I was flipping through the latest issue of the New Yorker and an article by Malcom Gladwell caught my eye, as it usually does whenever I see his name in the table of contents. Gladwell writes clearly and as deeply as a popularizer of big ideas can so I look forward to his articles (you’ll never get all the details with writers like Pinker, Dennett, and Gladwell because they often write for a mass audience – this is just a small critique).
Gladwell’s piece was on the drinking habits of two distinct people; the Cambra of Bolivia and the Italian-Americans of New Haven, CT (circa mid 1940′s). The reference to the latter group caught my eye and I read intently as Gladwell points out that for both the Bolivians and Italian – Americans a great deal of alcohol is consumed on a day-to-day basis, but unlike many other ethnic groups, the propensity for alcoholism is low (versus the Irish – American class in New Haven, CT of the same generation, for example). Gladwell attributes the idea of “drinking responsibly” to cultural norms in the aforementioned groups that don’t tell it’s members: “drink and get loud or violent”, “drink until you can’t stand up”, or “drink when you have a problem” as is the case for some college students, tailgating sports fans, or unhappy suburban dads.
(photo: thanks to Dr. K; close up of “bloom” during brewing process)
The New Yorker got me thinking about other positive habits that Italians and Italian-Americans take part in on a daily basis (I’m not talking about watching the Jersey Shore on MTV). And like having a daily glass of wine or aperitif, many Italians begin their day with coffee (usually in the form of a single espresso or a cappuccino <if you want to stand out as a tourist in Italy just order a cappuccino after 10:30 AM; it’s not accepted for most natives>).
I witnessed the coffee ritual first hand growing up in NJ, as the first thing my parents did in the morning was reach for the Bialetti stovetop espresso maker. I should also say that the second thing they both did was kiss their kids (bad breath and all, sorry ma/papa’). For Italians in Europe the morning coffee ritual often takes place at the local bar (short for café) with customers ordering a short or single espresso and consuming it quickly (while standing) at the bar). The process is usually repeated again after lunch.
(photo: thanks to Dr. K; part of unit that collects coffee)
I’ve expressed my love for all types of coffee here on Scordo.com, including stovetop espresso, French press, handheld espresso, single cup Americano, etc. And all for good reason, I truly love coffee and I couldn’t imagine not taking part in my twice a day coffee ritual (either a latte or Americano in the AM and a single shot espresso after lunch; caffeine after 2PM doesn’t work for me). Recently, I’ve shared my love of coffee with Dr. K. from Philadelphia (Dr. K is married to my wife’s college roommate and we’ve gotten to know each other over the last couple of months). And one recent discussion centered on how difficult it’s been to find an easy to use, drip style, coffee maker for larger amounts of coffee (read more than a few cups). Being self described coffee aficionadas we shied away from plug in drip style machines (which are often expensive, yield bland brown liquid, and consume a ton of counter top space) and messy French press machines (which yield a good cup of coffee but often include sediment and are finicky with bean grind). Just as our quest for a simple drip style seemed futile, Dr. K. stumbled across the Chemex filter drip coffee maker from his favorite online shop Sweetmarias.com.
(photo: with the first pour of water using my trusty Krups electrical hot water kettle, a must have for any kitchen)
The Chemex is an elegant coffeemaker made out of glass and natural wood and has been produced for forty years (the product is made from International Housewares Corporation in Pittsfield, MA). The 10 cup model I used basically looked like an oversized science beaker (Chemex was started by a Chemist!) yet with a lot more style. The Chemex works with a proprietary bonded coffee filter (available in both natural, non dyed, brown and regular, bleached, white). The square shaped brown filters can be used in a compost and are relatively cheep ($7.50 for 100). At the heart of the Chemex is the aforementioned paper filter which according to the company is 20-30 percent heavier than standard filters. The Chemex filters brew coffee slower than most drip style machines but do not let any nasty sediment or paper taste come through. And brewing via a longer time period is something you want in a drip style machine, as the grinded coffee bean has more time to “sit with” the hot water and creative flavor.
The process for brewing a pot of Coffee is fairly straightforward with the Chemex unit. You start with hot water at 200 degrees F. and thereafter place the custom paper filter over the opening of the unit. Next, you place one tbsp of coffee per 5 oz cup (grind it fresh please, preferably with a burr grinder, but if you have a traditional blade grinder the Chemex filter is pretty forgiving) - you can add more or less to suit your taste. The trick with the Chemex coffee maker is to add just enough hot water (with the first pour) to allow the coffee to “bloom” or develop that nice crema (you’ll see it when it happens). Thereafter, you keep on adding water and stop just before reaching the top (you’ll need to do this several times if you wan to brew the full 10 cups). That’s it for the process.
(photo: close up of glass and wood/leather handle)
Here are my quick observations on the Chemex unit and the coffee it produces:
- It’s incredibly easy to use and clean up is quick (as you just throw away the filter with grinds and wash out the glass container and let dry).
- The coffee is very good and it does exhibit some nice complexity. The coffee flavor is, indeed, better than a standard drip style coffee maker, but I do find a French press or Aeropress cup of coffee to have more complexity and richer overall flavor. The coffee is incredibly “clean” with the Chemex; that is to say, there is no harshness or bitterness but it does lack a depth of flavor that I’ve found with other manual type machines. I may need to try adding more coffee grinds than the 5 oz per cup recommended by the company.
- The coffee does not remain hot for a long period of time after the brew period. As Dr. K recommends, it’s best to have a large stainless carafe ready so you can move the contents of the Chemex to an insulated container as quickly as possible.
- From an industrial design perspective, The unit is well executed. The wood and leather used in the middle of the unit serves as a handle and from an ergonomic perspective is almost perfect (think of Oxo products without the plastic). The model I used was made with machined glass, but there are more expensive models made with hand blow glass.
- The unit is inexpensive and requires no electricity. The 10 cup (50 oz) model I tried retails for $37.50 at Sweetmarias.com
(photo: packaging has an Apple-like feel, very simple and elegant)
- Like any glass coffee maker you do need to be careful when washing / cleaning the unit. I have friends who have broken countless Bodum glass French press coffeemakers.
- The unit requires proprietary filters and is akin to a vehicle needing premium gasoline to run (yes, in some cases, an engine will yield more power or run more efficiently, but at a higher price point). The filters, as I said, are not expensive, but you need them in order for the unit to work the correct way (trust me, I tried using a regular paper coffee filter as a test)
- The unit is perfect for a large dinner party when you want to brew up a large batch of quality drip style coffee (just make sure you have an insulated carafe waiting and your guests will not be disappointed).