Coffee Month: French Press Basics

Bonjour Maximus French Press

The Bonjour Maximus French Press, 8 Cup Model

With the calendar turning to April, we’re turning our attention to a true classic  – coffee! Each week in April, on the blog and in our in-store demos, we’ll be featuring a different aspect of the delicious beverage that makes the world work.

First up,  the French Press. It’s easier to confuse the origins of the efficient gadget than you may think. While the French press was actually first patented in 1929 by Italian designer Attillo Calimani, versions began popping up in 1850’s France (hence the name). So yes, the French can be counted on for more exports than wine and Brie.

Many coffee purists swear by the design and function. Because the grounds remain in contact with the water during the brewing process (in contrast to the relatively brief contact made when water drips through the coffee and paper filter on a drip machine), more of the oils and flavors are extracted, thus producing a richer, bolder cuppa’ joe.   You have a lot more control over the flavor of French press coffee too – much like tea, it can be left to “steep” longer, producing a stronger brew. Just don’t steep it too long or you’ll be left with rocket fuel!

If you’ve never used one before, the French press is very easy to use. Remove the plunger unit and pour coarsely ground coffee into the coffeemaker, then fill it up with hot water. Let the grounds steep for two to five minutes, depending on how strong you like it. Then replace the plunger and push it down slowly to the bottom to trap the grounds. All that’s left is to pour and enjoy!
As with every kitchen tool, you should experiment to get the flavor that you want. But here are a few tricks we’ve learned to help us get a perfect cup:

First and foremost, always measure coffee and water accurately and consistently. (This is true no matter how you brew!) We recommend using 1 tablespoon of coffee for every 4 oz of water, but again, you should experiment to figure out what you really like.

Second, be mindful of your grind. Specifically, we recommend coarse grinds for French Press coffee. Finer grinds can clog the filter as well as create high pressure.

Third, for a hotter cup, immerse or fill the French press in the hottest water you can get from the tap or with water you’re heating for the coffee to warm up the coffeemaker. (Pour the water out before you make the coffee.) Almost all French presses are  made with laboratory glass, borosilicate, so it won’t break as long as you don’t expose it to sudden and drastic temperature changes. Likewise with the BPA-free plastic unbreakable models.

Also,  remember to rinse your coffee cup with hot water just before you pour the coffee into it, so that the cold cup doesn’t cool down the coffee.

Before pressing down, let your coffee brew for a bit. We like to recommend 4 minutes as a fairly standard time.  After that, longer time=stronger coffee.

Lastly, and maybe the safest tip: be sure to use gentle, steady pressure. This will produce the tastiest results, as well as prevent the hot coffee water from shooting out of the spout (which should also be pointed away from you).

Cleaning right away is also important to keep the screen clear or any random bits of coffee or oils.  Most units do have plunger assemblies that come apart for cleaning (plunger, screen, cross plate). And not to worry, if you trash one, we carry many standard replacements!

Tre Spade Coffee Mill

Interior burr mechanism of the Tre Spade Manual Coffee Mill, Round Model 18-M

What kinds of grinders produce the right coarseness? We generally like to recommend burr grinders versus the blade option for all coffee, and this application is no different. French presses are designed with slightly larger holes in the filter to encourage the use of coarser grinds. Using fine grinds can over-extract oils from the coffee beans, leaving you with a bitter-tasting coffee. So if your coffee is a little crunchy, your grind is too fine. You want to have evenly ground coffee that is coarse enough to be caught by the filter; if the grounds are too small, they’ll flow into your cup as sediment.

Another important and often-overlooked factor in the right French press grind is the heat created by the friction of the grinder itself. Blade grinders produce heat, which can actually burn some of the ground particles. That undesirable burned flavor can be emitted into the finished product. Conical burr grinders grind coffee much slower to minimize frictional heat. Grinders with disc burrs grind at a faster rotation than conical burrs, and produce more frictional heat. However, for most home use,  this is not enough heat to damage the coffee.

Want more information? Check out this handy step-by-step from Bodum (pdf) on the proper French press prep. Or you can just stop by the store this Saturday. We’ll also be showing off the AeroPress coffeemaker, which has a similar push design but can be used to make espresso as well. You can read more here (pdf). The demo runs from 11-3. We’ll see you there!


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3 responses to “Coffee Month: French Press Basics

  1. Pingback: Coffee Month: French Press Basics « Fantes Toque Tips | Coffee

  2. noartforme

    I’m surprised you missed my favorite tip: stir the coffee in the press 1 minute after pouring the water. This way the foam subsides and stirring actually does something.

    Stirring makes pressing easier, and I get the feeling it distributes the coffee better in the water.

    (learned this from stumptown:

    • Great tip, noartforme! We left out any mention of stirring since we don’t really notice a difference – though the necessity of stirring is a matter of controversy in the French press community, to the extent that “the French press community” exists and is passionate enough to generate controversy. As always, the best way to brew coffee is the way that tastes best to you.

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