Brewing coffee with a French press (also called a press pot) can yield an excellent cup of coffee. It is my favorite way to brew a large cup of coffee (my absolute favorite coffee drink is espresso). Due to the large amount of contact of coffee grounds with hot water, the flavor extraction, and the resultant cup of coffee, can be excellent. Due to the manual nature of the process, there are a number of errors which can be made.
The History of the French press
The history of the French press is largely lost in the mists of time. It was probably invented in France in the mid nineteeth century. Like so much of human history, however, commercial contact between people allowed this device to be improved over the years. The original French press was a metal pot into which a meshed material (often, but not always metal as well) was pressed to allow the grounds, which had been put into the pot of boiling water, to be separated from the brewed coffee. At some point, it was understood that boiling water harms the flavor of coffee, and hot water was used instead. Around 1930 or so, this design was improved upon by various Italian entrepreneurs. They made the pot out of glass, used a metal mesh filter, and created the design which we still see today. The Danish manufacturer Bodum is probably more responsible for the popularity of the French press today than any other entity. In 1974, they released the Bistro, and set the coffee making world on fire. According to the company website, they have sold over 60 million press pots.
Okay, I spent my 15 bucks, now how do I use this thing?
Brewing coffee in a press pot is a simple affair. As is the norm in coffee brewing, fresh coffee is a key factor. The other factor which is common to all methods is the grinder. A French press requires a coarse grind (fine grinds will clog the filter). As usual, the grind must be consistent. That means we need a burr grinder, just as with espresso. Indeed, if you get a really good grinder, it will be equally at home with both brewing methods. There are also less expensive burr grinders which are unsuitable for espresso, but work well for press pots.
Buy freshly roasted whole bean coffee. If you pre-grind coffee, you will lose flavor!
- Put a pot of cold water on the stove in a clean tea kettle.
- As the water approaches the boiling point, grind your beans. Grind them on the coarsest setting (you can experiment as you get better at this to find the exact level of coarseness which suits your palate).
- Pour your ground coffee into the empty, clean, press pot. The plunger should not be in the pot at this time. Ground coffee goes on the bottom.
- After the water starts boiling, turn off the stove. We don't want actual boiling water to touch the coffee. This only takes 10 seconds or so.
- Pour the hot water into the press pot, on top of the grounds. Use the normal ratios of 7 grams of coffee per 6 oz. of water. You can use more coffee if you like. I would not recommend less. (too little coffee will result in an overextraction. Bitter coffee alert!)
- Stir the resulting mixture for a couple of turns every minute or so. The total steep time should be 2-5 minutes, depending on the volume of coffee being made and the coarseness of the grind. Less coarse=Less time
- Take the plunge. Use the plunger to separate the coffee grounds (which float) from the brewed coffee
- Pour the brew into your cup. If you use cream (or half and half, or half cream, or whatever you call that stuff), I suggest putting it into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the coffee. This will help to avoid scalding it.
- Congratulate yourself on brewing a cup of coffee which, once you practice it, will beat out the stuff you pay 2 bucks a cup for at Starbucks any day of the week
Note that when I say the coffee is better, I am not exaggerating in the slightest. Since we preserve the essential oils from the coffee, this method will beat most brewed coffee every time. It will be far superior to any paper filtered coffee, and I think even better than the gold permafiltered coffee. It is also much easier to vary the strength and taste of the finished product because of all the control you have over the process.
What else can I do with it?
This same method also works well with tea. The technique is basically the same, but you want to pour some hot water into the press pot before you put the tea in, swig it around to get the pot warm, then pour the still boiling water over the loose tea in the pot. You can get loose tea at various specialty stores, but I find the final product is superior (to other methods) even if you just cut open that bag of Lipton's you probably have in your pantry right now. I think the greater contact between leaf and water does the trick. Note that tea sinks, so it won't clog your filter. You need to stir a bit more often, I think, because of the fact that the Brownian motion isn't generating as much contact here.