The French Press


The French Press

Over the last few days I’ve had several people come up to me and ask me about how to use a French press. Using a French press is an excellent way to make coffee, as long as it’s done correctly. If you fail to do it correctly, it will be painfully obvious. It can come out too weak, it can come out too strong, with the strong flavors seeming rather muddy, or there can be catastrophic failure such as I have had in the past by pushing the plunger down too hard and breaking out the bottom of the carafe. That being said, this is not rocket science and with some basic protocols anyone can make excellent coffee with a French press.

With the French press you basically have two components. Technically you could break it down into smaller components but we’ll cover that when we talk about how to clean a French press. The two parts are the carafe and the plunger. The carafe is the glass jar which the coffee brews in. The plunger part is a screen filter which acts in many ways like the screen filter in a drip coffee maker. What sets the French press apart from the drip coffee maker is the fact that all the water is in contact with all the grounds for the duration of brewing, versus the water just passing through the grounds as it is in a drip pot. The way that I look at it is like being a visitor to another country. If I passed through a small town and I got out of my car to look around little bit, bought of a couple souvenirs and left, the town that I had just left would have had very little impact on me. However, if I were to stay in that little town for a month, being completely immersed, its impact on me would be much greater. Fully immersed coffee grounds have a stronger impact on water in the same way.

Choosing the right coffee for your French press is where the fun begins–at the least for me it is. There are two basic things to consider: roast and coffee origin. You can take any coffee from around the world and roast it to fit into one of three basic categories: Columbian, French, or Italian. What sets these categories apart is roasting time and, in turn, the color of the bean. Columbian is the lightest of the roasts, then French, and finally Italian, with Italian roast being essentially burnt. Coffee origin is the next thing to consider. When selecting your coffee, Ethiopia is the motherland of coffee, followed by Mocha. It was there that coffee was originally cultivated and became what we know it to be today. I would suggest starting off in these two regions and working your way out from there. Most roasters tell you what to expect on the bag, so be sure to look. Tastes and flavors can range from creamy and mild to wine like and fruity. You can even buy wood-fire roasted beans that add a whole other dimension to the coffee.

It is very important to understand that water temperature needs to be at around 180f— in celsius this is whatever the number is across from the 180f mark on your thermometer. In a pot you can tell that the water is around 180f when bubbles form on the bottom of the pot and steam is rising. When the little bubbles start popping on the bottom, the water is close to 190f. This 180 temperature is important because of what are known as volatile compounds. Volatile compounds are what coffee is all about; they are what give coffee its flavor. You want to keep as many in the coffee as possible. It’s a balancing act of enough heat to release flavor, but not so much that the flavor released just evaporates away. And above 180f, that is what happens. In the kitchen the rule is, whatever you are smelling you’re not tasting. The more delicate an ingredient the less cooking time it has, or the lower the temperature it is cooked, or both. So the game that we play with coffee is to have the water hot enough to extract the flavors and tastes but not so hot that the steam runs away with them.