Chemex vs French Press: To Pour or to Plunge?

chemex compared to french press
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The choices for manual brewing methods have become more significant in recent years. As a routine caffeine team player you likely have a bias towards a certain brew method.

Most people use an automatic drip brew system to make their coffee. However, other methods of brewing exist and they all have a way of transforming the beans into a unique cup.

Two of the more popular methods of brewing are French Press and doing a Pour Over with a Chemex. Both of these options create great coffee, but the coffee they create is also very different in terms of body and aromatic characteristics.

Let’s examine both of these brew methods closer.

Background and Basics of the French Press (Press Pot, Plunger Pot, Cafetiere)

french press

Often called a press pot, the French press was actually invented by an Italian named Paolini Ugo. It was patented by the Italian designers Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta in 1929. It became a fixture throughout Europe, and eventually spread to the United States where Americans followed suit with the title “Cafetiere.”

The French Press is a simple brewing setup that consists of two parts. The first being the beaker-esque container; that’s usually made out of glass, metal, or plastic. The second being the plunger. The plunger is a metal rod attached to a metal or plastic mesh filter.

Background and Basics of the Chemex (Manual Pour Over)

chemex pour over

The Chemex system was invented in 1941. “Chemex” is a trademarked term and doesn’t refer to a generic brew method. However it is often referred to as a manual pour over.

The container itself is hourglass shaped and resembles science equipment like an Erlenmeyer flask and a funnel. This isn’t surprising considering the method was invented by the chemist, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm.

The Chemex pour over is a more involved process than the French Press is. The Chemex uses special paper filters that are thick enough to trap solids while still passing along aromatic compounds. These filters are different from standard paper filters used for automatic drip brew systems that only filter sediments while trapping oils and other compounds.

Differences Between these Brew Methods

These methods are quite different in their overall function. They also produce a different flavor of coffee as a result. Let’s explore their differences.

Ease of Brew and Time to Brew

These two factors are probably the most important thing to look at when considering either of these methods.

I need to provide a disclaimer that ease of brew as described on a number of sources is simply regurgitated. Truth be told, when either of these methods is done the right way, it can take a bit longer than a blanket statement like “X number of minutes.”

As you continue to brew with either method you’ll become faster as you figure out the nuances and faster ways to setup and prepare the brew.

Chemex or Pour Over Brew Process

chemex brewing

I wrote an article going over drip and pour over methods and comparing them. I noted that, contrary to other sources, pour-over is somewhat slower than an automatic drip brew system.

I’ll outline and paraphrase these steps here as well but you can feel free to read my opinions in the other article.

  1. Grind the proper amount of coffee beans with a burr grinder. A medium to coarse grind is best for this method. You also want to use the golden ratio of 1g of coffee to 17g of water. For this example, we’ll use 400g of water and 23.5g of coffee.
  2. Place your filter in the Chemex in the upper funnel. The filters are actually circular but come pre-folded. Have three sheets towards the front and 1 towards the back. Start by pre-soaking the filter with hot water. This prevents temperature issues when hot water is introduced to the coffee grinds. After soaking the filter, pour out the filtered water (takes some practice) with the filter still in the upper funnel.
  3. Add your coffee grounds to the filter and place your Chemex on your scale. Measure out roughly 400g of water (remember the golden ratio of 1:17). Once boiling, allow the water to stand for 30 seconds.
  4. After the water is ready, the first pass of water is to wet all of the grounds. Allow this first pass to sit for 30-45 seconds. You should notice your grounds will begin to froth, this is the blooming process that allows the water to extract compounds from the bean and replace the CO2.
  5. With the rest of your water, pour rather slowly. Start in the center of the filter and do co-centric circles without pouring down the sides of the filter. Doing so will cause water to rush through the grounds and result in a bitter taste. This process alone should take 3-4 minutes. If the water is running faster than this then you need to use a finer grind. If it’s too slow, use a coarser grind.
  6. Once you’ve poured your water over all the grounds, do a gentle stir in the coffee grounds. Draw an “X” to agitate the grounds and “Os” to remove the grounds from the side of the filter. This helps get all the of coffee involved.
  7. Once done, remove the filter paper and coffee grounds. Don’t allow the filtered coffee grounds to stand for too long as the last few drops likely won’t taste very good.

So hopefully after explaining this process you get my point about regurgitated information. In the mornings I often can’t get out of my own way so i’m not sure how people can get the above process done in 4-5 minutes.

Overall, a Chemex or Pour over should take anywhere from 6-10 minutes. This includes prep time for pre-soaking, boiling water, grinding beans, etc.

French Press Brew

french press brew

Let’s look at how to properly brew with a French press:

  1. Start by warming the carafe and the mesh filter by filling the carafe with hot water and allowing it to sit for a minute or two. Similar to the Chemex, the goal with this is to avoid heat absorption by the device.
  2. Prepare the beans by using a coarse grind. For the french press, I’d recommend troubleshooting for your preferences by starting lower than the Golden Ratio noted above. Due to how filtration works the grind level affects the plunge. Start with a 1:12 ratio, or 1g of coffee to 12g of water. For this example I’ll say 30g of coffee to 360g of water.
  3. Boil your water. Allow to stand for 30 seconds.
  4. Pour out the water from the heated carafe and add your coffee grounds from step 2.
  5. Put your carafe on your scale. Bloom the coffee similarly to how the pour over worked. Use roughly 60g of water for the 30g of coffee. Allow this to froth for 30 seconds.
  6. Add the remaining water and cover the carafe with the lid. This prevents heat loss. Don’t plunge yet. Allow the coffee to steep for 4 minutes.
  7. Once done, remove the carafe from the scale and press the plunger down. Don’t force the plunger as this can shatter the glass due to pressure build up. If it’s hard to press then the grind is too fine. If it falls to the bottom, it’s too coarse. Note this for the next time you brew your coffee.

Similar to the Chemex pour over, this method has some nuances that take extra time to make the coffee that much better. Some steps are optional but when you do them and see the difference they suddenly become less trivial.Overall, a French press takes around 6-10 minutes.

Conclusion

Both of these methods are great ways of brewing coffee. The French press typically results in a richer brew as the oils aren’t filtered out and absorbed with paper like the Chemex. However the Chemex is able to filter out more of the sediments while still providing most of the aromatic compounds.

Truly it comes down to personal preference and what your palette prefers. Which option do you prefer? Let me know in the Comments!

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