Santos vs. Chemex vs. Aeropress
Apologies for the delay, this week has been a little busy, and each morning I’ve realised that I’d forgotten the tasting notes I’d made.
Well, I sat down and spent the best part of last Saturday afternoon toying with these alternative brewing methods, placing each head to head and noting their merits and faults. Some have already expressed their preferences, though this is my chance to see what’s what. The coffee used was Rwandan Musasa, though I think if I were to do this test again I would use a less-temperamental coffee. The Musasa has a tendency to loose some of its fruity notes as time passes, so I suppose something more familiar and “stable” would have been better suited, in order to control the variables. But never mind…
So kicking off with the Santos. A classic hourglass vacuum affair with the grounds being filtered off as the lower chamber cools. The one I’m using is a real old one with 8-cup capacity, though still perfectly useable. I think I’d prefer to have a Cona, though they are much more expensive than the Bodum, I prefer the idea of the glass filter rod as opposed to the Bodum’s plastic spring-widget, which could over time get a little funky. Getting the grind coarse enough to allow the filtering stage to work was a little tricky (it had been a while since I’d used this beast) but I got there in the end. Using the SCAA’s recommended amount of something like 7.25g per 5oz cup I filled her up (with already heated water) to the 6-cup mark and set it off. At this stage, a few things become apparent. Firstly, the physics behind the brew means the water is pretty close to boiling point (I should have got the temperature probe out. Sorry) so its possible for the grounds to be burned somewhat by this. Secondly, by design, a quantity of water remains in the lower vessel, unable to make it into the upper chamber, thus diluting the brew on it’s filtered return. Finally, when the process is complete, there is the matter of separating the two chambers – a problem I’m sure isn’t such an issue with modern versions, though my “antique” likes to unite into a single object and takes some considerable force to part them. Also, cleaning out the grounds is a bit of a pain and leaves your sink in quite a state.
Moving on to the preparation of the Chemex, a less complex and involved operation. Simply placing one of the filters in the top of the device (I used both Chemex bleached and natural, round and square papers, as well as trying standard unbleached papers), spooning in the desired amount of ground coffee – this time somewhat finer grind – and pouring over the water. I was using a 6 cup model, filled to capacity so I had the same volume of coffee as the Santos brew, again using the SCAA’s recommended 7.25g per 5oz cup. Interestingly, Chemex suggest using a rounded tablespoon per 5oz cup, which we tried at work and found to be waaaaaay too much, the resulting liquor was far too strong and over powering, quite difficult to drink in fact (possibly something lost in American to British translation here?). Anyway, I began the brewing process by adding some boiled-then-slightly-cooled water (again, the probe should have come out here for dead accurate stats) thus allowing the coffee to “bloom”. I think the idea here is to ensure all the grounds are wet, avoiding dry patches, as any self respecting coffee geek should be familiar with the “lazy water” principal, whereby additional water added will follow the path of least resistance, i.e. the wet one! Once complete, further water should be gradually poured over the grounds until the desired volume of coffee is achieved. There is a small nipple blown into the glass of the Chemex around the level of what must be 6 cups. It is this that I use as a maximum fill marker, though I believe it may actually indicate a volumetric halfway point, between base and bottom of the handle. If anyone knows otherwise, or indeed what else it could be there for please enlighten me. You will be awarded a gold star and given a pat on the back!
The final brew in this line up is of course the Aeropress. It is the most modern method of brewing on test here, being invented in the last couple of years (vacuum brewing dating back to the 1840′s, whilst the Chemex itself was designed in 1941) and being an amalgam of different brew methods: the action of a cafetiere; extraction under pressure, similar to espresso; the utilisation of filter papers. I’m sure most people reading this far into the post will be au fait with the Aeropress, but for the record, here’s how the cup was brewed. 2 level Aeropress scoops of coffee (must be around 10g a piece), ground closer to espresso more than anything, on to which boiled-then-slightly-cooled water (again) is poured, using the measurements on the side of the inner syringe (relating to number of coffee scoops used. 2 in this case). This is then quickly stirred using the special T-shaped stirrer, allowing it to (using a Chemex word) “bloom” as above. The inner syringe is then forced down under pressure and the coffee is extracted into the cup. In this case, the cup is a 12oz and using the 2 Aeropress shots it is diluted to fill the cup, creating a classic Americano-style concentration of brew. To finish, the spent puck and filter paper can be fired into the bin, which is always satisfying!
With the details of individual extraction out of the way, I can now talk about the coffee itself!
Coffee from the Santos exhibited the fruitiness I had hoped for, together with a nice round sweetness that made a pleasant cup. There were however, slight bitter notes coming through as the coffee cooled, this I suspect is down to the high temperature extraction the coffee is subject to when making it’s pressure powered journey. Furthermore, the flavour was hardly bold. In fact there was a bland wateriness when compared to the others here, possibly due to the unbrewed water, which remains in the lower receptacle. On the upside however, this method of brewing is very entertaining to watch and means your coffee sits in it’s own warm jug ready for serving. This jug also kept the coffee warmer for longer than the other two methods.
A cup from the Chemex did possess a greater depth of flavour than that of the Santos, with a hint of an earthy woodiness not evident in the Santos, though typical of filter brewing, there was an obvious cardboard/paperiness in there. This taint was evident in all types of filters I had to use with the Chemex. I have since been informed that the filter papers should be soaked prior to use in order to remove some of the taste to which they impart. In all honesty, it does taste like a good cup of filtered coffee, though I do have fears that there maybe some over extraction occurring – pouring hot water over the grounds a number of times to reach the desired quantity. When cooling, the coffee began to evolve with a nice acidic, citrus zing to it. Good to see the fruit was still there. I can’t help thinking that the Chemex is just a coffee carafe. Whether it performs better than a Melitta filter holder on top of a cup is perhaps a test for another day, although it certainly won’t look as nice – maybe that’s the point?
One word describes the results from the Aeropress: Intense! There were the flavours present in the other brews, though so much more up front and in you’re face (or on your palate?). There was the earthiness and the fruit, together with a definite woodiness, though there were now also nuts and an interesting muskiness, which I found rather nice, adding to the character of the cup. There may have also been some spice in there too – fennel perhaps, together with delightful honey-smoked aroma, though this may have been instigated by the contents of my oven at the time – a very rich and heavy stew! Interestingly, when cold, the Aeropress brew tasted far more watery than the other two – something must be happening in the chemistry there.
Following all this tasting, I was feeling somewhat coffeed out and caffeined up! To ensure consistency, I repeated the experiment the following day, though this time with the assistance of my neighbour. He was in agreement with me – that the Aeropress was streets ahead when compared to the other methods, and not purely for taste either. The Aeropress’ convenience, the speed at which you can have a shockingly good cup of coffee, the cleanliness of the whole operation and lack of opportunity for human error to mess things up during the brew process. The only drawback evident was that it was trickier to cater for more than 3 or 4 people in one “pressing”, whereas the other methods could cater for an entire family or dinner party in a single brew.