For many, using a French Press is the preferred method for brewing the perfect cup of coffee. While perhaps not as convenient as an automatic drip machine that you can program to have your coffee ready for you when you wake up in the morning, the press is simple to use and will produce a very rich, superior cup of coffee once you understand the basic technique.
One of the primary advantages of the French Press is the ability to better control the brewing process. You can extract a richer and more flavorful cup of coffee by better managing the optimum temperature of the water and controlling how long the grinds remain in contact with the water while the coffee steeps. Because the press pot does not use a paper filter, more of the flavor oils that give the coffee a full body and richness will infuse into the brew. And there are no paper filters to dispose of after you are done.
The French Press
The French Press, also known as a “press pot” or a “plunger” has been available for over one hundred years. The simple design commonly in use today can be traced back to the original models as early as 1930. Today, Bodum is a leading manufacture and produces one of the most popular brands.
A French Press is a simple device that consists of a glass beaker or carafe (can be ceramic), and a tight fitting plunger device with a mesh filter that's used to separate the grinds from the coffee once the brew has finished steeping.
As with any coffee brewing method, water is the predominant ingredient so always start with fresh, clean water. If your water has a bad taste or aroma, the tainted effect will be even more pronounced in the coffee you brew. If your tap water isn’t fresh or good tasting, use a water filter or bottled water instead.
You’ll need a separate tea kettle to boil the water for brewing the coffee. Always rinse out your tea kettle and start with fresh water. Don’t use water that you might have left standing in the kettle for any length of time. The ideal temperature for extracting the optimum flavor from the ground coffee is between 195F and 200F. A good technique is to bring the water to a full boil and then remove from the heat before you grind your beans. By the time you’re done grinding the beans (about 30 seconds or less), the water will have cooled down to the ideal temperature.
For the optimum cup of coffee, always start with fresh beans. Beans quickly lose their freshness once they’re ground, so always wait to grind the beans until just before you’re ready to brew.
Grinding the coffee beans is the most important step to get right. The mesh filter used in a French Press requires a slightly coarser grind to prevent the grind from passing through the filter. The key is to produce an even grind, where the particles are of uniform size. For the most part, the common blade grinders aren’t capable of producing an even grind. With a blade grinder, even when you try to produce a coarser grind, finer particles are always unavoidable which will pass through the mesh filter and wind up as a muddy brew with too much sediment.
A burr grinder gives you the improved control to produce a coarser grind with even and consistent particle size. You might need to experiment a little, but you want to use as fine a grind as you can, but coarse enough to avoid having the grind pass through mesh filter. A finer grind will allow more of the desirable flavor oils to infuse into the coffee. But remember, as fine as possible, but coarse enough to prevent the grind from passing through the mesh filter. Although more expensive, a good burr grinder is well worth the investment. Getting the grind correct is the biggest difference you can make in brewing great coffee with a French press.
The Step by Step Method
- Use the ratio of one tablespoon (about 7.5 grams by weight) of coffee per 4 to 5 ounces of water. One cup of water is equivalent to 4.5 ounces of water. Be careful – some French Presses measure a slightly smaller cup as 4 ounces (not 4.5 ounces) of water.
- Place the correct amount of freshly ground coffee beans in the glass beaker.
- Add the hot water that you allowed to cool slightly from a full boil. The ideal temperature is between 195F and 200F. Bringing the water in the tea kettle to a full boil and then removing from the heat and letting it stand for about 30 seconds will be just about right. Pour the water slowly and rotate around the beaker to saturate the grounds evenly.
- The grounds will tend to float to the surface as you add the water. Fill the beaker to just below the bottom of the pouring spout. Then place the plunger filter assembly over the top of the beaker to hold the heat in, but don’t press down. Leave in place for about one minute.
- After one minute, remove the lid and stir the coffee briefly with a spoon to agitate the coffee grounds. A wooden chop stick also works well to stir with. This is an optional step, but helps to produce a more complete extraction.
- Replace the plunger filter assembly back over the top of the beaker, but don’t press down. Leave in place to allow the coffee to steep. Steeping time will vary depending on how much coffee you’re brewing, but in general, 4 to 5 minutes for a coarser grind, and 2½ to 3 minutes for a slightly finer grind is optimal. The finer the grind, the faster the extraction time. Remember, a finer grind allows more of the flavor oils to infuse into the brew. If you don’t allow enough time for steeping, the extraction will be weak. If you allow the coffee to steep for too long, the coffee will become over-extracted and exhibit an undesirable bitter taste. With a little practice, you can determine the proper steeping time that matches the grind that you like to use to achieve the best result.
- When steeping is complete, it’s time to plunge. Hold the lid in place with one hand and carefully start to push the plunger screen downward, forcing the grinds with it to the bottom of the beaker.
- Use care to keep the plunger straight. It’s easy at the top to have the filter disc in crooked and allow a swirl of grounds to escape around it. Don’t worry if this happens, you can recover easily enough. Simply remove the plunger and filter assembly, rinse in hot water, quickly replace the plunger and start over.
- Push the plunger steadily keeping it absolutely straight to avoid allowing any grinds to escape. There should be some resistance, but you should be able to reach the bottom in 20 to 30 seconds at the most. If you’ve used freshly roasted beans, you should have a nice crema on the top.
- Pour right away and enjoy. Don’t keep the coffee in the press pot or it may continue to brew and become over-extracted. Coffee is always best within the first 10 minutes after brewing. If you must keep the coffee before drinking, always pour off or decant into a suitable thermos or vacuum bottle. Better yet, don’t try and keep it hot, just brew a fresh cup when you’re ready for some more!
- One minor drawback with the French Press method of brewing coffee is the small amount of sediment that’s unavoidable at the bottom of your cup. The superior flavor and richness brewing with a French press more than offsets the inconvenience of a little extra sediment. If you prefer, the easiest way to avoid the settled coffee grinds that may wind up in your cup is to skip the last sip.