Finessing the French Press

So maybe you’ve mastered your pour over and are ready for the next challenge, or maybe that method just isn’t for you.  Luckily, when it comes to coffee, there are plenty of ways to brew.  This week, we’ll tackle the art of the French press, which, funnily enough, originated in Milan, Italy.    

What You Need

Most importantly, a French press.  This comprises a few different parts.  The first is a beaker, which holds the coffee while it brews andpours the finished product into mugs.  Usually, this is glass, but it could be plastic, metal, or ceramic.

The lid of the beaker, or the plunger, is connected via metal rod to a metal mesh filter.  This filter permits the coffee’s natural oils and fine particles to pass through, resulting in enhanced flavor and a fuller body.  The plunger presses the filter down to the bottom of the beaker, separating the coffee grounds from the liquid coffee.  The plunger should have a close enough fit inside the beaker walls to prevent coffee particles from slipping around the edges when it’s pressed.  

Otherwise, you just need coffee beans, a grinder, and water. 

How It’s Done

The basic concept of the French press is to steep coffee in the beaker and then filter out the grounds using the plunger.  Here are the steps broken down:  

  1. Decide on your coffee to water ratio.  For a final product of eight cups of coffee, you’ll want 30 ounces (or 3 ¾ cups) of water.  For strong coffee, you’ll combine this with about 89 grams of coffee beans; for medium, about 68 grams; and for mild, about 55 grams.  If you don’t have a food scale to measure your beans, you can convert to tablespoons.  One tablespoon equivalates 6-7 grams of light roast or 5-6 grams of dark roast coffee.  Experiment until you find your preferred ratio, and from there figure out how much water and coffee beans you’ll need based on how much coffee you want to make.
  2. Heat the water.  It’s best to use filtered water, which has a low mineral content and therefore is less likely to alter the coffee’s flavor.  If you have a thermometer, heat the water until it reaches 195-205 degrees; if not, bring to a boil and then remove from heat and let sit 30-45 seconds.
  3. Grind the coffee, making sure that it comes out uniform and coarse.  If the grounds are different sizes, either the larger pieces will under-extract, producing a sour flavor, or the smaller ones will over-extract, resulting in a bitter brew.  Avoid grinding too fine because small grounds will either clog or slip through the mesh filter, making it difficult to press down the plunger later on or producing a silty coffee.  
  4. Pour the coffee grounds into the beaker of the French press and level it.  Pour the heated water into the beaker.  Give the coffee/water mixture a quick stir to make sure all the grounds are dampened.
  5. Place the lid on the beaker, and pull the plunger all the way to the top.  This prevents the metal plunger from absorbing heat and expediting the coffee’s cooling.  Allow the coffee to steep for about 3:30.  You can experiment with this timing.  If you find the coffee too bitter, shorten the soak time; if you’re getting unwanted sourness, lengthen it.
  6. Remove the lid.  You’ll see that a crusty coat of coffee grounds has risen to the surface.  If you want a light-bodied brew, spoon this out and discard it.  For a fuller body, use a spoon to break up and mix in this layer.
  7. Replace the lid of the beaker and push the plunger all the way to the bottom.  You should feel medium resistance.  If you’re struggling to press, your grind is probably too fine.  If the plunger slides down effortlessly, it’s likely that the grounds have all sunk to the bottom from too coarse a grind.  
  8. Pour yourself a cup and enjoy.  You’ll want to avoid drinking the coffee at the bottom of the beaker (and at the bottom of your mug!) because that’s where the unblended grounds settle.