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The Art And Science Behind The Chemex

chemex on counter

If terms as “stylish” and “full-control” elicit a positive response in you, the Chemex may soon be your favorite coffee brewing tool.

Invented back in 1941, it is still wildly popular today. The main reason being, it makes very good coffee, obviously. 

But also due to its elegant appearance and ease with which you can brew coffee and have extreme control on the process. Those who love seeing their coffee pour while brewing will easily fall in love with the Chemex.

Design and Build

It’s a brewer made of glass, in an hourglass shape, that allows the brewer to see the entire process. The classic design features a wooden handle in the middle, while a more recent design, called Glass Handle, has a glass handle instead. 

The handle comes in various colors, in the wooden variant. Both series have a rawhide thong attached to the handle. 

The Chemex is so elegant and stylish that it was featured in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Art and coffee have a long story together and the Chemex is rightfully part of it.

chemex knot

The Chemex is simple in construction, using a borosilicate glass that lets light through. It’s resistant to high temperatures and is easy to clean. 

The pairing with the wooden, or glass, handle makes it beautiful to watch on its own and even more so while it’s brewing coffee. It’s as much an object of art as a coffee brewer.

Brewing Hot and Cold

The actual process of brewing with a Chemex is at the same time simple yet complicated. The Chemex is part of the category of pour overs. A type of brewing system in which hot water pours over ground coffee, it is filtered in some way, and then collected at the bottom. 

Then the coffee is ready to drink. 

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Most of these equipment requires no electricity whatsoever. making them easy to brew anywhere and carry with you, but are also unable to keep your coffee warm. 

Most coffee experts drink coffee in a few minutes anyway. And these kinds of brewers like the Chemex are geared toward this form of relatively quick consumption.

But how does brewing with a Chemex actually work? You’ll need a few accessories and your favorite coffee beans to brew with it:

  • A scale for weighing, to accurately calculate the coffee to water ratio
  • A grinder, to grind the coffee beans right before brewing
  • A kettle, especially a gooseneck one, to precisely orient the pouring of hot water over the coffee
  • Chemex’s bonded filter, which are specially designed for this coffee maker
  • Optionally a thermometer may be helpful to know the exact temperature of the water and replicate the resulting coffee next time. 

Brewing with a Chemex is extremely versatile as it makes handy to make last minute adjustments during the brewing process. Lots of different methods exist to brew a perfect cup of coffee with a Chemex. 

chemex filter brewing

We aren’t going to discuss them all as it would require whole books. Instead, a general approach to brew with the Chemex is better as a starting point to then explore the different possibilities of the brewer:

  • Place the paper filter in the Chemex
  • Wet the filter with hot water. Discard the water
  • Put the desired amount of ground coffee in the filter
  • Shake a bit the Chemex to even the grounds
  • Starting from the middle and working toward the edges, in concentric circles, pour the water and let the coffee bloom: a term indicating the releasing of carbon dioxide gas from the coffee as it comes into contact with hot water
  • The amount of water used for the bloom should be approximately twice the coffee
  • After the bloom ended, continue pouring the water, in small doses
  • Once the pouring has ended, let the brewed coffee fully drip into the bottom of the Chemex
  • Pour in your cup and enjoy

We said that the Chemex is versatile and indeed it doubles as a cold brew coffee brewer. The brewing method isn’t much different than above, but simpler:

  • Measure about 50g of ground coffee (for a 1:10 coffee to water ratio). Adjust the amount of coffee according to your favorite ratio and the size of the Chemex you have
  • Put the coffee on the bottom of the Chemex. No filters
  • Add the room temperature water. Stir the mixture
  • Cover the top of the Chemex to avoid anything entering it during the cold brewing
  • Let the coffee steep for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, possibly in the fridge
  • Once the extraction time is finished, use a paper filter over a large jar or bottle and pour the cold brew coffee from the Chemex in it
  • It may need a while for the coffee to fully pass through the filter. Use a teaspoon to help moving the grounds and let the coffee pass quicker
  • Store in the fridge or immediately serve

As you can see, the Chemex is good enough as a hot brewer and as cold one. The quality of the bonded paper filters and the method favor light and medium roasted coffee beans. 

This makes very bright, clean and crispy brews that don’t lose any of the original characteristics of these roast types. 

It works wonderfully for darker roasts too, but it tends to generate lighter cups of coffee, as in lacking body. That is generally not the aim of beans that went through a dark roasting experience.

CHEMEX Pour-Over Glass Coffeemaker

CHEMEX Pour-Over Glass Coffeemaker - Classic Series - 6-Cup - Exclusive Packaging

Pros and Cons

Which brings us to the pros and cons of the Chemex. The main advantages of the beautiful tool are the great quality of the coffee it produces and its aesthetics.  Another benefit is the ease with which it can be brought with you anywhere and its low price, compared to brewing devices of similar output quality. 

It doesn’t require any electricity itself. It is easy to fit anywhere and is easy enough to use for anybody. You can have full control on the extraction process, by changing the ground size, the water temperature and how you pour. 

Speed and movements.

But a few cons are to be taken into consideration. Glass is beautiful but it can unfortunately easily shatter if dropped. 

The Chemex can last you a lifetime but it needs to be handled with care. 

It is not a device for those who like to brew large amounts of coffee and drink it over a few hours: it cannot keep coffee warm at all. It makes use of proprietary filters, limiting your choices in this regard. 

The Chemex, as said before, favor cups of coffee on the bright, light-bodied and low intensity side. Fans of strong espressos or french presses may find its coffee “weak” or “unflavorful”.

It’s simply a different brewing method that enhances some characteristics of the coffee beans over others. If you like dark roasts, coffee with a nice foam on top or extremely intense coffee, you won’t get those with a Chemex.

Who is the Chemex for?

While brewing a cup of coffee with the Chemex is easy enough, brewing an excellent one is a task requiring lots of practice. The large opening of the Chemex, the reliance on the right coffee to water ratio, and how you pour the water makes it a system very unforgiving of mistakes. 

A little excess in water or a wrong temperature can make all the difference between a good cup of coffee and a mediocre one. 

The right grind size is essential for a Chemex, even more than with other methods. Using a coffee journal and jotting down all the parameters of your brews is recommended to know what went wrong with a particular coffee. 

Don’t buy a Chemex if you aren’t willing to spend some time experimenting and learning about the coffee and pouring methods. This last point can be also taken as an advantage as learning about coffee can be extremely interesting and fun. 

Up to you to decide what type of person you are, if one for “quick and easy” brews or one who likes to fail and learn from its failures to make a better cup next time.

Definitely the Chemex is a superb choice for those liking light roasts, acidic and bright cups of coffee. This brewer is for those who want to know more about their coffee. 

How to exactly tweak the brewing process to get the optimal result for their preferences and tastes. For those who want to take the time to think before a brew.

The Chemex is art and coffee ritual all together, and those who highly value both will surely make well to invest in one.

On the other side, those who want their coffee exactly as they like each time, without having to fuss about different parameters and without having to learn anything, will not do well with a Chemex. 

It can provide you a great learning experience and repeatable results only if you take the time to learn and note your experiments. If you haven’t the inclination to do so, the Chemex may end up in the kitchen drawer sooner than you thought.