Getting Started With A French Press

by Tim Nemec


Overview

The French press is an easy, low-tech way to brew coffee. The basic principle is quite simple: coarsely ground coffee is allowed to steep in hot water for a period of time, then the coffee grounds are separated from the coffee by pushing them to the bottom of the container. Image of French Press

The term 'French press' is a bit of a misnomer. According to author Ken Davids, this type of brewing device was actually developed in Italy in the 1930s. Apparently, it did become popular in France following World War II.

Depending upon where you are, the French press is also known as a plunger pot, a press pot, a cafetiere, a Melior(tm) or a Bodum(tm). These last two names are actually well known companies who names have become somewhat synonymous with the brewers they manufacture.

(Just recently, I've been informed that 'Cafetiere' is also a trade name, apparently of Household Products Ltd in the UK. In addition, I'm also told that Bodum puts a TM symbol next to the term 'French press' in their catalogues. )

A French press typically consists of a glass or ceramic cylinder and a plunger. The plunger itself consists of a metal disk with a screen on one end and a handle on the other with a metal rod between the two ends. The function of the plunger is to separate the grounds from the coffee once brewing is complete. It does this by pushing the grounds to the bottom of the brewing container.

Coffee brewed in a French press contains more sediment/silt and has a heavier body than coffee brewed in a filter drip machine. This is due to the fact that holes in the plunger screen are much larger than the holes in a paper drip filter. The screen allows more coffee particles to pass through. As a result, coffee made in a French press has much more presence and a stronger taste than filter brewed coffee. You can either make sediment your friend (my preference) or simply avoid the bottom of the pot.

Purchasing

Plunger pots can be purchased from virtually any coffee shop or mail order coffee vendor. Most kitchen supply houses also carry them. Prices in the US range from around $10-$15 for small, 1-3 cup glass models to more than $100 for larger, ornate 15 cup models. Regardless of price, all of these units function in the same way.

You don't necessarily have to brew a full pot. If, for example, you purchase an 8 cup size, you are still able to make only 2 cups by adjusting the amount of grinds and water.

Glass plunger pots are fragile and because of this, some individuals prefer the ceramic pots. However, glass pots are better if you want to see the coffee while it's brewing. One vendor wrote:

"It is the clear glass press that we have found as the superior brewer and not the ceramic press for this reason. Those that choose the press do so that they may judge the clarity of the coffee which is not possible with the ceramic press.Unlike the drip brewing process so widely used, the press allows you to stop the brewing process when you think the extraction of the coffee soluables is completed.If you want restricted or over extraction it is your choice with the coffee press. With a ceramic opaque glass this is difficult to determine."

Preparation

Be sure that your brewing equipment is clean. Old sediments and coffee oil deposits can spoil the taste of coffee brewed in any system.

You water should be of high quality; free from sediments and tastes, including chlorine. An inexpensive water filtration system (e.g. Brita) can help here. However, do not use artificially softened water unless you have no other choice.

The best coffee is produced from the freshest beans. If possible, buy whole beans from a local roaster within a day or two of the beans being roasted.

Grinding

Your beans should be coarsely ground just prior to brewing. Grinding the beans too fine produces extra amounts of sediment in the coffee and makes the plunger extremely difficult to depress once brewing is completed.

A short sidebar on grinder types is appropriate here. There are basically two types of coffee grinders available: blade and burr. Blade grinders are the cheapest ($15-$30). They resemble a small electric blender with a cavity at the top for the beans. At the bottom of the cavity is a set of blades which chopped/whack the coffee. The second type of grinder is called a burr grinder becauses it uses 2 metal plates, called burrs, to crush the coffee to the desired consistency. Burr grinders are more expensive; the cheapest being about $35 and going up quickly from there. Professional grinders used in coffee shops are almost always burr type grinders and typically cost several hundred dollars. However, fairly good home models can be had for around $80-$120.

Burr-type grinders are recommended. Blade-type grinders can be used, but you may need some practice in order to get a consistant grind. If too much fine, powdery coffee is produced, it ends up plugging up the filter screen and making the plunger difficult if not impossible to depress. As one French press enthusiast writes:

"Another minor point is that blade grinders don't work too well because of the non-uniformity of the ground up coffee. This non-uniform size leads to rapid overextraction of the dust like output of the blade grinders, resulting in bitterness. This is the principal reason to buy a burr grinder - uniformity of grind and hence more even extraction."

However, not everyone agrees. One blade-grinder user stated:

"I disagree, as a long-time French-press-and-cheap-blade-grinder user. Yes, there is a lot of sediment from the fine stuff which inevitably gets produced, but a quick grind leaves most of the coffee bits coarse enough such that plunging is neither difficult nor impossible.

I think that newbies will be dissuaded from buying a French Press if they think they need a burr grinder. Maybe you should say that a burr grinder is better, but a blade grinder is adequate, provided care is taken to grind only briefly."

Another enthusiast wrote: "I agree [...] as an owner of both a burr grinder and a cheap blade grinder. Obviously, the burr grinder gives a more consistant grind -- but for a french press it doesn't really matter. Of course I use the burr for espresso, but generally I use the blade when I want French Press and it works just fine (plus, who needs the hassle of removing the doser, changing the beans, etc. . .) A burr grinder is a great investment -- but not necessary for making outstanding coffee with a French press."

Brewing

Heat enough water to fill the container. Most coffee experts say that the optimal water temperature for brewing is between 195-205 degress (F). Some purists say you should never boil the water; others let the water come just to a boil then turn off the heat.

(In the US, some lawyers and juries have held that 195 degrees is way too hot but, IMHO, these people should not be allowed to drink anything hotter than an iced coffee.)

Some enthusiasts insist on pre-heating the container with hot water in order to minimize heat loss during brewing and produce the hottest possible coffee. Others say pre-heating is not necessary. You can use your tap water for pre-heating (if it is hot enough) or heat a little extra water for this purpose.

Measure an appropriate amount of coarsely ground coffee into the container. The "appropriate amount" is a matter of personal preference. The recommended starting point is 2 tablespoons coarsely ground coffee per every 6 oz. cup. However, many people find other ratios more to their liking. If you are use to weak or medium-weak filter drip, you may want to adjust this down.

Pour the hot water into the container. Many people will initially just wet the grounds with a little of the hot water first to give the coffee an opportunity to 'bloom'. Really fresh coffee outgasses, giving off CO2 and it will foam substantially when the hot water hits it. Stale coffee does not 'bloom'. Once blooming has subsided, fill the container just to the top metal band. It is important not to overfill the container -- if you overfill, grounds will slip past the plunger's filter screen and end up in your finished coffee.

Some people feel it is important to gently stir the coffee with a wooden or plastic spoon a few times before letting it set.

Once the container is full of hot water, place the plunger on top and depress slightly - just past the top band - so that all the coffee is below the water level. Then let the container sit for an 'appropriate' period of time. This again is an issue of debate. Most coffee experts and authors say the French press should sit between 3 to 5 minutes, however, some say shorter and at least one coffee professional advises between 8-10 minutes. My personal preference is for around 2.5 minutes. Longer is also OK but I've found coffee which brews for 10 minutes to be very bitter and over-extracted.

Keep in mind that these times are not absolute -- you are not making a soft-boiled egg. Experiment until you find the time that is right for you.

Plunging

Once the coffee has brewed for the 'appropriate period', hold the pot by its handle (with the spout pointing away from you) and with the other hand slowly depress the plunger until it pushes all the grounds to the bottom of the pot. Push straight down -- not at an angle. Don't attempt to force the plunger too rapidly. It should move slowly but steadily towards the bottom of the pot without requiring a great deal of force. If your plunger does not depress or requires extreme pressure, chances are good that your coffee is ground too fine and is plugging up the holes in the filter screen. CAUTION!!! Do not use extreme pressure on the plunger. The pot or the plunger can break and injure you with scalding hot coffee or broken glass.

If your plunger becomes impossible to depress, carefully pull up on the plunger until it raises about a half inch or so. Then try pressing down again. You might have to repeat this several times to get the plunger all the way down.

Even using the same grind and same ratio of coffee to water, the plunger may sometimes be more difficult to depress. Again, just remember to go slow and steady and do not not use extreme force.

Cleaning

The French press is somewhat more difficult to clean than other makers. Getting the grounds out of the bottom is easiest if you can use a kitchen sink sprayer. You can also use a wooden tool to scrape them out or simply just use your hand (unless your hands are very large). One press user comments:

"You can just splash a little tap water in and wash the grounds down the sink. Why not? I haven't had a blocked sink from it in the dozen years I've been making coffee that way!"

This has also been my experience. I've been washing grounds down the drain now for 2 years without difficulty.

By the way, coffee grounds are good material for a compost heap if you live in an area where you can have one.

Once the grounds have been removed, wash the press and plunger in warm, soapy water. A standard kitchen brush is helpful here. On most models, the metal filter end of the plunger assembly will unscrew to allow for thorough cleaning of the filter screen.

Is It Really Worth It?

Yes, I think so. I haven't used my filter drip maker since buying a French press. I find I really prefer the rich, heavy coffee the press produces. But again, coffee is a very subjective thing and your mileage may vary.

Not to be completely ignored is the fact that in many homes, the making of coffee in a plunger pot is a welcomed social ritual -- to be enjoyed with friends and good conversation.


References

Coffee: A Guide To Buying Brewing And Enjoying
by Kenneth Davids
published by 101 Productions
ISBN # 1-56426-500-5

The Perfect Cup
by Timothy Castle
published by Aris Books (Addison-Wesley)
ISBN # 0-201-57048-3

Starbucks Passion For Coffee
by Dave Olsen
published by Sunset Books
ISBN # 0-376-02613-8

Various posts of personal preferences made to Usenet groups:
alt.coffee and rec.food.drink.coffee

Special thanks also to:
Kurt Foster
Michele Granitz
David Cohanim
Felix Yen
Paul Bratton
Ilana Stern
Jeffrey Seigle
lewym@aol.com
Andrew Denny
Bernard Glassman
Gill Johnston
Carl S. Lau
Stephan J. Potchatek

Sketch of French press courtesy of Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)