Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fragrant Rituals: Chemex Coffee

“Coffee should be black as Hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”--Turkish Proverb

The alarm clock rings at 5:30 a.m. It’s dark and quiet. The kitchen refrigerator enters a cooling cycle and broadcasts a familiar melodious hum. The ingredients for a coffee breakfast wait inside the door. A single tug of the handle and the long strips of foam tape that insulate the frame of the refrigerator door are released from their conjoining magnetic sleep. The refrigerator light goes on and it’s the only light that illuminates the room.

A sleepy hand takes out a canister of coffee beans and deposits it on the kitchen counter next to a curious hourglass-shaped carafe corseted by a wooden frame and tied with a simple piece of rawhide adorned by wooden beads. The device is a Chemex®, a uniquely designed coffee maker found in the kitchens of coffee purists who take Masonic pride in owning a kitchen appliance displayed in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Electric coffee makers corrupt coffee’s flavor—a cardinal sin and olfactive sacrilege of the highest scientific order. With .1% volatile flavor components coffee is the most aromatic substance on earth. The smell of coffee tells the brain that an awakening is about to transpire and creates a revivifying prelude. The pot warmer of an electric coffee maker destroys many of coffee’s 800 fragrant constituents. No thank you. I will take my pyrazines, furans, vanillin and tri-syllabic molecules straight up; you can leave overdone blackened coffee to the devil.

Morning light rises on the autumn horizon. Even the sun knows it’s time for coffee. I fill a pot with four cups of filtered water and set it on the burner. The flinty click of the pilot ignition makes staccato sounds that resemble the snapping fingers of a flamenco dancer. There is something comforting about crown of blue flame on the burner that is familiar and mesmerizing. I flip the light switch and reach inside the cabinet next to the stove where the unbleached Chemex® filters are kept. You’ll never see white coffee filters in my kitchen because bleached filters leave an aftertaste in coffee that distorts its delicate flavors. Unbleached filters have a natural vanilla odor (think wet paper shopping bags in the rain) that complements coffee, which is why they are always the right choice.

Fitting the square-shaped paper filter into the top of the Chemex® is a pleasurable act of minimalist origami. The filter, which comes folded in quarters, is opened so that one layer is separated from three, forming a shape that looks like an upside down sail or the exaggerated mouth of a hungry bird. The filter is nestled into the top of the Chemex® in preparation for the addition of coffee grinds. I have a very specific ritual for measuring and grinding coffee beans and can do it in my sleep; four tablespoons of beans, three grinds and three short pulses. Coffee ground for a Chemex® is slightly finer that coffee prepared for an electric drip coffee maker. This is because the first step in making coffee in a Chemex® involves the “blooming” of the beans.

The kettle whistles and the flame is turned off. I steady the weight of the pot in my right hand and add enough boiling water to cover the coffee grinds. This process allows the grinds to swell and prepares them so they can release their flavor with additional infusions in boiling water. Small iridescent bubbles form on top of the wet grinds as the aroma of coffee begins to fill the kitchen. The wet grinds look like flourless chocolate cake batter.

When the water settles to the bottom of the carafe the first of two rounds of boiling water are slowly added to the Chemex®. The perfume of coffee intensifies with each pouring and gets in my hair as I inhale the fragrant steam that rises from the top. How does the perfumer keep his nose out of the alembic, I wonder? Why would anyone want to brew coffee any other way? I reach for a coffee cup handmade by a local potter. It is shaped like a short drinking cauldron and keeps the coffee warm. I pour the first cup. Steam rises and curls upwards as if a message could be found in the vapors. I cradle the cup in my hands anticipating the first sip.


Chemex coffee makers and brewing supplies can be purchased at Sweet Maria's.

If you want to learn more about the sensory evaluation of coffee Ted Lingle's The Coffee Cupper's Handbook is highly recommended. It is priced at $38.00.

Image of Chemex from The Coffee Roaster.

Image of Chemex filter from I Need Coffee.

Image of Coffee Bean Roasts from Sweet Maria's.

Image of Coffee Flower by Tim Wilson.