The French Press De-Mystified: Using the French Press Method for Brewing Your Specialty Coffee Beans
Immersing yourself in the world of barrel aged coffee, single origin coffee, and specialty coffees from around the world is like discovering a whole new universe of styles and flavors. But as you explore your options, you may find yourself spending more time puzzling over the right brewing method than picking the perfect beans from your craft coffee subscription.
You may have heard especially glowing reports of the coffee made by French press coffee makers — but how do these machines work, and how to use a french press? Let’s go over some basic tips on how to use a French press like a pro.
Form and Function: Anatomy of a French Press Coffee Maker
When you first get your hands on a French press, you may feel either delighted or confused by the simplicity of its technology. You’ll find no plugs, cables, gears, or other fancy devices on this handy little machine. A French press consists of just a few major components, including:
- The carafe – The carafe forms the outer body of the French press, It’s typically made of glass so you can observe the brewing process and coffee level directly. Carafes may take a purely cylindrical form, or they may appear rounded or bulbous.
- The lid and plunger – You’ll notice that the lid of the French press has a plunger rod running through it. This plunger will exert pressure on the ground beans as you brew your coffee.
- The filter and structure disc – Coffee brewed in a French press passes through a filter screen or mesh in an effort to keep grounds from making their way into the final product. A French press may have either one screen or two screens. A removable device called a structure disc keeps the filter secure and centered during the brewing process.
Since the French press gets its hot water from an external source (your teapot, microwavable container etc.), it requires no heating element of its own. Once the hot water has had a chance to steep inside the carafe, a repeated up-and-down motion of the plunger literally presses the flavors and essential oils from the grounds into the water.
This simple method can produce dramatically delicious results. You may notice a much more complex and intense flavor from your French press-brewed coffee than you got from ordinary drip machines. That’s partly because, unlike the standard paper filters used by drip coffeemakers, the filter of the French press allows all of the coffee’s oils to pass through it.
It’s also due to the fact that the French press method gives you a great deal of control over exactly how to make your coffee conform to your specific tastes. You control the water temperature, the steeping time, and the pressing process, permitting you to create your perfect cup of coffee.
Choose Your Weapons: Bean and Grind Selection
As simple and flexible as the French press method may be, it’s just as easy to get sub-standard coffee out of your new machine as it is to get that ideal cup you seek. The same personalized control this brewing method gives you also eliminates the standard, every-pot-tastes-the-same characteristics of an automated drip machine. You’re about to enter the world of the coffee brewing artisan — and that means you need to know your beans and grind.
High-quality beans can make a big difference when you’re making coffee in a French press, which is why it makes so much sense to get your supply from a premium coffee delivery service. As for the roast, you may get best results from a medium to dark roast that has plenty of robust flavor to offer. A complex, sophisticated barrel aged coffee, for instance, could prove an ideal bean to kick off your French press journey. But don’t make the mistake of using certain popular coffee brands that tend to over-roast their beans beyond recognition, since any “burnt” or “off” flavors will transfer all too faithfully to your brew.
Even the most well-judged roasts and the highest-quality specialty coffee beans can turn your first carafe of French press coffee into a gritty, grainy, bitter disaster if you grind those beans incorrectly. Forget about the medium or fine grind your drip coffeemaker always took. Coffee brewed in a French press requires a coarse grind that produces relatively large, consistently-sized grounds.
Why does the coarse grind matter so much? The French press method is all about immersion, the steeping of the grounds in the hot water for a period of several minutes (as we will discuss shortly). The finer the grind, the faster the extraction of the flavors and oils from the grounds. That’s good for automated drip machines that flush hot water through their grounds in a hurry. But if you tried steeping that fine grind in your French press, your coffee would end up with an intolerably bitter, foul taste. The coarse grind also helps the hot water eliminate carbon dioxide from the grounds for a smoother-tasting brew.
It’s also important to remember that the French press filter isn’t solid, like those familiar paper filters you’ve used in the past; it’s just a mesh, which means that finer grounds would pass right through it and into your coffee. The occasional grounds will collect at the bottom of your coffee cup despite your best efforts when you use a French press, so you might as well not aggravate the problem.
How coarse a grind do you need to achieve, and how do you achieve it? Since you want both a coarse grind and a consistent size to your grounds, you’ll find a burr grinder well worth the investment. As to the exact size of the grind, that comes down to personal taste. Some grinder manufacturers will recommend specific settings on their machines, but it really comes down to eyeballing it and experimenting.
In most cases, if you’re getting grounds the size of bread crumbs, you’re doing it right. You can also tellhow appropriate your grind is by how easily your plunger moves. If it simply flops up and down without resistance, you have too fine a grind; if it requires excessive force to move it, your grind is probably too coarse.
Portions, Temperatures, and Brewing
Now that you know how your French press operates and you’ve collected the right beans and grind for the job, it’s time to embark on your new French press’s maiden voyage. Start by figuring out what portions of grounds you’ll need for various brew sizes, based on the right ratio of grounds to water for one perfect cup of coffee.
This ratio, of course, is a matter of personal taste. You can usually get a good mid-strength brew, however, by using 2 tablespoons of grounds for every 8 ounces of water, adjusting upward or downward as needed. (You’re not likely to need more than 3 tablespoons per 8-ounce good to get eye-openingly strong results.) Once you’ve figured out the quantities that work for you, you can throw aside the measuring equipment and rely on experience, intuition, and creative curiosity.
Now it’s time to boil your water — but you’ll need more water than the amount you plan to consume. That’s because as soon as the water reaches a boil, you will pour just enough of that water into the carafe to warm it up nicely. This preparatory step, while not strictly necessary, will help stabilize the temperature of your French press during the brewing process. You can place take the freshly-boiled water on a cold burner and let it drop to around 195 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature range for the immersion brewing technique. Yes, you’ll have to use a thermometer to determine the temperature on this first attempt. But once you see how long it takes for the temperature to reach that ideal level, you can rely on your watch (or your internal sense of timing) going forward.
Time to add your grounds and pour your hot water over them! Pour slowly and stir the grounds gently so every ground can release its delicious qualities into the brew. Once you’ve added all the water, take the lid of your French press and push the plunger into its most upright position. Then attach the lid to the French press quickly so your water temperature doesn’t drop significantly.
Now comes the easiest part of the entire process: sitting and waiting. But how long do you let the grounds steep in the water? This is another situation that depends on what you like in a cup of coffee. The longer you wait, the stronger, oilier, and more intense your coffee will become. Most people get good results from a 4-minute steeping time, but you may have to experiment until you’re ideally happy.
It’s all part of the discovery process that makes the world of specialty coffee so much fun.
Once the steeping process has done its work, you must do a little physical labor of your own. This is the “press” part of the French press technique. Push down slowly and steadily on the plunger so that the grounds will express their contents evenly. By the time the plunger reaches its lowest position, you should have a carafe full of amazing coffee. But don’t let that coffee sit there! It will continue to brew and infuse itself until you remove it from the carafe and pour it into a different container. Letting it sit will spoil your hard-earned efforts.
How to Serve and Drink French Press Coffee
Yes, just as there are right and wrong ways to measure and brew French press coffee, there’s also a correct way to serve and drink French press coffee. For starters, you want to avoid pouring more than about 90 percent of your prepared brew into the serving vessel. That’s because a certain quantity of grounds or “silt” is an inevitable part of even the most
careful brewing process. Leave the gunk in the bottom of the carafe for now. You may also find it a smart move to drink your French press coffee more slowly than you might drink coffee brewed through a drip machine. Not only will small sips help you savor the stronger and more complex flavors created by this process, but they will also help avoid any stray bits of sediment that might be lying in wait for you at the bottom of your cup!
Cleaning Your French Press
Sadly, the French press method has one definite downside compared to other brewing methods: cleanup. Don’t count on all those clumped-together grounds to go quickly and easily from the coffeemaker to the garbage bin. You’ll probably need an elongated kitchen tool of some sort to get much of this debris out of the books and crannies of your carafe and filter assembly. You can then rinse those last few stubborn grounds out
in the kitchen sink. A non-scratch brush with a handle for cleaning the inside the carafe with dishwashing liquid or baking soda, rinsing thoroughly to make sure none of these cleaning agents remain to spoil your next brewing adventure. Don’t place the carafe in your dishwasher unless you know for a fact that it’s dishwasher-safe!
Different Brewing Methods for Different Folks
Not everyone automatically prefers the French press method over other coffee brewing techniques — so don’t feel that you’re “wrong” to be in that number. You
might prefer fewer oils in your coffee, for instance, in which case you might enjoy a press-free method such as pour-over brewing. If you just can’t wake up in the morning without cup of coffee already ready and waiting for you, there’s no shame in using your programmable drip machine. If you’re an espresso or cappuccino lover, it goes without saying that you’ll continue to make regular use of your beloved home espresso maker regardless of whether you also develop a love for French press coffee. You’ll find that the best single origin beans from Onyx Coffee Lab and other premier roasters at Javaya can yield tasty, aromatic results from many different brewing methods — so be sure to give them all a try!