Allow me to regale you with a story, coffee friends.

In 1941, a group of mad scientists, headed up by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm PhD, got together to figure out a way to eradicate the Nazis and avenge America’s European allies. Albert Einstein, of course, was working with the Manhattan Project at the time, developing the atomic bomb, so Sclumbohm decided it would be best to take a different approach.

“What do the American troops need the most to defeat the enemy,” he asked his team.

One of them spoke up: “Artillery?”

“No, they have plenty of that. They need high-quality coffee!”

“Coffee…?”

“Yes! Coffee! Our boys are over there, camped out in the woods, forced to drink terrible coffee, and God knows they can’t handle Italian espresso! The awful taste is dampening their spirits! They need the morale boosts of good ol’ fashioned American coffee, and the added benefit of it being brewed to perfection – the way coffee was meant to be brewed!”

“Yeah, but what will we create? And how will they brew it,” they contested. “They can only use percolators over an open fire on the front lines!”

Schlunbohm pondered this for a while…

“I’ve got it,” he finally muttered, after a few minutes. “We’ll design a portable glass apparatus – like a vase. One could put a filter in the opening on top, fill it with ground coffee, then pour hot water over it. This will steep the grounds – like a tea bag.”

“Brilliant!” his whole team shouted, all at once. “But what will we call it??”

He pondered this even longer. Pacing the laboratory for days on end, muttering nonsensical coffee brewing puns to himself, then cursing himself under his breath, harshly, for being so silly.

After a month, he finally came to them and said, “Well – I’ve come up with a name for the prototype. I figured since I’m a chemist, and this product will brew excellent coffee, it shall be called – the Chemex.”

(Actually, none of this is true – but this is the way I like to think it happened.)

It is true, however, that the Chemex Coffeemaker was invented in 1941 by Dr. Peter Schlunbohm – a German chemist who defected to America in 1931. In 1939, he filed a patent for a “filtering device” – the original version included a spout and handle, much more complex than the final familiar version, and was intended for multiple uses, including laboratory filtering processes. Two years later, the final version – as we know it today – was created.

Immediately upon its release, the Chemex garnered a lot of praise from designers and artists – it’s even been turned into a permanent fixture at many museums and galleries, including the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Corning Museum of Glass, and even the Smithsonian. Interestingly enough, the Chemex was actually marketed as a useful wartime device too. (So maybe my rendering of the story isn’t so far off, after all.)

With its sleek, elegant, and fashionable, yet functional, design, the Chemex earned its rightful place in art museums. If there were a museum dedicated entirely coffee, it’s likely that the Chemex would have an entire wing dedicated to it, because this device truly was one of the great modern advancements in coffee, and it actually paved the way for a wide array of specialty coffee brewers that would come after it.

The Chemex, though, will always be the original in its field. It utilizes the infusion method of brewing coffee, which makes it a lot like a dripper, but the coffee this method produces is much richer, much more flavorful, and much smoother.

how it works:

This video comes to us courtesy of Intelligentsia Coffee, in Chicago, Illinois:

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the pros:

  • with only a couple pieces of equipment, there is very little cleanup
  • with the coffee beans taking a minute to grind, the filtered water taking five minutes to boil, and the brewing taking about 3-4 minutes, this method is quick and efficient
  • with the filters costing about $4-10 per pack and the dripper costing around $40, this method is moderately cost effective
  • the glass
    • all materials (like plastic and metal) eventually corrode, but glass never will
    • the glass is sturdy and dishwasher safe (just make sure to remove the wood insulator before you wash it in the dishwasher!), but it is advised to wash and sanitized by hand
  • the filters:
    • most filters for automatic coffeemakers have a flat bottom which can cause non-uniform extraction of the desirable parts of the coffee bean – Chemex filters are cone-shaped to assure uniform extraction
    • most filters are lighter in weight, providing more opportunity for fine particles to escape – Chemex filters are 20-30% heavier, and eliminate all sediment
  • the Chemex comes in four different sizes, so you can prepare high-quality coffee just for yourself, or for guests
  • the Chemex is beautifully designed and small, so you can leave it on your kitchen counter and revel in the praises it is sure to receive from your friends and family
  • it’s easy, intuitive, and the way coffee was meant to be prepared

the cons:

  • the Chemex is consumer friendly, but finicky – while there is always room for customized technique, it is best to always the specific directions that Chemex provides, then adjust your parameters to your liking
  • when washing the Chemex by hand, it is very difficult to squeeze your hand into the holding chamber to scrub it – you may have to get one of those brushes that can bend to ensure that the Chemex is fully clean
  • the Chemex is beautifully designed and produces amazing cups of coffee, so you will inevitably be the envy of your friends and family

Further Reading

For more things Chemex, check out my page about the Coava KONE Filter (for Chemex)!

A few years ago, however, Keith Gehrke, co-owner of Coava Coffee in Portland, Oregon, started to notice the trend of wastefulness that paper filters allow. Instead of just dealing with it, he armed himself with an editor’s red pen and deleted the paper standard by creating a filter for his shop’s Chemex pour-over bar that would, once and for all, replace paper filters.

The result was the Coava Kone coffee filter – the biggest advancement in coffee filtration methods in the past several years. Made of stainless steel with etched perforations, the Kone is a reusable and sustainable filter that’s easy to wash and provides an always consistent pour.