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For my first post in my new series “Brewing Methods” i’ll cover the French Press. Have you ever wondered where it originated, what you needed to start and how to use it? Well then this post is for you!

French Press: Origins

It is uncertain where the French Press originated. Both the French and the Italians claim to have invented this method. The French tell the story dating back to the mid 1800’s of a distracted man that normally boiled water and coffee grounds together. Being distracted he boiled the water but forgot the grounds. Not wanting to let the boiled water go to waste he added the grounds to the already boiling water. The grounds eventually floated to the top and the frenchman had to find a way to filter the water to be able to drink it. Using a mesh of equally unknown origin he pushed the grounds down into the water and the French Press was born. In the late 19th century two frenchmen, Mayer and Delforge, filed a patent.

In 1929 the Italian Attilio Calimani filed a patent for a refined design of the same principle. He described a metal pot with a plunger operated mesh strainer using a rubber edge or a flexible spring to scrape the inside of the pot. Later, in 1935, Bruno Cassol filed a patent for a renewed mesh that is still being used today. Later still, in 1958, Faliero Bondanini filed a patent of his own before starting mass production in a french clarinet factory.

Plunger coffee

The French Press has different names around the world. In Italy it’s called a “caffettiera a stantuffo”, the Dutch and English “cafetière”. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa call it a “coffee plunger” and the resulting brew “plunger coffee”. Ironically the French don’t call it a French Press at all but “cafetière à piston”, which roughly translates to coffee plunger as well.

How does it work?

The French Press is a very simple device that yields a very rewarding cup of coffee if used properly. It isn’t too difficult to use though. Basically coffee grounds are added to water that is just below boiling temperature. The coffee is then steeped in the water for a set amount of time before pushing the plunger down and pouring the brew into a cup.

What do I need?

  • Fresh roasted coffee (whole beans)
  • Water
  • Kettle
  • Grinder
  • Scale
  • French Press
  • Spoon
  • Cup(s)
  • Clock

Step by step instructions

  1. Boil the water
    Boil water

    Boil more water than you need, some of it will evaporate!

  2. Measure the correct amount of beans
    Measure the correct amount of beans to grind

    Close enough to 52 grams of whole beans

  3. Grind the beans on a medium – coarse setting and re-weigh
    Re-weigh the beans after grinding

    Lost 0.07 grams in the grinder.

  4. When the water starts to boil turn off the heat and let it cool for a few minutes to about 90 – 95C / 195 – 202F
    Let the boiling water cool down for a bit

    95 degrees Celcius, perfect!

  5. Pour about a centimeter or half an inch of water into the French Press and the cup(s) to pre-heat them
    Pre-heat the French Press and cups

    To avoid temperature shock, pre-heat the French Press and cup(s)

  6. Empty the French Press back into the kettle and add the coffee grounds to the empty French Press
    Add ground coffee in to the French Press

    Add the ground coffee in to the French Press

  7. Fill the French Press with just enough water to properly saturate the grounds
    Saturate the grounds

    Saturate the grounds with part of the water

  8. After about a minute, fill the French Press all the way up to about 2.5cm or 1 inch below the top
    Add the rest of the water

    Add the rest of the water to the French Press

  9. Pull the plunger all the way into the lid and put it on the French Press with the opening facing towards the spout. Don’t press down just yet
    Put the lid on the French Press to preserve the heat

    Put the lid on the French Press to preserve the heat

  10. Let the brew steep for another 3 to 3 ½ minutes
    Steep for another 3 - 3.5 minutes

    Keep an eye on the time!

  11. Push the plunger down gently without compressing the grounds against the bottom of the French Press
    Press the plunger down gently

    Press the plunger down gently, but don’t compress the grounds

  12. Empty the water out of your cup and fill it up with your fresh brew
    Pour the coffee into a pre-heated cup

    Fill Donald up with some coffee, looks like he could use some…

  13. Pour the rest of the coffee into a thermos
    Pour the rest of the coffee into a thermos

    To prevent over-extraction, pour the rest of the coffee into a thermos

  14. Enjoy!

    Plunger Coffee is noticeably muddier than coffee brewed using a filter method

If you’ve brewed more than you can drink in a reasonable amount of time you can either skim the grounds off the top of the water before pushing the plunger down or pour the brew into a thermos. Leaving the brew and grounds in the French Press after the 4 minute mark causes over-extraction resulting in a strong but very bitter taste. When skimming the grounds before plunging, don’t worry about getting absolutely everything out.

There are a number of variables in the process above, starting with the coarseness of the grind. If you find a lot of sediments in your cup you’ve ground the coffee too fine for the mesh on your plunger to filter. A watery taste is generally caused by grinding too coarse. Be aware though that French Press coffee is generally not as clear as a filtered extraction.

The second variable is the water to coffee ratio. A general rule of thumb is to start with a 1 to 17 ratio. 1 scoop of coffee to 17 scoops of water. 1 Gram of coffee to 17 grams of water. For my 900ml French Press that results in 900 / 17 = ~52 grams of ground coffee. Obviously if you dislike the taste you can adjust up or down from there.

The third variable is the brewing temperature. In step 3 we let the boiling water cool down a bit to about 90 – 95C or 195 to 202F. If the water is too hot it will dissolve certain acids from the coffee that result in a very sour taste. Some people also agitate the coffee by stirring it during the 3 – 3 ½ extraction window. If and how much you stir is entirely up to you. Stirring cools down the water and causes different acids and flavours to be released during the extraction.

The result

As I mentioned before the French Press brewing method results in a less clear, more muddier coffee than methods that use a filter of sorts like pour-over or drip methods. The mesh screen on the plunger serves as a filter of sorts but isn’t fine enough to filter all the smaller particles out like a paper filter does.

For now, I’ll finish my plunger coffee and start writing the next chapter in the series “Brewing Methods”. If you have questions or suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Have fun 😉

There are 7 more articles in the Brewing Methods series: The Moka Pot, The Vacuum Coffee Maker, Turkish Coffee, The AeroPressHario V60, Cold Brew Coffee and Espresso.

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