Brewing coffee is chemistry. The Chemex coffee brewer exemplifies that statement. Its very invention was inspired by chemists. They measure solids, use strange-shaped glassware and use filters in experiments.
I’ve met chemists and food scientists, while brewing coffee, who love the applied science to the Chemex. One chemist from Philadelphia shared that she and her coworkers hold competitions of who can extract coffee the best using a Chemex brewer and filter.
The distinct hourglass-shaped glassware with a memorable wood collar and leather tie, as described by Chemex brand itself, distinguishes itself in the coffee brewer world. The inventor, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, as a chemist designed it with an understanding of the “chemistry behind extraction of flavor.” Yet, he desired to make “the vessel a thing of beauty.”
The two worlds of science and art function combine to brew a “remarkably clean cup of coffee” as claimed by Perfect Daily Grind.
Double bonded paper filters on top of the glassware were a key invention that set the Chemex process apart in 1940s.
The brewer’s sale and use has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but the invention had a strong start.
Birth of the Chemex
Once the Chemex coffee brewer was on the market it gained quick success.
The brewer was invented in 1941 and inspired by “laboratory apparatus” as Perfect Daily Grind reports. In 1943 it was on display at the Modern Museum of Art as a best new design and eventually submitted to the permanent collection.
Schlumbohm was a vivacious inventor and ambitiously sent his product to celebrities, as he enjoyed the “high life” himself. Basically an instant success story, the craze of the Chemex died down when he died, as the coffee news agency Sprudge.com reports he did in 1962.
Although the sales and popularity slowed, Schlumbohm surprisingly passed the business on to a “favorite female assistant.” She quickly sold it to businessmen in Massachusetts, and the company was sold again to the current-owning Grassy family in the 1980s.
An article by Collectors Weekly reports, “the Chemex had mostly faded into obscurity during the consumer-appliance boom of the 1950s and ’60s, as people with means preferred an electric device.”
Popular at its height in the 1950s, it waned into the ‘70s, 80’s and 90’s.
I met one older gentleman recently at a Whole Foods in the specialty coffee section who remembered, “I used to use a Chemex! I threw mine out 20 years ago.”
Over the last five decades or so “the Chemex customer base has remained a small cult-following of dedicated coffee hounds” (Collectors Weekly reports Chemex Vice-President Eliza Grassy saying).
In the wake of light-roast craft coffee roasters, the Chemex is making a comeback. A recent Chemex revival has bubbled in the wake of the third wave coffee movement.
Demand for the coffee brewers began recently, Eliza Grassy told Collectors Weekly. Adams Grassy specified to Sprudge.com that sales picked up around 2005.
The Chemex coffeemaker has proven a timeless piece of coffee brew ware, with its technical chemistry design and aesthetic appeal, even throughout the wax and wane of the decades.
By Colin Ingram