In a time of coffee gadget fever, Chemex--the iconic glass beaker with the wooden collar and leather tie--remains a simple, affordable and beautiful way to make delicious coffee.
Unchanged in the 70+ years since it was invented by Dr. Schlumbohm, it’s basically a glass vessel into which you put a paper filter, add your coffee and pour water. Although, coffee aficionados argue the fine points (and, Nelly, do they ever) of Chemex brewing, that’s pretty much it.
In terms of design, there’s not a whole lot to improve upon. In both the Museum of Modern Art’s and Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collections and included as one of the “100 Best Designed Products of Modern Times,” it’s damn near perfect. One of those household items that makes you happy to see it and use it every day.
The coffee, you ask? For my money, it’s hands-down the best way of making coffee at home. It serves up a super clean cup due to its thick, bonded filter (yep, you really do have to buy their filters). While we love coffee made in many inventive ways, brewing a good cup at home doesn’t require a lot of expensive machinery. In fact, it’s the opposite. One of the problems of complex machines is keeping them clean. Coffee releases oils that can go rancid if left to sit, and so machines with a lot of inner workings are hard to get inside and keep clean. With Chemex, you’re simply washing a clear glass beaker (a brush helps). What’s more, with auto-drip machines (even the best), water temperatures fluctuate over time. With a Chemex, you boil water and so you control the temperature precisely (between 195-205 degrees).
The best part (at least for us in the Berkshires) is that Chemex is a neighbor--manufactured in Pittsfield, MA, just 15 minutes away. The factory is an unassuming hard-working place putting out a stellar product day after day. Most would think Chemex is bigger than it is given its fame and cult following, however the factory is a family place with people still hand-tying the leather string that holds the wooden collar. You also feel Chemex could be a swankier place than it is, but then you’re just really, really happy it isn’t. The focus is where it should be: on the quality of the product and on serving its customers in a friendly, personal way. And that brings us to Adams…
Owner, Adams Grassy—a native of Great Barrington—took over the operations in 2011, which he runs together with his sister and mother. It has been in his family since 1980 when his father, Patrick, purchased it. Adams is as down to earth as his surroundings, taking time to bring me around the factory, and even stopping by Six Depot Cafe a few times.
That said, he’s not too interested in sitting back and resting on Chemex’s laurels. He’s focused on the future. He just finished a beautiful, yet classic, re-branding of the company (look out for the new packaging), and is putting back into production some vintage hand-blown items as well as a new glass mug we’ve got on our wish list. In the meantime?
If you’re looking for a great way to make coffee at home: save your money, own a slice of history, embrace the hands-on ritual and buy a thing of simple beauty.
Stay tuned for our next post for how to brew a great cup of coffee at home. We’ll get into the finer points that'll make your home brew sing.
P.S. Is that a Chemex back there on the stove behind, ahem, Dylan and Ginsberg?
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