How to Use a French Press

How to Use a French Press

The device we know as a French press goes by many names: press pot, coffee press, and coffee plunger are all common titles in the English-speaking world. Many of our friends in Europe know it as a cafetiére, and in France, the little brewer is called a cafetiére á piston. This diversity of titles is a testament to its popularity. Nowadays, the device is found pretty much everywhere that coffee is consumed. It's a simple, no-nonsense way to brew a small batch of rich coffee. Once you figure out how to use a French press, it’s easy to add the hand-crafted brew to your menu.

The history of the French press is somewhat murky. Many conclude that it evolved from a more basic method of brewing that involved using cheesecloth to press coffee grounds to the bottom of a boiling pot. No matter what inspired it, the first design intended for mass production was indeed conceived by two French gentlemen, Mayer and Delforge, who filed a patent in 1852 for a metal coffee pot with a simple ring and plunger assembly. Their design was imperfect, though. It couldn’t be manufactured with enough precision to prevent grounds from escaping around the mesh filter.

The first commercially viable patent for a press pot was filed by Italian designer Attilio Calimania in 1929. His design featured the inclusion of a rubber or wire gasket around the filter to form a better seal and reliably keep the grounds in the bottom of the pot. This design became the prototype for the first mass-produced French press, and the equipment we know today is largely unchanged from Calimania’s design.

Many devoted coffee drinkers consider the French press to be the very best way to create the world’s favorite caffeinated beverage. This method gives you better control over several factors in the brew cycle that other methods don’t – water temperature, steep time, grind size, and the amount of coffee used all play a part in how the end product tastes.

Coffee beans contain their own unique essential oils, called cafestol, which provide their own complex flavors to the brew. These oils get caught in the paper filter of a drip machine. With the French press method, those flavor-enhancing oils make it into your cup. The direct immersion of grounds in the brew water provides a more thorough extraction for a fuller, more complex flavor.

The Bean

A good batch of French-pressed coffee starts with good beans. Because the French press is so valued for its ability to bring out the full flavors of coffee, the fresher the beans you can find, the more delicious your product will end up being. Coffee flavors can vary dramatically depending on the variety, where they were grown, and how dark they were roasted. Most operators who offer fresh coffee brewed by a French press keep two or three varieties on hand to give patrons options to choose from.

The Grind

The next step is to grind your beans. Beans begin to lose flavor after they’re ground, so it is recommended that you grind beans fresh for each batch. The optimal grind for a French press is significantly coarser than with drip coffee.

If the instructions for your grinder don’t provide a setting for French press, set it about 34 of the way to the coarsest grind available. You’re shooting for a consistency similar to that of bread crumbs or sea salt. Too fine a grind means you’ll end up with sludge in the coffee cup. To achieve a uniform grind, don’t skimp on which grinder you use. Only a burr grinder can provide the uniformity required for a superior cup. See our Coffee Grinders Buyers' Guide for help choosing the right grinder.

The Water

Although it’s rarely stated, you should never forget that a cup of coffee is indeed 98.8 percent water, so the water you use to brew your coffee matters. Hard water can have a negative effect on the taste of coffee, so it’s best to start with water that has been purified to remove dissolved minerals. Getting your water from a purified source, like a hot water dispenser that’s attached to a water filter, can greatly improve the taste of your coffee.

Once your water is clean, it’s time to get it hot. The optimal temperature for brewing water is 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s fine to boil your water using a kettle or stovetop, but since boiling water will be at least 212 degrees Fahrenheit, you should let it cool for a few moments before using it. A simple thermometer works very well for pouring at the perfect temperature. Many traditional coffee brewers have a built-in hot water dispenser that can be used to source water for your French press. If you want to go this route, just be sure verify the temperature before you rely on it.

The Process

Now that you have everything you need to brew using your French press, the next step is to put it all together.

  1. Remove the lid and plunger assembly and scoop about one ounce of ground coffee per cup into the carafe; you can use less or more to taste.
  2. Pour in just enough water to cover the grounds. Wait about 30 seconds while water saturates. This will help ensure a thorough extraction and a rich flavor.
  3. Pour in the rest of the water and stir the mixture a few times with a spoon. This will ensure that all the grounds are in contact with water for an optimal extract.
  4. Cover the device with the lid, leaving the plunger up, and let the coffee brew for 3 to 4 minutes; the longer you let it steep, the stronger the resulting beverage will taste.
  5. With the press resting on a stable surface, press the plunger down. Go slow and steady to ensure that no grounds are forced past the filter.
  6. The coffee is now ready to serve. If it is allowed to sit in the press it will develop a bitter flavor, so coffee that isn’t immediately served should be poured into an insulated vessel to be kept hot.