I: Design-award winning: Chemex
Remember that scene in Breaking Bad when the doomed chemist Gale Boetticher demonstrates his coffee machine, calibrated to deliver the perfect cup? This sorta already happened circa 1941, when Chemist Peter Schlumbohm (a German transplant, trying to escape Hitler’s rise to power) invented the Chemex, borne from a single piece of blown glass, needing only a circle of filter paper and a of measure good, ground coffee.
Gale shows Walt his coffee contraption. Do we detect a hint of joy on Walt’s face? Probably not.
The design of the Chemex has scarcely changed since it debuted back then, and its perfectly simple yet elegant design has continued to look good in almost any atmosphere at any time, whether industrial loft, campsite, or warm Scandinavian kitchen. As perhaps expected, the Chemex experienced a dip in sales when the automated coffee maker hit the scene. However, like the way of the creamed corn casserole, trends adjusted themselves so that by the year 2016, when you could probably start your coffee maker from your phone via airplane wi-fi, people are once again embracing the homespun charm of a device that is uncomplicated and unplugged, in a world that is nearly impossible to unplug from.
But this post is not necessarily about unplugging, as coffee may leave one anything but relaxed. No, the purpose of a good, strong cup of coffee, is to plug-in, as it were, to connect, to collaborate; to spark ideas whether alone with a notepad and elevated heartbeat, or with colleagues in a brightly lit boardroom. For thousands upon thousands of years, coffee has been used to rev up synapses desperately in need of a rest during studies, prayer, or work; or to jolt those of us reluctant to leave our beds into embracing the daylight and the day ahead of us. There are those who make the habit daily, and those of us with coffee Saturdays and Sundays: a once a week treat. Coffee, dare we say it, is truly the world’s Jiminy Cricket. A companion never out of sight for too long, to guide us through moments of highs and lows. Here are our favorite ways to enjoy a nice, rich cup of coffee, the travels that inspired them, and some design foam to top it all off.
The inventor of the Chemex was a chemist, so it’s no surprise that it bears resemblance to that workhorse of the chem lab, the Erlenmeyer Flask. The Erlenmeyer flask’s long neck makes it lovely for mixing without spilling (good when mixing toxic chemicals, we would think), and is also mighty fine for boiling liquids, due to the fact that the vapors condense in the upper portion of the beaker. This flask was invented in Germany (but of course). The Museum of Modern Art in NYC holds a Chemex in its archives, and attributes its design to Bauhaus, among other things.
WHY IT WORKS
Chemex Coffee is made via infusion, similar to the drip coffee method (the kind happening in a Mr. Coffee brewer). Sort of a coffee tea. The coned walls help the water drip through the filter in the most efficient manner. The filters on a Chemex are a bit thicker than drip coffee filters, meaning the coffee flavor takes longer to pass through it, however the longer brew time ensures that “only the most desirable parts” of the coffee bean pass through the filter (according to Chemex’s website), leaving behind fats, sediment and oils. During the “first pour” (Chemex-devotees are vehement about this step) one should only lightly “wet” the beans, as if watering the soil of a cactus. Allowing the beans to become “activated” before drowning them in hot water permits them to “bloom” and sequestered C02 to float away. This makes the beans heavier and stick to the filter so that every last bit of flavor is extracted from them during filtration. This, plus the slower and more thorough brew time, combine to make a richer, more full-bodied cup. For a great detailed guide on how to brew Chemex coffee, read here.
WHY WE LOVE IT
Being design nerds, it’s hard to pass up the Chemex with its daring simplicity and perfectly classic glass body. It is definitely the MacBook of Coffee Makers. A cleaner cup of Joe with the body of a nice Syrah, plus zero bitterness or risk of over-brewing. The process of grinding, weighing, plus first and second pours (and third and fourth…) make us feel as though we’re meditating chemists. The perfect gentle start to our morning.
Clean, high acidity, lighter-body and low bitterness. Good for roasts that have more delicate, floral elements. Brings out the fruitiness and brightness of the coffee.
Use a medium or regular grind with the Chemex. Drip or fine grinds will slow down the filtration, making that pour over take even longer (we love pour overs too but they are far from fast). Keep the Chemex away from Cats and curious Dogs. You will need a kettle or pot on the stove to heat water for the Chemex, and because the glass is not a great insulator, possibly an insulated carafe to pour it into so it doesn’t get cold. The water should be heated to between 180 and 200 F (just below boiling) for the ideal cup of coffee that doesn’t scorch any of the flavors. Getting the ratio of beans to water right is a bit of a process, but keep at it and eventually you’ll find the perfect formula for you. If you’re sick of folding up all those paper filters, there is a metal cone filter that fits the Chemex perfectly.
II: Vietnamese Coffee Press: Phin
Photo taken in Hanoi, Vietnam
PHIN PRESS NOTES
A journey from West to East, Coffee was introduced to Vietnam circa 1857 by the occupying French Colonial Government. Although the French were booted out (along with Japanese occupancy) and Vietnam declared its independence in 1945, certain French culinary influences remained, such as coffee, and the baguettes used in Banh Mi. In fact, despite being surrounded by a large measure of tea-dominant countries, Vietnam has climbed the ranks of top global coffee exporters, particularly Robusta, though it also produces a sizable quantity of Arabica beans. Vietnamese-style coffee is brewed with a Vietnamese coffee press, called a Phin, which squashes many other coffee making methods in the cost department. The filter itself can be found for under $10 bucks at many Asian markets, and if you’re making the holy grail known as Cafe Sua Da, or Vietnamese Iced Coffee, no particular bag of beans need be sought out, just keep the grind to medium (but Trung Nguyen and Cafe Du Monde blends are popular).
This press is also used in Thailand (Thai Ice Coffee and Vietnamese Ice Coffee are super similar), and a brethren design can be found in South India. Phin filters are intended to brew just one cup at a time, and unlike other methods are not standalone pieces. Each cup must be intentionally requested made to order. These small, stainless steel filters rest atop the cup you are planning to drink out of and drip directly into said vessel, for about a four minute period.
WHY IT WORKS
The Phin is somewhere between a french press and a drip coffee maker, and uses percolation, not pressure as a mode of converting water and beans into coffee. More on pressure-cooked coffee below. The filter has four parts: a chamber, a press, a cup spanner, and a cap. To brew, place your measure of coffee in the chamber, then follow with the spanner, and filter. Pour a bit of hot water into the chamber, allowing it to absorb (the level will sink slightly) for about 20 seconds. Follow with the remaining water and then top with the lid. The water drains through the grounds, picking up volatile compounds and coffee flavors and infusing them into your coffee. Trung Nguyen’s online guide is the best we’ve found for brewing Vietnamese Coffee.
WHY WE LOVE IT
Vietnamese coffee is strong, dark, rich and bitter. Its bold, smoky, chocolatey flavors pair perfectly with a little something sweet to temper it, hence Vietnam’s love for sweetened condensed milk in both hot and iced coffee. We like it when we want our coffee to be a bit more special, a sweet treat to celebrate the weekend or a reward for getting through a less-than-easy morning. The Phin filter is so light, portable and easy; we love loading up two filters on our coffee cups for the perfectly measured cup, or taking it on a camping trip.
Robust and sweet. Buttery and smooth. The layer of sweet condensed milk in the bottom of the mug produces a thick layer of creamy gooey goodness. I didn’t try the version that includes an egg—that didn’t appeal to me on a 100+ degree day in Vietnam.
Iced Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa đá—literally “coffee milk ice”): same smooth taste as the hot version, but more refreshing during a swimmingly humid day. -Laura
Consider adding a bit of sweetened condensed milk, sugar, or heck even a scoop of gelato! It’s common to add condensed milk or sugar to your coffee cup before placing the filter on. 2-3 teaspoons is about right per individual filter. Avoid “sealing” the filter lid, it may not allow the water to filter through properly. Instead close it loosely. Like the Chemex, allow the grounds to bloom with a quick shot of water before fully submerging the grounds. The ideal brewing temperature is between 185 and 195 degrees Fahrenheit. After four minutes or so, if water remains in the chamber, turn place the chamber on top of the cap to continue its draining and you will have a small sidecar of coffee.
Coffee Plantation in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The typical way to serve the coffee is with condensed milk. This adds a glorious sweetness and mouthfeel to the coffee. The coffee is strong and bitter with an acidic flavor which are relaxed with the addition of the sweet condensed milk. I really enjoyed the experience of sipping Vietnamese coffee while balancing on a tiny plastic stool, at a tiny table on a perfectly crowded Vietnamese street. Sitting back and relaxing, taking in all the activity while enjoying an iced coffee is worth the wait of the slow drip method. -Laura
During one of the gloomiest months of the year, moss founders (Laura & Matt) shed their thermal layers and embark on a cultural inspiration trip. In February, they traveled to Thailand and Vietnam to do some serious eating, coffee consumption, cycling, and overall reconnection with nature. One of the bike tours took them up a never- ending climb to the highest point in Thailand. The climb to Doi Inthanon National Park is home to the highest mountain and road in Thailand. It’s a crazy beautiful climb and the roads are tough! Their bikes also took them to an organic coffee plantation where they got to see the process behind a cup.
Laura outside a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam
Coffee plantation in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Matt crushing the steep climb up to Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai
Coffee Plantation Chiang Mai, Thailand
III: Italian Stovetop espresso: Moka Pot
The shiny and hopelessly adorable Moka Pot is an Italian-borne invention. It came of age around the time of the Chemex (1933) by a scienceman as well. Luigi Di Ponti observed analogue washing machines, shiny metal devices with a boiler and a metal pipe, and was determined to translate the design to help Italians bring espresso to their homes that was as good as the stuff brewed in coffee shops. Alfonso Bialetti, a metal-worker, brought Di Ponti’s invention to the masses, but it was his son Renato who put the device into nearly 90% of all Italian homes with his marketing campaign. This stroke of brilliance depicted a caricature of his father, calling to mind the local “mom and pop” figures who populated coffee bars, or simply a dear relative or friend.
Via the Independent article linked above, we found an interesting fact. Italy had experienced a stainless steel embargo around the Moka’s genesis, part of a facist-driven strategy to elevate aluminum as the “metal of Italy.” Italy also was experiencing an economic dip (that’s facism for you), so Alfonso doubtlessly was able to appeal to the Italian public with a device that promised to deliver the cafe experience at home for a fraction of the price. Like all things design, it’s nearly impossible to divorce form and function from the society it lives in, and the Moka Pot’s relocation of coffee from bar to home symbolized a further crumbling of the patriarchal structure that dictated men could have second homes in coffee shops and women were to stay indoors tending to theirs. Now both sexes could freely enjoy caffeine, something closely associated with the birth and fruition of ideas. This became a symbol of female independence, as did the idea that a man would find a place in the kitchen, even if it was just brewing coffee. The Moka comes in a variety of sizes and colors and has the most charming Art Deco vibe to it that brightens up any space as a centerpiece. Themes of cubism, dynamic proportions and futurism all find themselves expressed in the little pot.
WHY IT WORKS
The Moka Pot works a little differently than the methods mentioned above. It uses steam to force the coffee grounds into contact with the water, and the change in pressure forces the water from the bottom chamber (where it is loaded) through the coffee grounds (in the middle) and into the top section, where it is then poured out with a spout.
WHY WE LOVE IT
Back to the design elements, we just love how the Moka looks, down to the little cursive writing that says Bialetti on one of its hexagonal plates. Unlike something like the Chemex, which while elegant and clean, requires several moving parts, the Moka is fairly self-contained. Load grounds into the filter, pour cool water into the chamber and heat it up on the stove top. It’s even simpler than tea! (unless you overboil it).
Depending on the bean roast type, the moka pot creates a smooth, well-balanced and medium-bodied coffee with a pleasant aftertaste. Stronger roasts can produce a bold, slightly bitter flavor, similar to an expresso aftertaste.
Many people insist that the Moka Pot is homemade espresso. It is Italian and produces a tiny cup of coffee for god’s sakes! But in fact, the Moka is NOT a “true” espresso, at least according to some very official coffee arbitration sources. We are here to cut a truce: in fact the Moka is both: espresso and not espresso. A Schroedinger’s coffee cat if you will. A long, long time ago (ok not that long ago, since Italy is a relatively young country) before technology, espresso was made using pressure from steam. But then Technology was invented. And espresso was made in large and quite pricey machines that were able to exert over six times the amount of pressure of a Moka Pot and created a more syrupy espresso with a thin layer of “crema” across the top.
Be careful not to press down (tamp) the coffee grinds into the filter when filling. This creates too much pressure and can lead to over-extraction creating bitter or burnt tasting coffee. It’s critical to keep an eye on the moka pot during the final step. The flame should be turned off when the upper chamber is half full of coffee to avoid burning the coffee. If you hear a hissing sound, this is an indicator of boiling water—which is something you want to avoid. Boiling accelerates the extraction and releases unpleasant, bitter flavors.
BEAN BUYING HABITS
Our dedicated coffee drawer is well stocked with Intelligentsia and La Colombe coffee beans and guest appearances include beans collected during our travels. During our most recent trip to Tofino, B.C. we visited Tofino Coffee Roasting and stocked up on their Dark & Stormy and Pacifica coffee beans.
All Photos by moss (with the exception of the Breaking Bad one)