In July 2011, two colleagues and I embarked on a pilgrimage to the Chemex factory, in small-town Pittsfield, Massachusetts. What we discovered there was truly a spiritual experience – a hidden treasure, in a field, not yet discovered by the neo-hipster-geek alliance and throngs of pressure-alleviated brewers from around the globe.
The small and hospitable family-owned team took us in, poured fresh coffee, and guided us on a tour of the archives room; of such high standards that the Waipukarau Historic Museum would have ogled with envy.
Let me go back a few years to 2007, when plungers were for plumbers, espresso was at its viscous peak here in Aotearoa, and Derek Townsend was considering retiring from fanning the dwindling embers of flat-white pioneer-man-ship. Justin McArthur, our head roaster and chief modernist-stylist at Supreme had fallen in love with Chemex, and had converted many of the team, and industry, to the morning delights of simply-brewed filter coffee. It was spreading like facial hair, and before you could say ‘abra-paramameters’, the world had gone crazy for it; every kid with a whisper of mo and quiff between here and Portlandia was supping down it’s black gold – New Zealand being no exception.
But Chemex was no new kid on the pour-over block – they’d been quietly doing their thing since 1941 when Peter Schlumbohm PhD, a jolly Lutheran chemist, decided that there needed to be a coffee-brewing device so simple, that even a housewife could get it right*. The rest is history. And not just regular history I might add, The Chemex has been on permanent display at MOMA NY and other fine museums ever since – it is truly a work of art.
So after our GPS unit took us on the scenic route north from New York to Pittsfield, we arrived in our shiny burnt-umber Dodge a couple of hours late at Chemex ground zero. Finding it was not easy – a modest warehouse with discreet signage – but once found, it was well worth the drive. Veritable time travel. A trove of unimaginable mid-century gold.
We were greeted by Liz and Eliza Grassy, mother and daughter and owners of Chemex since the early 80s. We were told of generations of employment, of their journey so far in the industry, and of how few other industry members had ever come knocking at their door. We were, we learned, the third coffee company to visit – ever. There were visits from a couple of foreign pilgrims some time in the 90’s – from Colombia and Japan if I remember correctly. We couldn’t believe that such an iconic and influential company such as Chemex had gone largely uncelebrated all this time. It is shameful.
After Schlumbohm’s death in 1961, his current “gal Friday” – as she was described to us – and sole beneficiary in his will, moved the entire Chemex Corp operation from NY to Pittsfield, including every office chair, pin board, and polishing rag. Their archives room held an example of every piece of Chemex ever produced - not just the coffee-related pieces but tea makers, barware, and at least a dozen of Schlumbohm’s original office filing cabinets, all crammed to the brim with every piece of printed material, every ad, every article, every photo ever taken pertaining to Chemex. This was white-glove crossed with Indiana Jones territory. By the time of his death, Schlumbohm held over 350 patents for various inventions, from cigarette holders to champagne cooling devices, and even a car. The man had processed more ideas than a German patent office. We could’ve poured through this stuff for days. It was hard to imagine any other product being so completely archived as this and it was well worthy of its own museum. What Chemex produce these days is a mere fraction of the product range of old so it was a delight to see and handle some of the earlier products. Highlights included the Samovar, a 50 cup mega-Chemex from the early 60s, complete with giant filter papers and a tap on the bottom; and the gorgeous old cream and sugar set, out of production since the late 70s. We’ve since begged them to bring that out of retirement, as it would be a guaranteed best-seller now, surely (watch this space). Justin was so utterly filled with envy after seeing all this that upon our return home he started our own Chemex museum at our Roastery in Wellington, buying vintage pieces on eBay and shipping them down to us with containers of coffee. It’s still a tad on the meager side, but he’ll keep adding to it until his work credit card is ripped from his grasp. Please feel free to pop in and view it some time; entry by a small donation.
Then a factory tour. We first met Jason, a key staff member. Jason personally quality checks and assembles every freaking Chemex in the world. He sits at the same decades-old table every day, polishing every vessel and tying on every collar. The sound of breaking glass was an alarming background constant as one in ten vessels, on average, Jason finds fault with due to some barely visible and inconsequential defect, and smashes it in the giant green wheelie bin – just as it was in Schlumbohm’s day.
Their filter paper is specially made for them in the US and comes in giant rolls. These are fed into a series of machines that cut the different shapes and fold them into the shapes you know so well. Again these were decades-old machines being manned by the folks who had done it for years. Even their forklift had a certain mid-century chic, and their dispatch department looked like a fading photograph from a tatty National Geographic of similar vintage. Just beautiful.
The warm July afternoon passed too quickly and the Grassy family had a wedding to attend, so we left them to it. We headed back to NY – tired but excited. It was certainly one of the more memorable workdays. We felt quite privileged to have seen what we had seen, and were all falling further in love with this product; much of its story and production so hard to fathom. How could this product still be produced like this, in such a romantic cottage industry fashion, in such a discreet corner of the world? What the Grassy family, and the rest of the Chemex clan, do every day, is nothing short of quietly heroic and they deserve to be celebrated. So here’s to you Chemex – we salute you.