Sunday, June 7, 2015

Chemex : Where it started and where I am now

More than 8 years ago this post was my 5th ever.
Meanwhile a lot of things happened and both coffee and Caffenation are now in a totally different phase.
But the Chemex is still there. What happened with it after all those year though?

8 years ago the Chemexes i bought were probably unique in Belgium.
And i started to make my coffees with this brewer time after time, to end up ... frustrated. I could not understand what to like about the Chemex, except for its look.
Of course in those days, (filter) coffee brewing was a new experience, and a totally different texture and taste than the espresso, lungo or americano we were used to drink.

When in 2009 Scott Rao launched his book with a big chapter on extraction ratio's, we were all quickly understanding this would change our view on coffee dramatically.
And at the same time he was so negative about the Chemex, the whole 3rd wave coffee change was shaking on its feet.
Read this very interesting discussion on, between Rao, Thompsen, Hoffmann, Piccolo and others.

After my negative experiences prior to this discussion i gave my Chemex to a friend. I was on the side of the non-believers.

Bit by bit the Chemex became more popular - see this photo underneath from a popular Horeca shop, Hanos, that stocks the Chemexes today, to my surprize - and bit by bit i was ready to restart experimenting with the brewer again.

And here is when it all starts to become more interesting. Most striking in this whole story and discussion is that we did not specify enough what type of Chemex we used. When checking out the 6 and 8-cup Chemexes i noticed an enormous difference between these big ones and the 3-cup Chemex, i started with in 2007.
If you would use approximately the same pour over technique on both models - stating both the 6 and 8 cup are seen as the big model - the outcome is very different.
The Small Chemex is extracting shorter and give way less body and bitters and more acidity.
The Big Chemex is slower, with more body, sweetness and less acidity.

In general i found the brews from small ones very often under extracted and the big ones over extracted.
As most people i forgot about the small ones and started training on the bigger version.
Very often the problem was that it started of really well the first 2 minutes or so, but then we had 2 problems to fight with. One was the fact the Chemex is sucking itself vacuum too fast. Having the triple layer of filter on the pouring side was helping a bit.
Second and biggest problem is the fact - and here Scott Rao is right - that too much of the coffee grounds got squeezed in to the bottom part of the filter and this is not capable of letting the water through fast enough. All the coffee and water is sitting there and with some bad luck your extraction quickly goes up to 5, 6 minutes or more.

Best tips to avoid over extraction is to grind coarser but most of all not using this brewer for large brews. I know it looks like you can make 0,6 up to 1 liter of coffee with the Chemex, but don't go there. To my opinion it is not capable of brewing stable when you go over the 0,5 liter mark.
But even staying low is not always helping and way too often my Chemex brews are unstable. Over the years i have been cursing so often at it, i started to loose my trust in them.

When a couple of years ago Hario launched a similar type of brewer, the V60 Dripper Decanter, i had, on my first usage, the cup right where i wanted it. That was the day i gave my 6-cup Chemex to a friend.

With no Chemexes in the house and less Chemexes around it felt like we could bury the discussions we were in for over 7 years.

In 2014 we were called in by the famous and one of a kind restaurant In De Wulf in Dranouter Belgium to have a look at their filter coffee.
I was deeply impressed by the chef's cooking skills and we helped him with his coffee at his Superette resto project in Gent. But the filter coffee i had at In De Wulf 2 years prior was not to my liking. Old coffee, dark roasted and a brew that lost all of its freshness by keeping it too long in the pot.
Now they were ready to serve 3-cup Chemex, with fresh roasts from Mok and/or Caffenation.

Ok, so Jens from Mok, Valentine from Superette - who organized this project! - and me were testing some coffees in Small and Big Chemex brews.
And i was pleasantly surprised by the small Chemex brews. It had less dept and body, but great refinement and freshness.
I  noticed at Caffenation, and we follow a bit the world wide trend on this, we make our espresso's stronger and more complex and our filter coffees lighter and more refined, over the last couple of years. I don't want to judge too hard on other desires or preferences, this is just how it feels right to us; it is a personal thing.

Now we are 1 year into brewing Chemex at this great restaurant and we have the 3-cup back on the shelf in our shop and on my own kitchen work table.

So almost 8 years it took to finally embrace this awkward looking coffee brewer with funky filters.

I feel that there's still a lot to experiment, but this is the way i work with the 3-cup now :

Folding the filter is still the same way as i always did it, although i put more pressure when folding it.
Then you have to brew with a minimum of 300 grams and a maximum of 360 grams of water, of which appr 15 grams stays in the grounds at the end of the brewing cycle.
I heat up the water to 90 degrees in a kettle with a fine spout.

Of course i rinse the filter paper first, meanwhile heating up the vessel/brewer.
Then i bloom with 10% of my water and leave it for 15" blooming.
Then i pour half of the water slowly in circles in the middle of the filter.
When it lowers a bit i tend to slowly add the rest of my water. I always stay in the middle.

This morning i had a total brewing time of 2 minutes and 30".

Conclusion : The Chemex is very nicely designed coffee brewer that can be the perfect tool for your coffee at home, work or in a professional environment, but it's a tricky one.
Your grind, water temperature, ratio and pouring technique need to be just right, to get the all the nice things in your cup and the bad out of it.
First train your taste buds, then your brewing skills and this could work out just fine.

If you feel it's too much of a hassle and complicated, you better go immediately to a Hario V60, Kalita flat bed, Aeropress or even Clever dripper.

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