Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, July 10, 1896 – Nov 7, 1962


While doing research for my recent Chemex post, I came across several fascinating articles about the inventor himself, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm. He sounded like an incredibly charismatic fellow who would have been a pleasure to have coffee with.

Last week marked 49 years since Dr. Schlumbohm passed away on November 7, 1962, from a heart attack at 66-years old. He accomplished much in his abbreviated life, during which he held 300 registered patents, more than 20 belonging to the MoMA permanent collection. The Chemex coffee maker, which coffee lovers are most familiar with, was named one of “100 Best-Designed Products in Modern Times” in 1958 by the Illinois Institute of Technology—quite the accolade for a coffee maker.

Well over one million dollars’ worth have been sold in the last five years. The Chemex, currently on sale in 3,000 U.S. stores at $6 for the one-quart size, is a typical bit of Schlumbohmiana…
-Life Magazine, 1949

Apart from spending 8 years studying Chemistry at the University of Berlin, he also had an incredible design sense that permeated his inventions. There is remarkable elegance and simplicity in the way he blended glass with materials like wood and cork, which most certainly played a role in his success. The importance Dr. Schlumbohm placed on design was no accident either:

After 22 years of inventing, Schlumbohm has come to certain conclusions about it. He feels that just seeing the problem to be solved is 20% of the inventive process. Finding a patentable idea that solves it is 40%. Good design (“Eliminate everything that’s wrong, and what’s left will be right”) is 30%, and merchandising is the remaining 10%.  -Life Magazine, 1949

Dr. Schlumbohm even played the role of marketing director for his products:

Dr. Schlumbohm does all his own selling, writes his own advertisements, direction leaflets and brochures and even types out his own patent applications—one draft only, since he refuses to make a mistake.  -Life Magazine, 1949

What little I could find of Dr. Schlumbohm’s specific thoughts regarding coffee always seemed to be from the perspective of a Chemist more than a consumer:

Ground coffee contains only two desirable ingredients: aromatic coffee oils and caffeine. The rest is a vile mixture of some 50 different chemicals, including such ‘skunky stuff’ as mercaptan. -New York Times Obituary, 1962

But apart from his scientific analysis of coffee, he understood what consumers wanted (or needed). In that same New York Times obituary, Dr. Schlumbohm is quoted, while pointing at a Chemex, “With this, even a moron can make good coffee.”

For that we thank you. Cheers to you Dr. Schlumbohm.

posted by on 11.17.2011, under Misc., Products

Brew Method: The Chemex


The Chemex is possibly the most elegant looking of all brewing devices and one of my favorite ways to make coffee. It was designed in 1941 by a German chemist, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, who immigrated to the United States in 1935. The modern hourglass shape of the Chemex, hugged in the middle by a wooden collar and leather tie, became a part of MoMA’s permanent collection in 1944—just a few years after its invention.

Apart from its sophisticated design, it makes an equally great cup of coffee when it’s not looking beautiful on your counter or the walls of a modern art museum.

The upper portion of the Chemex cradles a thick, bonded filter (also made by Chemex) that resembles lab parchment more than a typical coffee filter. This filter is what helps create such a clean cup of coffee that really highlights the brightness, clarity and sweetness in certain coffees that I personally enjoy very much.

The design is nearly identical to the original product, except the glass is no longer made by Pyrex. There is an alternate, glass-handled design that is easier to clean and allows a better view of the coffee brewing process—or there’s the handblown versions for three times the cost of the mass produced ones, if you’re a purist with extra money to spend.

Apart from the design itself and the quality of coffee it makes, I also like the Chemex for its ease of use. In regards to pour over devices, I find the Chemex to be one of the easiest for beginners to take up. The thickness of the filter and slower brew time allows for a greater margin of error, while the one-piece design reduces spills and can be less intimidating to handle. Although the larger ones are not ideal for smaller servings, there are several sizes of the Chemex available depending on your needs.

There are many variations on how to use the Chemex, but at its simplest, add a bit of hot water and let bloom for 30–45 seconds, then pour the remaining water in a circular motion, keeping all the grounds wet. I generally stick to a “60g of coffee/1 liter of water” ratio for the Chemex—but as always, adjust to taste. There are a number of tutorials on BrewMethods.com, but this one from Intelligentsia has always been my favorite.

Shop for a Chemex.

Further reading on the Chemex and Dr. Schlumbohm:
New York Times Magazine & Gourmet

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posted by on 11.14.2011, under Brew Methods, Design, Products, Videos