Better Coffee Through Chemextry
December 02, 2005
Last week, I met Erik at the University Zoka (UZ) cafe (Zoka roasts -- and brews -- the best coffee in Seattle ... my favorite is their organic Tatoosh Blend). I arrived early, and got to talking with Sam, who was getting ready to brew a new batch of coffee ... and was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to select one (it was a brand new Central American blend they were experimenting with -- I liked it, but not as much as Tatoosh). Later on (after Erik had left), Sam stopped by my table and we got to talking [more] about coffee connoisseurship. We both prefer the French press method for retaining as much of the flavor, aromatics and natural oils as possible, but neither of likes to have to clean up the mess left behind. He told me that the Chemex coffeemaker provides much of the benefits of French press, but uses a filter, making it easier to clean up.
I asked Sam what was so special about Chemex coffee: was it the carafe or the special filters? In particular, I was curious about whether using the Chemex filter in a regular automatic drip coffeemaker would have a similar effect. Sam wasn't sure, but offered me a filter to take home and try (which I accepted). I also read up on the Chemex filters via their web page:
Coffee beans and pre-ground coffee contain about 50 different elements. Only two are desirable: aromatic coffee oils and caffeine. The rest is a mixture of acids, fats, oils and bitter flavor elements which must be removed if the coffee is to have a rich taste. A really good cup of coffee is clear, full-bodied and aromatic, without bitterness or sediment.
Chemex® filters are 20-30% heavier than competitive brands. They remove even the finest sediment particles as well as the undesirable oils and fats. The formulation of the filter permits the proper infusion time by regulating the filtration rate - not too slow, not too fast. Good infusion of the coffee grounds (as in brewing and steeping tea) gives coffee a richer flavor while at the same time making possible precise fractional extraction: filtering out the undesirable components which make coffee bitter by allowing only the desirable flavor elements of the coffee bean to pass through.
The Chemex® filter is folded into a cone shape, exactly as in laboratory techniques. This assures uniform extraction since the water filters through all the grounds on its way to the apex of the cone. The Chemex® filter is guaranteed not to burst under the weight of the liquid during filtration, and not to break when lifting out the grounds.
Fully-bodied, richer flavor, from less coffee, and as strong as you like without bitterness - that's what the Chemex® filter gives you.
This morning, I brewed a half-pot of Tatoosh this morning using the filter, and I have to say that it produces substantially better coffee (I actually cut a pre-folded circular filter in half ... so I can try replicating the experiment tomorrow). I never would have guessed that the filter could have made such a difference ... and this reminded me of Kathy Sierra's EQ metaphor for breakthrough ideas (er, and my riff on that theme, the wahwah metaphor for breakthrough ideas), and I decided to take her up on her invitation to apply the metaphor to new product areas (in this case, coffeemaking) -- and I'll use her metaphor and the template she so kindly provided (I'm not so invested in my "wahwah" variation as to take the time to come up with a template for that).
I'm not sure I'm applying the metaphor the way Kathy intended, but what this represents (for me) is the "breakthrough" concept that the coffee filter itself is a significant "slider" in making great coffee. I've been a coffee snob for a long time, being very particular about the quality and freshness of the coffee beans, and the quality of the water. I pay a little less attention to the coffee grind granularity, and, aside from my preference for French press, rarely focus on the coffeemaker itself. And, until this morning, I never gave much thought to filters (except for my aversion to bleach).
Next time I go to Zoka's, I will try a pot of coffee brewed with the Chemex filters in a Chemex coffeemaker, and see if adjusting the coffeemaker "slider" results in a substantially different coffee experience.