The Chemex brewer, made in Chicopee, Mass.,
is a popular brewing device among coffee
aficionados— and British spies.
James Bond was a coffee snob. For real. Total coffee snob. I discovered this while reading the 1957 Bond novel, “From Russia With Love.”
There, in the opening chapters of Ian Fleming’s masterpiece, is the line detailing Bond’s coffee habits: “It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups. Black and without sugar. ”
Catch that? The specific brewing device? Chemex.
It’s a manual coffee brewer that looks like something straight out of Q’s laboratory. Picture the sexiest beaker you ever used in Chemistry class. Gourmet Magazine once described the Chemex as “part chemist’s funnel, part Erlenmeyer flask, with a blond leather band in the middle corseting its hourglass curves.”
See what I mean? It even has a bellybutton, so you get why 007 used it.
I discovered that, 50 years after its appearance in the novel, Chemex is now made in Chicopee, Mass. That’s a short drive from my house, so I set out on a mission: Brew a cup of Bond-worthy coffee right at the source.
Workers inside the factory assemble the Chemex coffee makers by hand and also machine-cut special Chemex-“bonded” — I kid you not — paper filters by the thousands. All around me, people are drinking coffee.
Chemex is now a family-run company, and Adams and Eliza Grassy — brother and sister — tell me how it all came to be. It starts way back in 1939 with a German chemist named Dr. Peter Schlumbohm. He’d recently immigrated to the US and found one big problem: the coffee.
“He just felt that no other coffeemaker at the time was achieving the taste that he felt you could extract from the bean,” Adams says. “And he applied his background in chemistry when he devised the Chemex.”
His creation debuted in 1941. People loved its elegant lines and ease of use. Schlumbohm liked to boast that, with a Chemex, even a moron could make a great cup of coffee.
Just three years after its debut, the Museum of Modern Art added the Chemex to its permanent collection. But Schlumbohm was more than his coffeemaker: He was also a chemist for the party set. Some of his other inventions included an instant chiller for Champagne bottles and — my favorite — the “Tubadipdrip:” a coffee maker that also makes tea and triples as a cocktail mixer.
“He really did enjoy the finer things in life, or what he felt were the finer things in life,” Eliza Grassy says. “I think [he] created things to help enhance his lifestyle.
Schlumbohn had thousands of patents. He’d often roll into the office in the late afternoon after an all-night bender, work for a couple hours and go out again. He cruised through New York City in a customized Cadillac Coupe De Ville, partaking of fine food, drinking and women.
So yeah, he totally would’ve rolled with Bond. “Without a doubt,” Adams Grassy says.
Schlumbohm died of a heart attack in 1962, when he was 66, and left Chemex to his secretary. In the 1980s, the Grassy’s parents bought the company.
“Things were much slower then,” he says, telling me how the company still relied on devotees from the 40s and 50s. “We always had a small following but, by and large, no one in the general public was familiar with the product.”
It hobbled along over the next few decades, struggling to compete with automatic drip machines. But then the coffee industry changed.
About a decade ago, independent roasters popped up, seeking to reinvent a simple cup of black coffee. They marketed exotic beans from Ethiopia and Panama — and discovered that one of the best ways to show off their beans was by brewing them in a Chemex.
“We were getting more interest from coffee roasters domestically and some internationally,” Eliza says. “They were ordering the product, which we hadn’t seen much of a market for before.”
So can the brewer still make a Bond-worthy cup of coffee? Adams, the designated barista, certainly thinks so.
While he was making us a cup, I asked him about the first time he brewed with a Chemex. “My father drank his coffee black,” he says. “So the first time I drank coffee, it had to follow suit. It was a Colombian blend and I probably doubled the amount of coffee grounds that I should have. So it was very strong.”
And how old was he at the time? “Probably around six — six years old,” Adams says.
So he’s definitely had time to hone his skills. As he poured me a cup, I smelled hints of blackberry and chocolate. Then I took a sip. It was shocking — positively shocking. It was, in all honesty, the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
Bond knew what was up.