French Press vs. Chemex
With the multitude of fancy brewing systems available on today’s market, you may ask yourself, “Which one is best?” I have good news for you. In fact, I have great news for you:
The least expensive brewers are often the most effective.
The recent trend in coffee has been the one-cup or “k-cup” brewer. They’re popping up in waiting rooms, offices, and of course, the home. They offer convenience, this is true. But they offer it at a steep price, which often soars above $100. There is much more to be said about one-cup brewers, but that is for another day. Today we are discussing my two favorite brewers, both of which cost a fraction of the price and happen to make better coffee to boot.
The French Press and the Chemex (a type of manual “pour-over” brewer) can be purchased for $40 or less. Sometimes much less. They both offer precision brewing, giving you control over the finished product, and they are both time-tested methods.
The French Press
The French Press is my personal favorite (followed closely by the Chemex). It produces a flavorful, rich cup of coffee with great mouth feel and body. What you should know ahead of time about the French Press is that the coffee it produces is less filtered than what you may be used to. It employs the use of a metal mesh filter, which lets through some particulate matter. This is why the coffee has so much body. However, it also means most times you will find some sediment or “sludge” at the bottom of the mug. This is completely normal, but does turn some people off. The better your grinder, the less coffee “dust” it will produce (superfine grounds inconsistent with the rest of your grind), which in turn reduces the sediment in your finished cup.
Comparatively, the Chemex produces a much cleaner cup of coffee because it is filtered through Chemex-branded paper filters, which are 20-30% heavier than other types of filters. These filters are also supposed to reduce the likelihood of brewing a bitter cup of coffee. With the Chemex, you’ll never find sediment at the bottom of your mug; however, along with the tiny particles of coffee, you’re filtering out much more.
Paper filters also filter coffee oils. This may sound like a good thing, but it is not. Besides the insistence that coffee oils (specifically cafestol) can increase bad cholesterol, the effects are minimal in most people, assuming you drink coffee in moderation and don’t already have high cholesterol. In addition, the consensus these days is that coffee is actually good for you, boasting health benefits such as lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, delivering nutrients and antioxidants, and helping you burn fat. Furthermore, the oils are in large part also delivering flavor!
Is my coffee ready?
The last considerations are time and effort. How long does it take to brew with these methods? The French Press is generally the faster and easier of the two. It doesn’t matter if you’re brewing one cup or twelve. The steep time is always 3-4 minutes. When the time is up you drop the plunger.
A properly brewed pot of Chemex should also only take 3-4 minutes, but the truth is the more coffee you use, the more water you need, the longer it takes. You are supposed to adjust the grind consistency to speed up the rate in which water passes through the coffee, but in my experience, there is a bottleneck on efficiency. If you have one of the larger Chemex pots (40 ounces or larger), it will be hard to keep the brew time down to 4 minutes.
Brewing a pot of French Pressed coffee requires you to measure or weigh your beans, grind them, bloom them, steep them, and press them. Brewing a pot of Chemex coffee adds a couple steps to this: pre-washing the filter and pouring the water over the ground in a specific, deliberate manner. The time differences are minimal (measured only in minutes), but the French Press is the winner here.
In contrast, the cleanup time for the Chemex is quicker. The French Press will have a beaker filled with used grounds that you have to scoop out. The Chemex collects all the grounds in the filter, which you can simply pluck out and toss.
Where does this leave us? With two brewers that produce amazing coffee with distinct differences. They are both beautiful to look at as well, and the Chemex is literally a piece of art. The coffee maker, created by inventor and chemist Peter Schlumbohm in 1941, is currently displayed in The Museum of Modern Art. The other bit of good news here is you don’t have to choose just one. These brewers are cheap enough that purchasing both is affordable. When I am in the mood for a richer coffee with more body, I go for the French Press. When I want a “cleaner,” refined coffee, I use my Chemex.
In either case I am rewarded with my perfect cup.