In the United States, the device is typically known as a French press or a coffee press, though any of the other names (press pot, coffee plunger, or cafetiere a piston) might be used depending on who is making the coffee and where they got their training. Under any name, though, a French press is an absolute must-have for any coffee lover to improve the quality of the cups that they can produce at home. Except in very special circumstances, the cup of coffee that a French press can produce easily outmatches the result of using the same kinds of beans in a drip machine.
A French press is easy to use, despite what you may have heard. To successfully make a great cup of coffee with it, simply add coarsely-ground, high-quality coffee beans, then add hot water, usually freshly boiled, stir, place the plunger in the press just to hold the coffee down in the hot water, and let it brew for 3-6 minutes, usually 4 (depending on the desired outcome and the roast and type of beans). When the time has passed, simply gently press the plunger down and pour yourself a great cup of hot coffee straight out of the press.
One of the most important aspects of successfully making a great cup of coffee with a French press is using coarsely ground coffee. Many burr-style coffee grinders have a setting that allows you to choose the grind, and for a French press, choose coarse grinds. For mill grinders, which typically don't have such a setting feature, expect an uneven grind and a sub-optimal cup, but a relatively coarse grind can be achieved by grinding the beans for a shorter period of time, maybe 8-10 seconds depending on your grinder. The pre-ground beans at the store will almost always be "drip grind," which is for drip machines which do best with a relatively fine grind, and so they are a poor choice for that reason (and because they are typically quite stale before the water ever touches them!).
The most important aspects of making great coffee with a French press, however, are to choose good-quality coffee and to use enough of it. For a 10-12 oz. mug, 4 tablespoons (2 scoops) of fresh, high-quality beans are required to get a really good result. Also, if you choose poor-quality beans, then you can expect a poor-quality result, so expect to be paying at least $10 a pound for your coffee and try to make sure (ask if necessary) that you're getting fresh beans, since roasted coffee goes stale and loses much of its flavor within about two weeks.
What exactly is a French press? Though it wasn't invented in its present form until around 1850 and wasn't patented until around 1930, the French press is a very simple device. It consists of a brewing cylinder, actually a beaker, almost always made of glass (though plastic presses are available for the clumsy) that is equipped with a lid and a "plunger," which is typically made of metal (though again can be had in plastic) and which is equipped with a fine mesh filter made of either metal or nylon. The filter is held against the sides of the beaker, usually by a spring, and filters all but the finest of particles from the coffee when it is pressed down. In the meantime, before the actual pressing (which isn't designed to extract flavors so much as push down the grinds and separate them from the brew), the coffee grinds get unfettered access to the hot water in the French press and can brew thoroughly and naturally, providing a nice full cup with good balance and a full spectrum of the coffee's flavor-giving aromatic oils. In other words, a French press is an open door to properly and fully experiencing the flavor of the coffee you've chosen to brew in it.
To get great coffee from your great beans essentially every time, follow these simple steps:
1. Choose great, fresh coffee beans first, especially if they're locally roasted beans. Don't be shy to ask to make sure you're getting what you want.
2. When you start making the coffee, boil the water first. It's wise to measure the amount you will use in the actual mugs you intend to fill and just boil that plus just a little.
3. When the water just finishes boiling, take it off the heat and immediately grind your beans to a coarse grind and put them into the French press (ensuring the maximum amount of aromatic oils are still in the coffee when it's gets into the press). Don't be cheap here: two coffee scoops (about four tablespoons) of beans per 10-12 oz. cup you intend to brew.
4. Add the hot water and stir with a wooden or plastic spoon or rod. You can tell at this point if the coffee was fresh or not because if it is, it will "bloom," meaning it will be very foamy and bubbly at the top. Start the timer as soon as you finish pouring the water in. It should be set to around 4 minutes, though when you're more experienced, you can adjust it a little at a time to find the perfect brew for your beans (10-15 seconds can make a significant difference!).
5. Wait (timed) about one minute of the intended brewing time and stir the coffee again. Then place the plunger into the French press and push it down until it holds the grinds just under the water.
6. Wait the remaining time and press the plunger the rest of the way down. Pour the coffee straight from the press and into your mugs or a carafe (pronounced: ca-raff).
7. Do not leave coffee in the French press for a second cup later or the coffee you leave in there will become very bitter (after about 20 minutes or even a little less). To keep it warm, either pour it into a thermos or insulated carafe or simply fill another mug and put a small plate over the top. That will prevent much of the heat from escaping while you enjoy the first cup.
"But I've heard about sediment in my cup...." Indeed, a French press will not filter out the finest particles (the paper filter in your drip machine will, however, along with many of the flavorful oils). Thus, by the time you reach the bottom of your cup, a thin layer of fine sediment (or "mud") will be there waiting for you. Purists often swirl their cups when they're nearly empty and drink the dregs down, which is fine, but it is also acceptable to simply drink down to the dregs, taking the last sips slowly, and to leave them in the bottom of the cup. As a practical tip, if you leave them there, rinse your mug sooner rather than later to ease the dishes-doing process! As for what they taste like: they taste like coffee and are so fine as to be barely noticeable. They're certainly not harmful in any way.
You can buy a nice French press locally in Knoxville at most stores that carry kitchen gadgets and housewares including Target. They're also frequently available at Starbucks stores and in finer housewares stores. You can expect to pay about $20 for a French press that can make up to 30-32 oz. of coffee at once (this size is pretty much standard and necessary for two 12 oz. mugs), though sometimes you can get one for a far better price at the Knoxville-area T.J.Maxx stores, so do check there. Get yourself some great locally roasted coffee from Maryville's Vienna Coffee Company (the only commercial-scale artisan roastery in the Knoxville area) by visiting their website or keeping your eyes open for it around town (e.g. at the Knoxville-area Earth Fare stores).
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