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The French Press: a memoir

The French Press: a memoir

This week on the ANCR blog, we pay homage to one of the classics: the French press. Many of you already use a French press, and if you don’t I strongly recommend adding it to your coffee arsenal. It’s a great brewer because it is simple, portable, inexpensive, and its makes a strong, robust cup of coffee.

The French press is a triumph of functional design. It consists of only three pieces: a beaker, a lid, and a plunger. Coffee grounds are placed in the beaker, which is usually made of glass or plastic. The barista (that’s you!) pours hot water over the grounds, and allows the coffee steep for the preferred amount of time.  A lid is placed on the beaker which has a hole in the top to guide the plunger - a metal rod with a mesh filter fitted to the circumference of the beaker. Pushing on the plunger drives the grounds toward the bottom of the beaker, separating the grounds from the freshly brewed coffee.

My relationship with the French press began in 2010. A roommate, obviously far wiser than me, used his french press daily. Up to this point in my life, I was satisfied with a traditional Mr. Coffee drip coffee maker and a 10lb bag of Dunkin Donuts ground coffee from Costco.* The coffee from the French press was striking in its boldness. Because it uses a metal filter instead of paper, the oils in the coffee remain intact.  It is also more permeable filter, so you end up with a little more sediment in the coffee. While some people might not enjoy the thickness, it adds to that robust flavor and adds what I call “meatiness” to the coffee.

From 2011 through 2013, the French press was my go-to.  When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, I used some of my precious luggage space to bring a durable, stainless steel French press. Every morning, I would fire up the electric kettle and make a fresh pot of coffee with the beans from the care packages of loving friends and family. When I lived in New Zealand, the French press (the Kiwis actually call it a coffee plunger…they are a very literal people) was the only home coffee brewer you could find. Today, I ensure there is a French press anywhere I spend a lot of time; my wife and I keep one at the in-laws since my father-in-law lives and dies by his Maxwell House and his Bunn coffee maker.

I’ve shared my story and my affinity for the machine, and now I’d like to share some tips. With a press you want to use a coarser grind if possible (think sea salt), although I have used pre-ground store bought coffee with good results. The coarser the grind, the longer you will want to let it brew. I recommend about a 16:1 water-to-coffee ratio. If you don’t have a scale, my rule of thumb is one heaping tablespoon per 6 oz of water. Ideally you want to brew the coffee at a water temperature at around 205F (212F is boiling). This can be achieved by bringing your water to a boil and letting it sit for about 20 seconds before starting your brew.

Brewing in french press is pretty straightforward. (1) Put the grounds in the beaker. (2) Add some hot water to it. I start with only enough water to fully soak the grounds.  This will allow the gases in the coffee to escape, and it will begin the flavor extraction process. If the coffee is fresh, you will see the coffee bubble up and expand in what is called the bloom (that’s those gases escaping). Let it bloom for 30 seconds or so, and then I (3) gently stir before (4) slowly adding the rest of the water. (4.5) You can stir again if it looks like the grounds aren’t evenly mixed, but I find it usually doesn’t need it.  Let the coffee sit for 3 to 4 minutes (again, this is to your taste), and (5) gently press the plunger down.  If you are using a finer grind, it tends to clog the filter and make it difficult to press; if you are stuck, just lift the plunger an inch or so and begin pressing again. Once brewed, you want to drink it fast or move it to another container, since the coffee at the bottom will still be exposed to the grounds.

Voila! That is the french press. I hope this was helpful, and as always, please reach out to with questions, comments, or suggestions.

*not saying this is necessarily bad, and in a pinch I would certainly still drink it. While I prefer craft beer, occasionally a Bud Light or a PBR will do just fine.

  • Post author
    Matt Melton

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