Help me optimize my Chemex production
May 18, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

My lust for a Chemex has finally been sated with my birthday this week. Please help me optimise my coffee production from this wonderful piece of apparatus.

I'm already loving the output that I'm getting from it and the simplicity of hot water, filter and a carafe. My current production method uses beans, ancient Bodum blade grinder and a kettle. My coffee snob friend is recommending that I purchase a scale to measure out the beans to get the ratio of water and beans correct. I'd like to get a burr grinder, but am reluctant to dispose of a perfectly functional blade grinder while it's still working; does a burr grinder make that much of a difference?

What should I be doing to get the best possible brew?

Bonus points for good online roasters in Canada.
Super bonus points if someone can recommend their favourite travel mug. Mine is decrepit and I'd like to replace it with something like this as I'd prefer to drink out of ceramic rather than plastic but it only comes in a 12 oz. size and I'd prefer a 16 oz. size.
posted by arcticseal to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, you need a scale and a burr grinder to optimize this. I just weigh the beans, but you can find advice for weight ratios of beans to water online too—the shops here that make the best pourover do indeed weigh both water and beans. Scales are really inexpensive, and incredibly useful for pretty much everything in the kitchen, so go for it. Get one with gram accuracy, and a 2+ kg max (more is better for kitcheny stuff, of course).

As far as grinders go, I really love my Baratza Encore. The Baratzas are highly regarded, and I have no complaints (aside from it having a lot of static buildup that causes it to horde fine grinds). I too upgraded from a blade grinder, and yes, it absolutely makes a huge difference. It'll take some time to figure out what grind works for the brewing apparatus and your preferences, but once you dial it in... oh yeah. If you don't want to drop the money for one, you can get a hand-cranked blade grinder for not a lot of cash.
posted by The Michael The at 1:52 PM on May 18, 2013

Best answer: I switched from a Krupps blade grinder to a Breville burr grinder. It does make a difference for me, because it measures out a consistent grind, every time. With the blade grinder, I'd get a range of grind types, depending on how long I would pulse it. Also, it ran fast enough to heat up and cook some of the coffee. A burr grinder is a good way to go if you want a consistent grind that doesn't burn your coffee before brewing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:04 PM on May 18, 2013

I just got a Baratza Encore myself, and the difference is enormous - especially for simplicity and ease; no more "oh god did I time it right," I just set it as I want it, pour in beans, and I'm good to go. Frankly, I'd give up my Chemex before I'd give up my grinder, even if the former is much more satisfying to use.

If you don't have an electric kettle, get one. Significantly faster than doing it on the stove.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:12 PM on May 18, 2013

Best answer: Run warm water through the filter (and pour it out) before filling the Chemex with grounds. The clerk at our roaster recommended this to us and we were surprised by how much better the coffee was when we started rinsing the filter first.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:15 PM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Weighing the beans makes a difference, but the burr grinder makes the biggest difference. If you are going to switch one thing, make it to using a burr grinder.

The blade grinder won't go to waste. I used mind to grind spices for smoke rubs and other recipes. Buying whole spices and then grinding them before use makes a big flavor difference. Some times I toast them, and then grind them. Having a spice grinder is great!
posted by Argyle at 2:20 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use a kitchen scale almost every day, not just for measuring out coffee, but for accurate baking, meal portioning, and more. Plus, it comes in handy when you're trying to mail a letter. We bought this scale on Amazon a few years ago because it came in a color we liked --- but really, any small kitchen scale or postal scale is fine.

And yeah, don't throw out that old blade grinder. Run some rice through it and wipe it out really well. Now you have a great tool for grinding fresh spices!
posted by rossination at 2:36 PM on May 18, 2013

Oh, and this is a pretty standard Internet Coffee Geek answer, but for the best coffee experience, try roasting your own. It is surprisingly simple and cost-effective. Sweet Marias's has all you need to know. I would suggest picking up a green coffee sampler and a West Bend Air Crazy popper to get started. PM me if you have other questions!
posted by rossination at 2:39 PM on May 18, 2013

Lots of good advice in the thread, so I'm mostly just n'thing what everyone else has already said. The main thing here is that all of these tips and tools make your coffee brewing process *repeatable*, so you can then intentionally vary things to get a different flavor. In a nutshell: use filtered water; use a burr grinder and grind your beans just before brewing; buy coffee as fresh as you can (ideally the roast date should be less than 2 weeks); keep your beans in an airtight container; rinse the filter; use a digital scale to measure the water and the coffee; if using something like a French press or a clever dripper, use a timer. An electric kettle isn't a necessity, but something like a Bonavita will heat the water fast and give you a precise pour.

On the travel mug, I drink a cup of coffee on my commute every morning and have had a variety of coffee disasters over the years, leading me to keep looking for the ideal travel mug. There are a zillion on the market; I find the weak point for most is how the top seals. I switched to a Contigo mug and find it to a good choice: top really, truly is spillproof; stainless steel is tasteless; keeps hot coffee hot for quite a while.
posted by kovacs at 3:37 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Marco Arment writes about coffee now and then and I think his set-up is worth considering. Nthing what others have said about a kitchen scale.

If I weren’t the only person in my house who drinks coffee, I’d go the chemex route as well. I use this kitchen scale (although I think I paid $18 for it…), this kettle (mine has comic sans unfortunately), and for brewing I use an Aeropress.

A burr grinder is essential. I use a cheap one I bought five years ago for $30 at Target or Bed, Bath, & Beyond.
posted by vkxmai at 3:44 PM on May 18, 2013

Best answer: I have about 20 different Chemexes-- and that's after pressing one on any friend who'd take it before our last move-- of 4 different sizes, lacking only the very largest, I think, which is huge and has a handle consisting of a glass bar spanning the upper and lower cones rather than the usual wooden collar between them.

I've had two main challenges in using my Chemexes over the years: keeping the coffee as hot as I like it through the process of brewing, after which I pour it into a thermos, and avoiding the very slight taste I think even the best paper filters add to coffee (haven't tried the new bamboo yet, though), and I've coped with both by boiling enough extra water so that I can pour some through the filter to wash it and temper the Chemex at the same time.

Then I pour out that water, add the coffee to the filter, and pour in the remaining water, which has by that time cooled a tiny bit to a more optimal temperature for coffee brewing. A glass or plastic lid to lay over the Chemex after adding the water to the grounds in order to limit evaporative cooling is also important at this stage.

You could keep the coffee hot by putting the Chemex on a burner turned low instead, but in my experience, that has always burned the brewed coffee slightly, and made it look and taste muddy.

I measure my coffee beans by volume in a 100 ml graduated cylinder (90 ml of the Ethiopian Yirgacheff I'm drinking now for 450 ml of brewed coffee) and grind it in an old Zassenhaus hand grinder.
posted by jamjam at 3:58 PM on May 18, 2013

Excellent advice already, I just want to agree that for me, the fresh roasted beans are the biggest factor. My favourite roasters are Intelligentsia (Black Cat is great), and Tonx (you get something different every week). Both ship to Canada!

Intelligentsia shipping is a bit too pricy IMO, not sure how much Tonx charges to ship to you, but worth checking.
posted by Joh at 4:28 PM on May 18, 2013

I'm sure a thermos would preserve the flavor better, but I find using chemex burner grid allows me to keep a second cup warm without a burnt taste or glass cracking. I invested in a burr grinder (reluctantly!) but I've been exceedingly happy with it. Over time Im likely saving money because the cost of the beans over time add up, and with the burr it takes fewer beans to get the same strong/rich taste I favor. I use the timer on my burr grinder, to get the right quantity.
posted by iiniisfree at 6:13 PM on May 18, 2013

The best coffee gear purchase I made was probably my Encore grinder. But the second best was this recently released variable temperature electric kettle by Bonavita. It's very well designed and a joy to use.
posted by gd779 at 7:27 PM on May 18, 2013

Manual cast iron burr grinders are much cheaper and much more reliable and beautiful than the consumer electronics people are always recommending. Look on ebay for zassenhaus grinders for an example of heirloom coffee making glory.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:20 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Weighing helps but honestly isn't a big deal. Precise water temperature helps but isn't a huge deal. Getting a consistent, even grind is a very big deal. Like honestly IMO you'd have been better off getting the grinder first and making coffee in a $10 mr coffee knockoff from walmart for another month.

Oh right and yes, this all assumes you're getting coffee that was roasted ideally 2-3 days before you buy it. Knowing who the local roasters are makes this a lot easier.
posted by kavasa at 7:45 AM on May 19, 2013

Response by poster: Right, burr grinder it is. Thanks for all the advice, I'm off shopping!
posted by arcticseal at 8:27 AM on May 19, 2013

Response by poster: All the advice about the burr grinder was spot on. It's made a big difference to my coffee production and I'm enjoying my brew even more. Thanks everyone.
posted by arcticseal at 4:06 PM on June 18, 2013

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