Chemex Coffee Review: How To Use A Chemex Coffee Maker For Better Coffee
Chemex Coffee Maker
As aesthetically pleasing as it is functional, the 80-year-old Chemex coffee maker doesn't just make good pour over coffee - it's even earned a reputation as a pop culture and design icon. Heck, we even placed it at the #1 spot on pour over coffee maker buying guide.
Why is this simple-looking device still so popular among coffee lovers? In this extensive guide we'll share more about the history of the Chemex, its pros and cons for coffee lovers, and how you can make a delicious cup of coffee with it (including a step-by-step guide!).
A Brief History of the Chemex Coffee Maker
Although the Chemex may not appear to be particularly innovative, its German-born inventor, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, developed over 300 patents throughout his career and sold a number of his inventions in Europe. After moving to the United States in the 1930s, he applied for dozen of patents for refrigeration technology and other products.
Among these patents was a 'Filtering Device', a simple glass coffeemaker, that combined his chemistry knowledge and his desire to create better everyday objects. This eventually became trademarked as the Chemex.
Unlike immersion brewing methods (the French press being the most popular), the Chemex is a pour-over coffee maker: it works when hot water is poured over coffee grounds, allowed to drip through a filter, and then collected to make a cup of coffee. This method of brewing coffee has some technical advantages
If you've been brewing coffee with a French press, you'd be forgiven for thinking that coffee ought to taste bold, dark, and gritty. After all, the coffee equipment available to older generations was extremely limited when Schlumbohm came along with his invention. And old habits die hard (it took a lot of convincing for some of our older family members to enjoy pour-over coffee!)
Besides the promise of the "perfect cup of coffee", the Chemex quickly became a must-have household item among the middle and upper classes because of its elegant Bauhaus-inspired design. And clearly, that appeal still remains: the Chemex is now more than 80 years old, and is still among the most popular pour over coffee makers today.
Chemex Pour Over
Heat your water to ~200°F (93 °C ). The ideal temperature for different beans may vary between 195-205°F (90-96°C).
Place your filter in the Chemex. Whether you're using a pre-folded Chemex filter or folding it yourself, ensure the thicker 3-layer side rests against the spout. Pour hot water to rinse the paper and heat the glass so it doesn't cool your coffee too quickly.
2. Add coffee
Pour in your freshly ground coffee. A good starting reference for the perfect Chemex ratio is a 1 to 16 ratio. For every 1 gram of ground coffee, you would use 16 grams of water. After adding the coffee grounds, shake the Chemex gently to get an even surface.
Pour in just enough water to saturate the coffee; you should see it start to bloom and froth up. There should be very little coffee dripping through. Leave for 30 seconds.
Using the standard pour over technique, add water to the ground coffee in a steady flow with a gooseneck kettle, using a circular motion to evenly extract the coffee. You'll need to have some patience as the coffee drips. Make sure you're pouring over the coffee and not the inside of the dripper - you're not trying to wash the coffee down.
5. Remove the filter
Once the coffee drip has slowed and you have the required amount of coffee, remove the filter. This should take around 4 minutes. Be careful to pinch all layers of the paper - you don't want it to unfold and spill wet coffee grounds everywhere!
6. Enjoy your Chemex Coffee
Why Brew Coffee With A Chemex?
When it comes to specialty coffee, the pour over method is preferable over immersion methods like the French press as your goal is to bring out the subtle aromas and notes of the coffee, not make a gut-punching brew. So if you're like us - a.k.a. not just drinking coffee to wake up in the morning, but obsessed about savoring the nuanced flavors of different beans, then you'll want to own a Chemex. Here's why:
- Its non-porous borosilicate glass flask is non-toxic, imparts no unwanted flavors, and is supremely easy to use.
- It boasts the use of scientific grade double-bonded filter paper - the kind used in chemistry labs - to absorb coffee oils and contain dregs, letting only the flavor compounds drip through.
- It is incredibly forgiving on newcomers to pour-over coffee or coffee beans that aren't in their optimal state.
Of course, it helps that the Chemex will look stunning on your kitchen counter. Its elegant design still makes it the top choice for a photoshoot prop, even after 80 years! Few objects can boast such timelessness.
The Chemex vs Hario V60 vs Kalita
When Peter Schlumbohm invented the Chemex, it was truly an innovative way of making coffee. In 1936, the world's first drip coffee filter - the Melitta filter - had only just taken on its new conical shape (the Melitta 102). But in more recent decades, various brands of coffee makers have since appeared on the market with the promise of an easier and better coffee brewing experience.
Among these, the Kalita Wave dripper and Hario V60 - both from Japan - are the most popular competitors to the Chemex. Since all these are pour over coffee drippers, you may be wondering: How are they any different from each other?
They're all simple, funnel-like objects. They all use a piece of paper for filtration. Is the coffee really going to taste especially good with any of these? We won't dive into the details here, since this is a guide about the Chemex, but the Chemex is our top pick.
Thick filter: produces a clean coffee showcasing oft-overlooked lighter flavors
Sensitive: Great for experimenting and bringing out nuances in each brew
3 drainage holes: More even extraction and consistent taste
Not for those who prefer rich, full-bodied coffee
Requires good pouring technique
Can’t bring out the best of coffees with light floral notes
If you want coffee that tastes like wine, but don't want to be intimidated by the craft aspect of brewing coffee...get the Chemex.
Drawbacks of the Chemex
Although the Chemex is marketed as the device for making "perfect cup of coffee", the comparison table above makes it clear that "perfect" is a matter of opinion. Besides what the competition offers, here are some reasons you may not want to get a Chemex.
- The Chemex doesn't favor bolder brews with more body. It won't make your favorite Colombian or Brazilian coffee taste worse, but it won't make it better, either.
- The Chemex is fragile. We've heard so many stories of chipped and broken Chemex flasks. If you have children or pets, or live in a smaller space, it might be wise to choose another coffee dripper.
- Chemex filters are notoriously hard to come by. The most popular pre-folded circle filters are often out of stock.
Which Chemex Size Should You Get?
The Chemex comes in numerous styles and sizes. Before we dive into the details, however, note that Chemex defines one cup as 5 ounces (which is what you'd get from an espresso-based coffee with 1oz of espresso and 4 ounces of milk). At home, you may want to start your day with a large mug of coffee that's actually 10 ounces or more.
Another thing to note is that the 3-cup Chemex has a smaller and steeper drip cone than all the other sizes. It also uses a different "half-moon filter", so it's less versatile than the larger sizes. This is why the 6-cup or 8-cup Chemex is the most popular choice.
Then, there are three different "types" of Chemex coffee maker you can purchase. Here's a quick introduction:
Chemex Classic Series
With its stylish heatproof wood collar and rawhide leather cord around its neck, it's no wonder the Classic Chemex has been included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Brooklyn Museum, and the Corning Museum of Glass.
The Classic Chemex comes in four sizes: 3-cup, 6-cup, 8-cup, and 10-cup. There's also a Funnex portable glass dripper, which is marketed for on-the-go use (not that we'd ever want to pack a glass item with us when traveling).
The Glass Handle Series
We're personally not too fond of the glass handle Chemex, as it looks just like a piece of lab equipment. The handle is pretty unwieldy as well.
The glass handle Chemex comes in four sizes: 3-cup, 6-cup, 8-cup, and 10-cup.
The Handblown Series
If you want to own a truly artisanal piece, a handblown Chemex is the way to go. Each one is crafted by a highly skilled glassblower, as it's not easy to ensure such precision in the Chemex's shape, thickness, and proportions!
The Handblown Chemex comes in four sizes: 3-cup, 5-cup, 8-cup, and 13-cup. These are also made with borosilicate glass, so you won't have to worry about them cracking suddenly from thermal shock.
Once you've decided which type and size of Chemex you want, go ahead and make your purchase, your mouth will thank you!
How To Clean Your Chemex
Cleaning your Chemex is simple: Handwash it by swirling in some warm water and a little dish soap, then rinse out. You can be lazy and choose not to remove the wood handle. If you feel like you need to give it a more thorough clean, use a bottle cleaning brush to scrub the insides.
The makers of the Chemex claim that it is dishwasher safe, but make sure you remove the wood handle and leather tie before placing it securely in the dishwasher!
Brewing Coffee With Your Chemex
As mentioned in our introduction, the Chemex coffee maker is great for casual coffee drinkers as it will easily give you a clean bright cup of coffee. That said, you still need to brew your coffee using the right ingredients. Here are some key considerations:
It's said that the proprietary Chemex bonded filters are key to the Chemex's signature clean, crisp brews. We've tried brewing coffee on the Chemex using several types of filters, and here's what we found based on a test with our own Maineiac Blend coffee beans.
Chemex bonded filters: Both the circle and square filters perform equally well, giving a nice clean brew that brings out the coffee's brighter notes. The white filters are oxygen cleansed and thus unbleached, so the paper technically shouldn't impart any undesirable flavor to the coffee.
The pre-folded ones are more convenient if you have a phobia of origami.
Pro tip: Even if you don't usually pre-wet your filters when making pour-overs, we recommend pre-wetting the Chemex paper filters as they're much thicker than other coffee filters.
Chemex bonded filters, Natural: Some coffee lovers claim that the natural paper version alters the taste of the coffee. We say that if you're a casual coffee drinker, don't worry too much about this.
CAFEC V60: If you absolutely can't find Chemex filters, brewing your coffee will be a challenge. For the sake of writing this guide, we tried this filter recommended by baristas for less paper taste. The resulting coffee had more chocolatey notes, but it was a hassle to brew.
These thin filters are meant for Hario V60, so they stick to the spout during the pour-over. To prevent this, you need to create an air gap in the Chemex spout. We'll discuss this in the advanced Chemex brewing section below.
CoffeeSock: The reusable CoffeeSock is made of 100% organic cotton, claiming that cotton "absorbs some of the oils released from coffee beans yet lets acids pass through". We've found that it indeed does produce a coffee that is close in flavor to a standard Chemex brew. However, you'll need to use a slightly finer grind to compensate for the increased flow rate, and spend more time washing the CoffeeSock after each use.
Able Kone: Many home brewers have tried this stainless steel filter in a bid to reduce waste, only to come away frustrated at the change in flavor and hassle of having to adjust their pour over method. The Kone is not easy to clean, either, and we really wouldn't recommend it.
Chemex Grind Size
The general grind size for the Chemex coffee maker is a medium grind, or slightly on the coarse side. To ensure your grind size is consistent, consider investing in a quality burr grinder.
If you're using a hand grinder, simply set it to the middle between zero-maximum clicks. The grounds should appear slightly smaller than sea salt flakes. Of course, this varies with the beans you're using and you may vary this to extract the most flavor. Read our guide about coffee grind sizes to learn more.
We don't advise going towards a fine grind, as the Chemex already has a slow brew time (due to its thick filter) and too-fine grounds means you'll risk over-extraction, resulting in a dull bitter brew.
Chemex Ratio of Coffee to Water
When brewing coffee with a Chemex coffee maker, the coffee-to-water ratio is similar to what you'd use for most pour over methods like the V60 or Melitta. For most of these pour over contarptions, you will often find a 1 to 16 ratio. For every 1 gram of coffee, you will use 16 grams of water. Depending on how strong you like your coffee, this golden ratio can be adjusted.
If you don't have a scale for brewing coffee yet, consider getting one! Don't want to have to measure your coffee each time? Get your coffee scoop or spoon, scoop up some beans, and see how much each scoop of coffee weighs. You'll then roughly know how much coffee you're using when you brew.
Pro tip: It's important to brew with the right size Chemex. If you have a 6-cup Chemex or larger, you should make at least three cups of coffee each time. Otherwise, the taste of the paper may become more noticeable. Plus, you wouldn't want to waste your precious Chemex filters!
Frequently Asked Questions
While the Chemex coffee maker seems relatively easy to use, it does have its quirks. In this section, we'll try to address some of the most common issues faced by new Chemex owners.
Why Does My Chemex Coffee Taste Bad?
Assuming that you have all the recommended pour over coffee equipment and have followed our step-by-step guide, there are some less obvious factors that can affect the flavor of your coffee. Consider the following possibilities:
Poor water quality. Cafes and baristas are extremely particular about their water quality, as the minerals present in the water will affect coffee extraction. If you live somewhere with extremely hard/treated water, consider using distilled water, mineral water, or filtering your water through a filtration jug like the Brita.
Wrong coffee roast. As impressive as the Chemex is, it can't work miracles on badly roasted coffee or coffee that's roasted for a different brewing method, such as dark roast for espresso. Why not try our coffee beans for next time?
Coffee bean freshness. The best time to consume coffee is 5-14 days after roasting (not after purchase)! A good bag of coffee should have the roast date indicated. You'll also want to buy whole beans and grind them just before brewing, so that the coffee oils don't oxidize and cause the coffee to become stale. Learn more about how to choose, store, and consume coffee for home brewing.
Why Does My Chemex Take So Long?
Make sure you've placed the Chemex filter such that the 3-layer side is lying against the pouring spout. Otherwise, the wet paper may stick against the spout and block airflow.
If you're using non-Chemex filters for whatever reason, or you simply need to shorten the brew duration, try inserting a metal straw or a chopstick along the spout. This creates a larger air gap and should eliminate stalling.
Why Does My Coffee Brew So Quickly?
Does the coffee also taste watery? If so, your ground coffee may be a little too coarse. Try making it just a tad finer, and you should be good.
Remember, the Chemex (or any other coffee maker) is not a tool to restrict the way you brew your coffee. What we've suggested in this guide are guidelines; you still wield control over how you want the coffee to taste, simply by adjusting the grind size and ratio.
An automatic pour over coffee for busy folks
One-touch coffee maker machines like the Nespresso are all the rage these days, and we know why. I can hear you thinking:
I can't spend four minutes making a cup of coffee! And what about grinding the beans and the washing up? I'm a busy person!
Well, you don't have to compromise on the quality of your coffee - not when we live in an age of automation. You can actually get an automated coffee maker for your Chemex! Unlike a typical mass-market drip coffee maker, the Ottomatic is designed to automate the pour-over process with a perfectly programmed flow of water for even extraction. It even has a hot plate to keep your coffee warm after brewing.
Chemex Ottomatic Reviews
According to the feedback we have seen around the Chemex Ottomatic, the reviews have been hit or miss. When you receive a unit that works properly, the quality and efficiency is unprecedented, but there have also been many complaints about these machines leaking and failing to brew back to back cups. Until quality assurance can be improved on these, we still recommend the regular Chemex coffee maker.
Advanced Chemex Brewing
Welcome to the advanced section of our Chemex coffee guide! If you're a coffee
nerd connoisseur who loves to constantly experiment and refine your brew, the Chemex can prove to be a highly valuable tool. We really enjoy using the Chemex for savoring single origin coffees and brewing darker roasts that may need more clarity.
Once you're familiar with getting your preferred coffee ratio, grind size, and water temperature, you can play around with your Chemex coffee maker to get the most out of it. For instance, some people like to:
- Thoroughly rinse the filter twice or even thrice to get rid of the paper taste.
- Stir the grounds during the bloom (Step 3) so that all the coffee can absorb the hot water
- Pulse pour: Instead of pouring 20oz of water over the duration of the brew, pour 5oz, pause for the coffee to drain, then pour another 5oz, pause... and so on.
- Use a different filter: The Chemex filter is the thickest out there and is meant to work in sync with the design. Other thinner filters will usually stick to the pouring spout. With no way for air to escape as the coffee enters the sealed flask, the brew will stall. Therefore, using a different filter requires you to insert a drinking straw, chopstick, or other implement to maintain a gap.
We cannot judge whether these brewing techniques really make a difference because the coffee is the foundation. Some will argue that stirring the coffee is bad, or that pouring all at once is better, and try to back it up with some scientific rationale. We believe it's more important to use quality coffee beans.
The Chemex coffee maker, with its enduring design and outstanding function, will last you a lifetime (if you don't break it). It's a simple way to make a great cup of coffee, and is also a fun toy - as with all manual coffee makers, it's a chance for you to slow down and enjoy some time to yourself amid the blur of a busy day. Have fun!