French Press Pouring

How to Brew French Press – The Coffee Lovers Definitive Guide

French Press Coffee is one of my favorite brew methods. It’s a simple process – relatively easy to do, and quite forgiving. So it turns out that French Press is one of the best brew methods for those of you getting into drinking finer coffee at home.

In any case, it is often the method that I recommend for certain types of coffee. There is a caveat because the type of coffee that you wish to drink (speaking in terms of, the way the coffee is roasted, light-medium-dark, and the nature of that coffee) can and should impact the brew method that you chose. Not all brew methods are created equal.

With that being said, French Press is fantastic, so let’s dive in and check it out.

First off – what is French Press Coffee? The French Press, or often simply just called a ‘press pot,’ is a pot within which you brew grounds by fully immersing them in water. After a certain period of time, you ‘press’ a handle with filter down through the coffee, forcing the grounds to the bottom, and leaving the incredibly tasty brewed coffee at the top (without 99% of the gritty coffee grounds in your drink).

This lets you get a delicious brewed, full-bodied cup of coffee which is relatively clean (depending on the quality and type of the French Press you use, as well as the quality of the grind and the coffee you brew with).

How to Brew French Press Coffee – A Simple Guide

Here is my simple to follow guide for making French Press Coffee, presuming a 32 oz (or 8 cup) pot.

1) Start with Fresh whole roasted beans (no pre-ground beans here).  [Pick Up Your Coffee Lovers Box and start with Great Coffee]

2) MEASURING: there are two ways to do this. You can measure using a scale (recommended for all methods), or for French Press you could get away with using a tablespoon. Weigh out 42-56 grams of coffee, or 6-8 tablespoons. This brew method is forgiving and you will likely want to experiment to find your preferred ‘ratio' (coffee to water).

By Weight: You’ll see the term ‘ratio’ used in any proper set of brewing guidelines. Brewed coffee is created when water ‘extracts’ the soluble components of roasted coffee. A good brew is determined by factors like grind size, brewing method, and the ratio of water to coffee measured by weight. Following these guidelines provides a standardized and consistent system. For the French Press, assuming you have a proper grind size, you can start by brewing with 16 grams of water for every 1 gram of coffee. This is noted as a 16:1 brewing ratio. 

By Volume: If you must brew by volume, it is prudent to weigh how much of your specific coffee is per tablespoon (or whatever unit of measurement). Not all coffee is equal by volume and the difference can be dramatic enough to make one brew excellent and the other terrible. Water can be measured by volume with this simple approximation – 1 gram of water = 1 ml of water.

3) Grind at a medium-coarse setting. I recommend starting with a grind size roughly similar to that of Kosher Salt. From there, remember the following. The coarser the grind size the longer it will take for the water to extract the coffee solids, and visa versa.  If your French Press is bitter and rather assaulting on your taste buds – the grind is probably too fine, so you should make your grind coarser. If it seems too watery, make your grind finer.  There are more purist ways of going about this, but that will get you started on the right path. The above troubleshooting is also dependent upon using the proper amount of coffee for the water (see Advanced Brewing).

4) After boiling your water, set the pot aside for 30-60 seconds (this is just to let it come down from the boil a little bit… a temperature of around 205 degrees F is recommended). Alternately, acquire a brew pot with a thermometer. You never want to brew with water just off the boil, as you can actually scald the grounds.

5) Add your ground coffee to the pot, add water up to the 32 oz mark (close to the top but not quite) – set a timer for 4 minutes and wait.

6) After 4 minutes, give your coffee a little stir, and then press the filter down – don't do this too fast. You might see people do this super slow, and that's not really necessary. The reason for pressing slowly is to make sure the filter doesn't let finer grinds through the sides as you press down. After stirring you likely won't feel any resistance, but the finer grinds will be agitated and may creep up the sides past the filter if you push with too much force.

7) Pour and enjoy! I recommend trying your french press coffee without anything added to it at first – this will help you learn the finer flavor elements of the coffee itself, and help you fine tune your brew process to make even better coffee.

8) WASH your French Press! Soap is not necessary, just be sure to rinse off all the grounds – especially around the filter. Every so often you will want to use soap, as the coffee oils can build up.

 The filter of a Frieling French Press

It is a Simple Joy

The delightful aspect of French Press is that the process is incredibly simple. You are merely brewing fully immersed coffee in a container, and then straining it. Ideally, you do this with a press pot – that is, a container made to brew coffee which can be glass, plastic, metal, etc, which has a top that contains a built-in ‘plunger’ that lets you press a filter through the container, pushing the coffee grounds to the bottom.  However, the coffee you get from French Press is really all about the immersive nature of the brew, and not the pressing of the grounds to the bottom of the pot.

This means you can replicate french press style coffee without a press pot. All you need is a way to fully immerse your grounds in water during the brew time, and then remove the grounds from the brewed coffee afterward. I’ve done french press in a jar – and afterward poured it through a regular coffee filter (this actually resulted in an even smoother cup of coffee, because I used a paper filter with a much much finer mesh to it than the metal filter that typically comes in a french press). If you were of limited resources (or traveling, or camping, for example), you could brew in a pot and then strain your coffee through something like a sock (I would recommend a clean one).

So let’s talk about types of coffee. 

Why does the type of coffee matter? Here is a short explanation: The flavors of coffee are a result of extracting elements from the ground coffee beans with hot water. You are extracting acids and lipids. Without going into details, you can simply understand that acids are extracted faster than lipids – and acids are responsible for lighter/brighter flavors, while the lipids are responsible for deeper/richer/fuller flavors.  What matters here is the speed of ‘extraction.’

If you are interested in a more scientific explanation of the extraction of coffee, I recommend this article.

When you brew a French Press coffee, you are brewing for 4 minutes, and the grounds sit within this hot water the entire time. This means that there is time for the hot water to extract the lipids as well as the acids from the coffee – and your resulting brew is full of much more rich, deep, and ‘full-bodied’ flavors (this compares to a drip coffee, where the hot water passes through and past the beans in a matter of a seconds). In short, there are much more oils apparent in French Press after brewing. In addition to this, the lack of paper filter means those oils will not be filtered out – so your cup of coffee does end up with a lot more body simply due to the oils in it.

So what coffee is best with a French Press then? 

You can certainly enjoy any type of coffee in the French Press – don’t let the coffee you have available keep you from experimenting, however medium and darker roasts tend to be more enjoyable because they are balanced better in terms of flavor towards the lipid aspect of the coffee beans. You also get the benefit of more sugar caramelization in these coffees roasted deeper, and that comes out sweeter in immersion than a lighter roasted coffee. 

[Grab yourself one of my favorite dark roasted coffees – Conduit Coffee's ship Canal blend]

The best part about this brew method – aside from the fantastic coffee you get – is that it is so forgiving. There are some brew methods, I find, where precision with your measurements and water pouring technique are really necessary to achieve a consistently delicious brew.  In French Press, you can certainly be precise – if you find a recipe which you like the most – but you can also wing it. As an example, just the other night I made a french press with a new coffee. I did not have a scale on hand, so I simply eyeballed about 6 tablespoons worth of beans (into a 32 oz pot) and then filled the pot.  The resulting coffee tasted great.

So if you haven’t jumped into the adventure that is coffee, just go grab a french press, a grinder, and have fun!

French Press Pouring

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Advanced French Press Brewing

Now that you understand the basics of the French Press operation there are is a particular advanced method which can be used to HIGHLY elevate your French Press experience.

One of the defining characteristics of French Press is that you end up with all of the oils from the coffees in your mug. This is usually one of the main things responsible for the feeling of a fuller bodied cup of coffee. HOWEVER, these can often result in undesirable flavors – so, some folks have come up with a process of brewing with French Press that removes most of this.

The process I'm about to describe is actually quite similar to the brewing process used when cupping (tasting) coffee (check out my article all on cupping coffee here). I learned this from Tim Wendleboe – who is featured on the July 2015 Issue Cover of Coffee Lovers Magazine.

The differences in technique come after the brew is complete. Go through your normal French Press brewing process – grind, pour, and wait your 4 minutes. Do not cover. Be careful not to touch the French Press, or bump the table it is sitting on.

Take note that towards the end of the brew, there is sort of a foam layer on top of the brew in the French Press.

After the 4 minutes are up, take two spoons (you can do this with 1, but 2 is often easier), and very carefully scoop all the foam off the top of the brew. It is ok if you grab some of the grounds up there as well – the goal is to remove as much of the top layer as possible.

Once you have removed that layer, then you may put your lid back on, and slowly press through the coffee – and enjoy as usual.

Watch this process here:

You will discover that the brew is a bit lighter in feel and crisper in flavor. You still get all the benefits of the immersion brew – yet you remove a lot of the caustic elements which end up sitting at the top. If you have a particularly delicate, or finicky roast, this can be a great method to try out (or if you just want to experiment and have fun!).