The Wonderful French Press

We Americans love our drip coffee. For decades a pot of American coffee was all percolators and filters, creating the signature smooth black “cup ‘a joe.” But more recently the Italian espresso has found its way stateside, and through powerhouses like Starbucks, lattes and cappuccinos have become a staple of our society. Although the Italians would most likely argue that the American take on espresso hardly earns the name, since we have inundated it with chocolate, syrup and other sweet things. In fact the name “cup ‘a joe” originates from World War II, when American GIs asked for their espressos to be mixed with hot water to dilute the strong taste (this is also called Café Americano).

So when it comes to brewing coffee, on one side we have the simple, robust drip, and on the other we have the complex, bold espresso method. Must we be caught in the middle of this brewing conundrum? Is there a middle ground? Well there is and for once this conflict is solved by the French.

The French press — you’ve probably heard the name, maybe pretended to know about it so that your hipster friend wouldn’t look like a know-it-all for once.  But what is it really, and what benefits does it offer? The answer is simple — it is a brewing method that is only slightly more complex than drip that offers more control over the brewing process and better preservation of aromatic oils in the beans. I know you may be attached to your drip machine or your Starbucks loyalty card, but if you’re a regular coffee drinker, then give this method a chance — it’s cheap and I guarantee that with a little practice you will be making fantastic cups of coffee.

Welcome to French Press 101. We’ll start off with anatomy. French presses can vary in size, but all are made up of two basic parts: the body, which holds the liquid and can be made out of glass, plastic, metal or ceramic and the top/plunger. The top affixes to the body and has a plunger that is made up of a disk of fine wire or nylon mesh with rubber around it to create a good seal. The plunger serves to separate the grounds from the water by forcing them to the bottom of the container once the brewing time is completed . All in all it’s a very simple device to use.

Let’s go over the brewing process.You’ll want to start with your favorite beans and grind them to a medium coarseness. This is a fairly important step, since the mesh of the plunger doesn’t catch all of the grounds, so the finer the grind the more sediment you’ll find at the bottom of your cup. By the way I would strongly advocate grinding your own beans fresh at home — you will notice the difference. While you’re grinding, set a kettle of water on the stove, or get an electric kettle going as you’ll need some boiling water. Next you’ll want to measure out the amount of ground coffee; this should be seven scoops (one scoop is about two tablespoons) to a 32 ounce French press. Of course, if your press isn’t 32 ounces, adjust the ratio accordingly. Once your water is boiling, add the grounds to the pot and pour in water until it’s about halfway full. Then you’ll want to leave it be for about a minute. Fun fact: if your coffee grounds bubble up when the water hits them, the beans are really fresh. After that, top off the pot and place the lid on, leaving the plunger fully up, and let it to brew for another three minutes. When the time is up, slowly and gently press the plunger down, ensuring that the grounds are being pushed to the bottom. Then pour yourself a cup of flavorful, full-bodied coffee!

As you take that first sip be sure to thank the French — they’ve been brewing with this method for at least a century and a half. You’ll notice that there is more complexity in the flavor of the coffee; this is because the press actually allows more of the aromatic oils that are in the beans to be incorporated into the drink. In the drip method these oils can be caught up in the paper filter. Although these oils are fully integrated in the espresso process, the intensity of the overall taste or density of the body can often overpower the subtleties that they offer. In that way the French press finds a happy medium of flavor preservation and presentation. It also offers the unique benefit of allowing tiny bits of the grounds in the coffee itself, which adds to the overall taste. Now I know how that sounds, but these are tiny particles you won’t notice as you drink. Some of the larger sediment will settle towards the bottom of the pot, so be careful of the last sips of that final cup!

If you’re looking for a coffee with more character than drip that won’t rip through your budget like a Starbucks habit, look no further than a French press. Cheap beautiful coffee awaits you!