The French Press is an unmistakable, iconic brewing device, found in homes and coffee shops around the world since it first became well known in the late 1920s. Today, it represents many coffee enthusiasts’ initial leap of faith into manual brewing methods, and for good reason! Easy to operate, clean, and brew enough for brunch.
For decades, the French Press recipe has been universally accepted with minimal contention – grind coarse, fill with water, and plunge hard at the four minute mark. Voila! Over the past few years, however, we’ve continued learning more about the science of coffee extraction (what the water pulls from the coffee grounds into the final brew). This new understanding of extraction, coupled with a lighter roasting style, has led us to rethink the French Press recipe. We’ve made a key change that we believe to help consistently brew tastier coffee.
Traditional theory states that you must grind nearly as coarse as possible for French Press brewing. The thought process here is that (a) coarse grinds won’t pass through the filter, settling in your final brew, and (b) because the coffee sits with water for a long period of time, a coarser grind will prevent bitterness from over-extraction.
Below, we’ll take you on a journey through our thought process to show how and why we’ve landed on our revised recipe!
AS COARSE AS POSSIBLE
Even if you’re grinding coarse, all grinders will still produce a certain amount of fines (extremely small, powder-like coffee particles). This is what passes through the mesh filter and settles in the final brew, regardless of where you grind anywhere in the medium to coarse range! We feel that part of the French Press charm is the heavy, sticky mouthfeel created by these particles. This led us to think…maybe a coarse grind isn’t necessary?
The French Press is what we call an immersion brew method, defined by coffee steeping in a fixed amount of water within the same vessel. We’ve learned that this particular method is relatively inefficient at extraction. It lacks the continuous agitation and addition of fresh solvent (water), that makes percolation brewing methods (ie. drip coffee) more efficient in producing high extractions and flavor-packed coffee.
Because the French Press recipe was created well before the age of specialty coffee and lighter roasting styles, it was traditionally used with only dark roasts. Through this lens, the logic used to create the original recipe makes sense. Darker roasts are already prone to tasting more bitter and harsh; and thus, the longer they sit with water, the more concentrated those flavors become. A coarser grind would help slow down the extraction and theoretically keep the coffee tasting more smooth and mild. This led us to think…well what if we’re brewing lighter roasts?
The darker a coffee is roasted, the more soluble the compounds are that make up those seeds. Thus, dark roasted coffees will extract faster and begin to taste bitter faster than their lighter roasted counterparts.
The opposite is true for lighter roasted coffees. We’ve observed that when brewing our coffee using an immersion method, it extracts slower and exhibits minimal bitterness. Even with longer brew times! Because of this, when we use the French Press to brew lighter roasted coffees in the traditional coarse-grind method, our results are very lackluster. The flavors are weak, dilute, and muted.
Coarse grind sizes, immersion brewing, and lighter roasting, are all slowing down extraction. Two of these are fixed in our scenario, so we needed to address the grind size.
Quite simply, we need to grind finer to pull out more flavor! We’ve found that our French Press brews are more full, sweet, and flavorful at finer grind sizes.
We prefer to grind more in the true medium range of a grinder. Aim for something similar to the grind size that you would use for a single cup pour over.
We know, this goes against French Press lore! It looks and feels odd! Trust us. It’s super tasty.
Ok yeah sure, but won’t it be harder to push down the plunger now?
Maybe a little bit! Have no fear; it’s definitely not a cause for concern. Ideally, we recommend pushing the plunger down very gently anyways. This should help with minimizing extra agitation that could lead to grittier brews.
Ok yeah sure, but what if I liked flavors better with a really coarse grind?
Right on! That’s great. We’re not here to preach on what’s objectively the best and proper way to brew. This is simply our preferred method. We believe coffee is as much (or more) about personal experiences and memories and habits as it is about science. Though our default grind size for French Press will be one that’s finer, we’re happy to accommodate any grind size you’d like! If you’re a customer in the cafe or online, please talk to your barista or shoot us an email; and we’ll gladly grind coarser for your French Press.
For more info on our specific French Press brewing methods, check out the brew guide here. We’re currently loving Fazenda Da Mata and Juan Rodriguez brewed on the French Press. Both are showcasing a full body and loads of chocolate and brown sugar sweetness. Give the finer grind a shot and let us know what you think!