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The Friday Find: French Press Perfection

January 25, 2013

by Jonathan Kemp

french press

French Press coffee: the romantic way to prepare your morning brew.  Free of the squelching industrial machinations of espresso or the precise labor of pour-over, it is elegant in its simplicity, the elemental steeping of coffee with hot water.  Best of all, it works its silent magic while you prepare the rest of your breakfast. What follows is a guide for French Press Perfection, but while this may be over the top in its detailed rigor, hopefully one or two of these nuggets of coffee geekdom will start you on your own quest for the best press.

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Coffee from a grower named Ricardo ‘El Tigre’ Zelaya in Antigua, Guatemala.  Imported and roasted by Stumptown Coffee. Handpicked and sun dried!

The Beans

Nowadays we are in the midst of what experts call the “Third Wave.”  The first being Folgers in a can, the second being Starbucks’ heavy, dark roasting, and the third being the emergence of smaller roasters sourcing beans from single origins and roasting to a lighter matte finish, preserving the distinctiveness and nuance that separates Colombia from Mexico, Rwanda from Ethiopia, and Bourbon varietals from Caturra.  In this way coffee is becoming more like wine, with the attention going to the growers instead of the bigger roasting houses or brands.  There is an additional emphasis on fresh beans, ground just before brewing.

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Two blends by Cuvee Coffee Roasters of Austin, Texas.  Specifically blended for Caffe Medici and Jo’s, two of the best places in Austin for top notch coffee.

Stumptown from Portland, Cuvee from Austin, Blue Bottle from San Francisco, and Intelligentsia from Chicago are just a few of the “Third Wave” names to look for, but there are many more.  Each offers a wide range of coffees all with different taste profiles and quirks to explore.  Try to buy only as much as you will use within 2-3 weeks after opening.  Fresh is best!

The Grind

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Baratza Maestro Plus grinder with airtight containers for storing coffee.

The one picky trait of French Press is how it exposes a bad grind.  It really is worth investing in a good burr grinder if you are serious about press pot brewing, whereas methods that use a paper filter are usually more forgiving of the unevenness that comes out of a whirly-blade-type grinders, which really just chops the beans instead of grinding them to an even size.  The most frugal way to get a good burr grinder is by using some elbow grease and purchasing a hand grinder, like the one from Hario pictured below.  On a coarser setting, which is what you’ll use for French Press, it really doesn’t take too much effort and the results will be noticeable, and for $35 or $40, they are only $15 more than the typical blade grinder, so a pretty good investment.  For the more committed, an electric burr grinder like a Baratza Encore is even better, and is a cinch to use.  These are $130 new but if you look hard enough you can find some good ones secondhand.  I managed to find a minty Baratza Maestro Plus (recently discontinued) and a brand new Bodum French Press for just $65 after scouring Craigslist.  It was even worth the trudge through the snow.

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The Hario Skerton ceramic hand-cranked coffee grinder. Put some muscle into your grind.

The exact size of the grind is subject to debate, but it’s usually best to go for something that resembles fine sea salt or ground black pepper, nothing too coarse, and nothing as fine as what you would put into a drip machine.  A good rule of thumb is that if you can press the plunger down without any resistance, it’s too coarse, and if it’s too hard to press the coffee, then you have too fine of a grind.  Experiment here to find what works best for you, though we’ve had the best results with #30 on a Baratza Maestro Plus, even though it takes a little effort to press the plunger down.

The Golden Ratio

After a lot of trial and error, we have settled firmly upon 1 TBSP of coffee to every 3 oz. of water.  More water and you get overextracted, weaker coffee that lacks pizazz.  This is a really nice balance here that works with other methods, too, not just press pot.

The standard French Press is 8 cups, but these are not actual cups, these are 4 oz. cups.  Basically it just means that the pot can hold 32 oz.  Confusing, for sure.  Based on the ratio above, this means that you would add 30 oz. of water to 10 TBSP of coffee, which should be a generous amount for two thirsty adults.  You could also do 27 oz. of water and 9 TBSP coffee, 24 oz. and 8 TBSP, et cetera.  By the way, measuring the coffee whole, before grinding, usually works fine, and is a lot less messy than trying to measure out ground coffee.

The Method

1. Boil lots of fresh, clean water, filtered if necessary.  You’ll need probably twice as much water as you’ll actually use for brewing.

2. Grind the beans, using the ratio above of 1 TBSP of coffee to every 3 oz. of water.

3. When the water comes to a boil, fill up the French Press with the hot water and then transfer this water to the mugs you’ll be using to heat them up and keep your coffee nice and hot for longer.

4.  Add the ground coffee to the empty press.

5.  Make sure the water is still right at boiling and then measure out the right amount of water in a Pyrex or other glass measuring cup.

6.  Add the boiling water to the coffee grounds in a steady stream and try to wet the grounds evenly.

7.  Put the top on the press with the plunger all the way at the top, and set a timer for 4:00.

8.  After 1:00, take the top off to stir the grounds lightly and break up the crust.  A butter knife works perfectly for this.  Then put the top back on.

9.  When the timer goes off, take the top off again, and give it a quick stir with the butter knife before putting the top back on.

10.  Press the plunger down firmly but evenly until it reaches the bottom.  This may take 20 seconds.

11.  Empty the hot water our of your cup and pour the coffee immediately.  Don’t let it sit in the pot, it will get really nasty after 5 minutes.

12. That’s it!  Sit back and enjoy your Perfect French Press.

Today’s Friday Find is written and photographed by Jonathan Kemp, New York City wine professional, musician, photographer, and coffee perfectionist. You can learn more about him on his website Earth To Jonathan. You should also follow him on Instagram and Flickr.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 25, 2013 2:51 pm

    We have one every morning – I love my French press…. both of them actually.

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