The French press, despite its name, likely didn’t originate in France. Much like French fries, French kissing, and the French bulldog, the coffee press as it is more accurately known is basically a beaker with a filter at the end of a plunger, designed to press down coffee grounds after steeping them in hot water. It’s likely that the press originated in Italy, and it was in fact an Italian designer who first patented the press in the early 20th century. Coffee culture in Europe largely originated in Italy, and spread out from the south, competing with the discovery and spread of tea from Asia.
Operating a French press is quite simple, although it’s the mastery of the press and the coffee it produces that makes it such a staple among coffee lovers. You begin with the press itself, some hot water, and an adequate amount of coarsely ground coffee. Too coarse, and the coffee won’t steep right. Too fine, and much of your coffee will come out as a sludge, passing through the filter. Burr-ground coffee is ideal, ground just coarsely enough to be like sand. This coffee is first weighed then placed into he beaker. The water added to the coffee has to be 199-205 °F, or 93-95 °C, at a ratio of 1:12-1:15, depending on your taste. After pouring, a few seconds is given for the aroma to bloom. Then, take a wooden implement and gently stir the grounds, before using the plunger to cover them. Don’t press just yet! Wait at least four minutes, or longer, depending on the coffee, and then press. There should be some resistance, but not too much – and not too little. Finally, serve.
Why Do People Use French Presses?
Despite their reputation as being part of a coffee snob’s essential home repertoire, the coffee press is simply one of the cheaper and more practical ways to brew coffee. Some of the advantages a press has over your average coffee maker machine is that the press is more reliable, does not require electricity to function, requires less maintenance, costs less over a longer period of time (due to requiring fewer replacements) produces consistently good coffee (if you measure your coffee properly), and works much better for travel purposes than a percolator, which is typically much heavier, and it is less wasteful than paper filter pour-over coffee. Finally, it’s also very easy to find replacement parts in most cases, meaning even if something breaks, you don’t have to get an entirely new press.
The press is, in every regard, the superior coffee maker and remains to be the easiest and quickest way to make good brewed coffee. It’s also a great way to brew and infuse light loose tea, if you want to take better care of the environment and don’t enjoy the taste of tea in teabags.
Finally, there is a historic aspect to it. European brewed coffee is traditionally prepared through a press, although there are several other ways of brewing coffee. One of the arguably simplest and oldest ways of making coffee is the Turkish method, for example, popularized throughout the Ottoman Empire and south and eastern Europe, which utilizes a special narrow-topped pot called a cezve or briki, combining very finely ground roasted coffee and sugar with water, brought to a very short boil several times, before waiting for the grounds to completely settle before serving. A common test to see if the coffee was ready after its second or third boil was to use a thin spoon and see if it could stand on its own in the bottom of the cezve.
But as far as the use of coffee and the preparation time is concerned, bar more modern electronic methods, the French press is perhaps the easiest, quickest, and most reliable way to make a damn good pot of coffee.
How to Care for Your French Press
Here are a few quick pointers for ensuring the longevity of your press and making sure that it’s always going to produce fresh and delicious coffee:
- Use filtered, preferably distilled water when making coffee. Avoid mineral water, avoid tap water, and most definitely avoid hard tap water (the kind with a high talc content).
- Wash your press between each use, using mild detergent, and thoroughly rinse the filter with water to ensure that no loose grounds are caught inside the filter. Most presses let you screw the plunger apart, so you can more thoroughly clean your filter once in a while.
- Dry your press between uses and keep it dry when not in use. Wash it out before making coffee, so any sediment or dust particles are rinsed out before you make your next pot of fresh coffee.
- Never use a metal spoon, metal spatula, or metal scrub pad when cleaning your French press. Don’t use a metal spoon for stirring, either. This is to prevent any damage or scratching on the glass.
- Don’t toss the grounds down the sink. Despite what you might think and what conventional wisdom might have told you, coffee grounds do not in fact help unclog your sink. In fact, they do the opposite, giving you a massive clogging problem. This is especially true if you happen to make coffee with breakfast, as the oils of common breakfast foods like butter and bacon harden and solidify around the grounds inside your plumbing, creating a very rancid and solid mess.
- Ideally, remove the glass beaker from its frame if you’re using a press with a glass beaker. You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea to clean between the beaker and the frame.
A French press is not a particularly delicate thing, so you don’t have to be too delicate with it – but it’s a good rule of thumb to generally avoid putting metal to glass. Aside from that, feel free to scrub the filters out, thoroughly rinse the plunger and frame, and use any drying method you prefer to keep it clean and dry and prevent any unwanted water marks on the glass.
Making the Perfect Cup of Coffee
There are several ways to use the French press in the making of coffee. While the ratio I gave above is a general idea of what you should be using, it might help more to give actual gram and milliliter values to those at home. Before we go any further, it’s important to let you know that a scale is crucial here. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mechanical scale or an electronic one. Just take note of the weight of your beaker and frame, and then subtract that from the result on the scale after pouring your grounds into the beaker to tell how much coffee you’ve got. Alternatively, adjust your scale to compensate for the weight of the beaker, and ignore it.
Once you’ve got your scale ready, bring out the grounds. They should be evenly coarse, which is generally impossible with a blade grinder. It’s generally recommended to buy a burr grinder for this purpose, or some other special grinder that allows you to specify whether you want coarse or fine coffee. Coffee that is too fine is often too easily over-extracted, creating very bitter coffee with a smaller amount of coffee while also making it very difficult to push on the plunger due to sedimentation.
Once you’ve ground your roasted coffee to the appropriate level of coarseness – something similar to sand – it’s time to whip out a thermometer and get to boiling your water. Once again, it’s recommended to use filtered or distilled water, the kind that’s as close to dead H2O as you can get. Avoid mineral water, or hard water of any kind. Bring your water to a boil and keep an eye on its temperature with the preferred method of your choice. Ideally, buy a kettle with a thermometer. You want the coffee to be at most 96°C, and ideally a little cooler. It’s at this point that the water is hot enough to release the coffee’s aromatic oils, while staying just below the boiling point, where coffee’s bitter acids start to leak.
At this point, it’s time to stir and steep. Some people like to pour about half of their designated water, giving the coffee a second to bloom, before pouring the rest. It’s really up to you, as long as you get it all in there and then give the whole thing a stir. I use a wooden chopstick, but any heat resistant non-metallic implement will do. Give it a gentle stir, stirring from the bottom up, to make sure the grounds are evenly distributed. Then, place the plunger over the coffee and press down gently until the filter reaches the edge of the coffee, but no more. Let it sit for no less than 3 minutes and no more than 4 minutes. Too little time, and it won’t have had enough time to steep. Too long, and the coffee will over-extract, becoming too bitter and blending out the aromatic flavors within each unique blend of beans.
Finally, we’ve come to the part that matters the most – the ratio. For 900ml of water, here’s what you’re looking at:
- For a mild coffee, use 9 tbsp, or 55g.
- For a stronger coffee, use 15 tbsp, or 89g.
Feel free to play around with these numbers as you see fit, but generally stay between these parameters.
That’s about it! A good coffee is always going to be a matter of preference, so I left a lot of things open, like how long you’d like your coffee to steep or how much of it you’d like. I definitely love a strong brew, and arguably my favorite kind of coffee is a face-slapping double espresso after a long, heavy lunch, so go with your heart on this one.