How to Use a French Press

Jeremy Pieper

Jeremy Pieper / Heavy Table

The French press is one of the most basic yet intimidating methods of brewing coffee. The name alone frightens people into thinking that it is some form of elite French coffee brewing that requires extensive knowledge and an artistic touch. The reality is that the French press is one of the simplest ways to brew a high-quality cup of coffee.

The idea behind it is basic: You immerse the coffee fully in water and then press out the grounds. Before the press was invented, coffee was brewed by fully immersing the coffee beans in water and then using items like an egg, slices of cod, or some other ridiculous additive to create a reaction that would make the grounds sink to the bottom of the container.

The creation of the press allowed mankind to properly brew coffee without making it taste like egg yolks or fish. It opened up the door to nuances and flavors that are part of the natural make up of the bean.

The four key variables to consider are coffee quality, grind, water, and time. You must first select a whole bean coffee. Coffee that is pre-ground is most often ground for drip-style brewing unless it is stated otherwise. Selecting whole bean coffee will allow you to grind it to the desired coarseness for ideal extraction.

The grind for a French press is the coarsest grind of any mainstream brewing device. The grind should not feel powdery in your hand; it should feel crumbly and have a uniform look. A grind that is too fine will result in an over extracted coffee that tastes bitter and astringent. Too coarse a grind will result in an under extracted coffee that tastes weak and thin.

Jeremy Pieper

Jeremy Pieper

Water is one of the most important aspects of properly brewing in a French press. If the water has a poor taste before brewing, it will be present after brewing. Some coffee shops use filtration systems to create an ideal mineral content for brewing coffee. At home, it is important to trust your palate and experiment with your water. If your water has been softened too much, it can result in a weak and flavorless cup. If you have water with a high mineral content it might taste great, or it might detract from the taste of the coffee. A Brita water filter can be a quick and affordable fix that can greatly improve the quality of your coffee.

The water should be heated to 195-205° F. Simply taking a pot of water off of a boil for a few minutes will allow you to reach the ideal temperature for brewing your coffee.

Coffee should be ground after the water has been heated. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends that 8 oz of water be used with 14.5 grams of coffee; this translates into about 2 tbsp of coffee for every 8 oz.

After the water has been added to the coffee it should be stirred. The fresher the coffee, the greater the “bloom” will be. The bloom is when the coffee expands rapidly, forming a crust on the top of the press. If the coffee is old there will be little or no bloom. The coffee should be stirred at the beginning of the brewing process to ensure that all of the grounds can come in contact with the water.

The brew should take about 4 minutes. The brew can be shorter or longer depending on the desired taste. When the coffee is pressed, it should be done slowly and steadily such that the screen seals with the side of the press and all of the grounds are pressed to the bottom. The coffee should then be poured into cups. If coffee is left in the press, it will continue to extract flavor from the coffee grounds, resulting in over extraction.

If done properly, the French press will deliver a cup that is bold and beautiful, preserving the integrity of the terroir and diminishing the acidity of the cup so that the nuances of the coffee can be tasted and enjoyed.

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12 Comments

  1. Hi! Great article about how to use a press pot. We just launched a site that has a pretty detailed introduction to using a french press coffee maker and would love to hear what you think about it!

    Thanks,
    http://www.FrenchPressHowTo.com

  2. Eric,

    French press coffee is wonderful – nice article. One point – a pic of the proper grind would be very helpful.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  3. Well I weighed my coffee this morning. I had been using the 2T/8oz guideline before but didn’t know if that was 2T whole beans or 2T ground, so having a mass to work with was very useful. I’m not sure it made much of a difference in the taste of my coffee — the biggest difference there has been letting the water cool to the 195-205 range, which I started doing after Cook’s Illustrated published a coffee brewing guide in their last issue.

  4. I started using a French Press 5 years ago and have never looked back. It takes a little bit more time each morning, mainly because I have to clean everything out from the night before, but it’s so worth it. I grind my coffee at the co-op, which seems to be more coarse then I can do at home.

    Sad news is that I just broke my French Press this morning so I have to replace it.

  5. Oh, and another tip that I find that works well is to pour the extra boiling water into your coffee cup to preheat it. Helps keep the coffee hot once in a cup.

  6. I choose to believe that the Heavy Table is a resource for thoughtfully-produced specialty food and beverages which is why I continue to visit your website daily and follow you on Twitter.

    From the Heavy Table’s twitter feed on Aug. 25; “Digging the distinct but restrained banana note in this Berres Bros. Banana Nut Bread blend coffee http://berresbrothers.com

    With that being said, I have to ask if the Heavy Table is truly concerned or interested in specialty coffee and “preserving the integrity of the terroir” as stated by Eric to close his article. Flavored, mass-produced, blended, coffee-without-thought is far from preserving the integrity of the terroir… let alone any of the agricultural products that y’all write about.

    When the Heavy Table is consistent in thought and action with how it would like to approach coffee as a specialty beverage (and not a commodity) then I will be more than thrilled to refer to your articles as references.

    ‘Til then, how can I, as an active follower, respect and understand the words you have to say on any matter?

  7. Author
    Eric Faust 09/12/2009 Reply

    Shawn,
    The Heavy Table strives to write honestly about all topics. The fact that someone was enjoying what Berres Bros has to offer does not negate the fact that the French Press is an effective brewing device that “preserves the integrity of the terroir.”

    At the Heavy Table we do see coffee as a specialty beverage, but we are open and willing to taste and dissect all things coffee. If you are interested in learning more about coffee reduced to a commodity please check out the newest issue of Roast Magazine. I go into depth about the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange and what it means for Specialty Coffee.

    We hope that you continue to follow us and use us as a resource. Thank you.

  8. Eric,

    Thanks for the reply. I have a subscription to Roast and I’ve enjoyed your articles for the mag as well as your contributions to this website. True specialty coffee has few advocates among local publications.

  9. Shelley 09/21/2009 Reply

    A French press is definitely on my list of kitchen gadgets I’ve been pining after. It seems like a good addition to a Sunday morning breakfast when I’m not rushing to get ready for work and can concentrate on not being a complete klutz and breaking the beaker.

    Your article will be something I refer to whenever I get a French Press!

  10. Odd this post is totaly unrelated to what I was looking out google for, however it was once indexed on the first page. I guess your doing something right if Google likes you enough to place you on the first page of a non comparable search.

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