How to Use a Chemex: Tips for a Timeless Design Icon

Let's face it: we “third wavers” like to pretend we invented the whole pour-over thing. 

Let’s face it: we “third wavers” like to pretend we invented the whole pour-over thing. 

No wonder people accuse today’s coffee-culture torchbearers of being a bunch of snobs who appropriate long-established inventions, then dress them up in hipster clothing.

And, reluctantly, I have to agree. After all, the success of brewing methods like the Hario and the Chemex coffee pot is based on age-old devices that our parents and grandparents used for years — without any hipster attitude, mind you.

It all started way back in 1941, when Peter Schlumbohm invented the Chemex Coffeemaker, with its simple design and purist look inspired by the Bauhaus school and laboratory equipment. 

Obviously, it made quite an impression over the years because when you fast forward to 1958, designers at the Illinois Institute of Technology declared it one of the best-designed products of the modern era. It’s even part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

So why did it take so long for this elegant, pour-over coffee method to catch on again? 

I’ll give you a clue: it never went away. It’s just that the Chemex is much more visible today, thanks to Instagram and other forms of digital marketing. 

You can easily pick up an 8-cup Chemex on Amazon for around $47. Plus, along with other time-tested brewing methods, the Chemex fits perfectly into the decor of the third wave coffee scene.

OK, so it looks good, but how does coffee from a Chemex taste? What’s with the complicated filters? And are there any secrets for how to use a Chemex? 

You’ll find the answers to all these questions in this article, as well as my Chemex brew guide. Plus, I’ll weigh in on the Chemex vs Hario V60 debate.

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How Does a Chemex Coffeemaker Work?

If you take a closer look at a classic Chemex Coffeemaker on Amazon or on the manufacturer’s website, you’ll immediately notice that Chemex takes the word “simple” to the extreme here. For handling, the hourglass-shaped glass flask has nothing more to offer than a heatproof wooden collar, loosely tied with a leather cord.

So how are you supposed to make coffee with this thing anyway? 

First things first: you’ll have to get your hands on a box of Chemex Bonded Filters, which isn’t cheap, unfortunately.

The proprietary Chemex filters consist of a heavy pulp and supposedly perform better than traditional filters simply because of the paper quality. Plus, the filters have been pre-cleaned with oxygen, so you don’t have to worry about chemicals and other crap.

You can get these filters as pre-folded circles or squares or as unfolded circles. Here’s the thing, though: Chemex is the sole producer of these patented filters, so there aren’t any (more affordable) generic alternatives.

Circles? Squares? It sounds like origami, right? And in case you’re wondering, yes, the folding technique plays a crucial role in making coffee with the Chemex. But more on that later.

Now back to the flask: it consists of refractory borosilicate glass, which I’ve highlighted before in products ranging from a French press to a milk frother.

Arne posing with two Chemex Coffeemakers.

While the tapered neck with its wooden collar helps to keep the Chemex filter from slipping into the bottom of the flask, the heatproof collar makes it easy to grab the pot, pour the coffee and carry the thing anywhere.

The cleverness of this simple idea is especially apparent when you use the large 8-cup Chemex: no sloshing, no fear of hot fingers, no need for another pot. It’s simply ingenious. Still, you’ll also get excellent results when using the smaller 6-cup Chemex.

If the look of the wooden collar just isn’t your thing, though, you can opt for the 8-cup Glass Handle Chemex instead. It works in exactly the same way, and you might even have an easier time pouring coffee from it.

As you’d expect, such an excellent idea has spawned plenty of imitations, with manufacturers such as Bodum and Hario bringing Chemex-style versions to the market.

Take the Hario Woodneck with a fabric filter, for example. It works in almost the same way as the classic Chemex.

The Bodum Pour-Over Coffee Maker is another Chemex copycat, but this time, there’s a fine mesh stainless steel filter involved. I have to admit that the idea of not having to buy paper filters ever again is quite appealing. It’s available on Amazon for less than $20.

How to Fold the Chemex Filters

OK, I fibbed a little.

Actually, you don’t have to worry about performing origami with a Chemex filter — they’re already pre-folded.

I find the square version works best, though, because it protects against accidental dosing. It also fits better with the rustic look — which is, of course, purely a matter of taste.

Whichever version you use, you’ll create a cone-shaped filter with three paper layers on one side. When you have the Chemex coffee pot in front of you, turn it until the spout faces you, and then insert the cone with the three-ply side on the side of the spout. 

The grooved spout also acts as an air vent during the brewing process. So inserting the filter like this helps prevent the vent from clogging and allows the coffee to filter properly.

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Which Coffee Beans Should I Use With a Chemex?

As we already know, the interaction between the coffee type, grind, water temperature and dose is as crucial to the results of manual brewing as it is with a drip coffee maker. For the 8-cup Chemex, I recommend the following:

  • Water temperature: about 200 degrees Fahrenheit — let the water sit in the kettle for about a minute after it’s boiled
  • Water volume: around 100 milliliters (3.3 fluid ounces) per cup — the flask will be full, and the coffee well-balanced
  • Coffee dosing: around 48 grams — use more or less, depending on your taste
  • Grind: medium — Chemex grind size should be five or six out of 10

The high-quality paper filter provides a fairly robust extraction, resulting in a full-bodied and complex cup of coffee. But you’ll get especially good results from a delicate, floral coffee with a medium roast profile.

When choosing beans, you shouldn’t go straight for the boldest coffee you can find — you might find that it overwhelms your palate when brewed in a Chemex. Still, I’m all about experimentation, so go ahead and have fun as you’re learning how to use a Chemex! 

How to Use a Chemex: A Step-by-Step Brewing Guide

The preparation method for a Chemex is similar to that of a Hario or Melitta pour-over filter. Here’s how to use a Chemex:

  1. Place the filter in the Chemex, then dampen it completely with hot water. This will simultaneously rinse and preheat the pot and secures the filter comfortably in the perfect position. You can easily discard the remaining water through the pour spout.
  2. Pour your precisely measured and freshly ground coffee into the filter. Then give the Chemex a gentle shake to evenly distribute the grounds.
  3. Begin the brewing process. 
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Next, here’s the infusion in four steps:

  1. Begin by gently pouring about twice as much water as ground coffee — for example, 100 milliliters (3.3 fluid ounces) for 48 grams. Start in the center and slowly spiral outward, avoiding pouring down the sides of the filter. The coffee will expand or “bloom.” This ensures even saturation of the ground coffee, so allow it to continue for about 45 seconds.
  2. For the second infusion, you’ll use about 200 milliliters (6.7 fluid ounces) of water and should once again pour in a spiral pattern. Be sure to take your time and try not to let the water touch the filter. You’ll want to wait until the coffee grounds move down a bit on their own and the puddle of water is absorbed.
  3. Repeat the process for the second infusion twice more.
  4. Once the water has completely dripped through, then remove the filter.

The brewing process should have taken around four minutes. If the Chemex coffee brew was too fast, try pouring a little slower or using a finer grind. On the other hand, if the process took up half your morning, try using a coarser grind or pouring a little faster next time.

For precision work like this, I recommend the Hario Buono Gooseneck Kettle. It features a gooseneck design, so you have absolute control when using this kettle. That said, I’ve heard from you guys about many good alternatives.

The most important thing is that you’re able to pour slowly and accurately!

Once the coffee is ready, you might be wondering how to keep it from cooling down too quickly. Never fear, though: Chemex has thought of everything. For around $13, you can get an elegantly designed glass cover that fits all sizes of Chemex flasks.

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How to Clean a Chemex

Obviously, you don’t have to worry about cleaning the filters — use them, then compost them

The flask, on the other hand, seems a bit more difficult to clean because of its shape. That said, you can remove the wooden collar and put the Chemex in an appropriately sized dishwasher. Otherwise, use a suitable bottle brush — it couldn’t be easier.

Don’t worry: the glass is quite robust and seems more stable than, say, the Hario Woodneck. Still, I’d advise against practicing your juggling skills with a Chemex, and if you put it in the dishwasher, keep other dishes as far away as possible.

Chemex vs V60: Which Makes Better Coffee?

Now let’s get to the burning question: is the Chemex better than the Hario V60 pour-over filter, or is it the other way around? Let’s take a closer look:

  1. Price: around $20 for the porcelain Hario V60 vs $47 for the 8-cup Chemex — Hario wins
  2. Design: Hario V60’s ordinary filter look vs Chemex’s MoMA-worthy design — Chemex wins
  3. Ease of use: Hario V60’s handy filter vs Chemex’s carafe — Hario wins
  4. Serving coffee: Hario V60’s separate carafe vs Chemex’s all-in-one device — Chemex wins
  5. Accessories: Hario V60’s more third-party filter options vs Chemex’s proprietary filter — Hario wins
  6. Coffee: Hario V60’s ultra-delicious beverage vs Chemex’s ultra-delicious beverage — they both win

Conclusion on the Chemex: There’s Nothing Quite Like It

Arne pours coffee from a Chemex into a mug.

So the conclusion for the Chemex can only be that it’s a beautifully designed object, makes superb coffee and has many imitators for a reason. But learning how to use a Chemex takes a while, and it can be costly.

Still, if we go back to all the hype, I can’t think of many other pieces of equipment that fit into the third-wave worldview as well as the Chemex Coffeemaker. 

What’s your take on it? Are you thinking about buying a Chemex? Do you have any questions or experiences to share? Then feel free to leave me a comment. Thanks for reading!

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