If you like good coffee and you've been using a drip machine, you're in for a treat. And unlike many other treats promised by the likes of Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and other overheated purveyors of faddish food gadgets, this one won't force you into pilfering the swear jar or require that you build new countertops.
The Freedom Press, err, French Press
The french press, also known as a plunge or press pot, has been around since the turn of the twentieth century. The idea is simple: you put large-grained coffee grounds into a cylinder, add water at around 185 degrees (just off the boil, as they say), wait a few minutes, then plunge the waterlogged grounds to the bottom and pour off the black gold.
It's simple. It's beautiful. It's fun. Your guests will ooh and ahh when you bring it to the table. But it's also super easy to make a lousy pot. Here's how to get the most from your french press.
First, make sure the coffee grinds are coarse. They should be little coffee nuggets, not powder or grains. Coarse salt comes to mind as a reasonable comparison, but then again, coarse salt varies quite a bit, too. I guess you'd have to say the grinds should be larger than drip grind, perhaps even double. To get a good idea, ask for a quarter of a pound ground on #12 at Peet's. You could try Starbucks, too, but good luck finding someone who will know what you're talking about.
And this brings me to the crux of the french press, and for that matter, all coffee preparation methods: get your coffee ground at your local coffee shop daily (ground beans only retain peak flavor for about 48 hours), or if that's not in the cards, invest in a conical burr grinder and buy whole beans to get good results.
The Daily Grind
But what, you say, about that whizzy, small grinder thing I put on my registry at Crate and Barrel? The truth is that those spinning blade grinders are great for making powder from whole spices, they're OK for grinding beans for drip coffee or any method that involves a paper filter, but they're lousy for the french press. French presses use a metal mesh filter that won't remove the tiny, powdery grinds made from the blade grinder. You end up with a cloudy, bitter, not so nice cup.
Really fast spinning blades smash the beans into ever smaller bits and chunks, and worse, they do it unevenly. That's why there's always coffee powder stuck to the bowl of the grinder and lots of oils from the beans transfer to the blades and grinder bowl. The result is chunky coffee bits of all sizes somewhat robbed of their precious aromatic oils. Worse, unless you're assiduous about cleaning your grinder, you'll eventually have rancid coffee oils accumulating that can spoil successive pots.
Burr grinders, by contrast, literally flatten, shatter, and crush the beans as they pass through the grinder. The genius of the conical burr grinder is that the metal parts that do the grinding are positioned one inside the other a small but fixed distance from each other. The resulting coffee grinds are crushed shards of more uniform size that have more surface area. When these jagged shards get into the hot water, there's more oils and aromas on their surface to pass from the bean into your cup of joe.
So, if you drink coffee every day, buy yourself a burr grinder. You'll use it forever, and you can get a decent one for around $100. Not a bad investment in your daily happiness. Just for comparison, that's only one session with your shrink, or about half a pair of fabulous new jeans.
The Actual Making of the Coffee
Back to making coffee with a french press...after you grind your beans with your burr grinder, spoon out about two tablespoons per 8 ounce (normal mug size) cup into your pot. Sounds like a lot of coffee, right? It is, but the results are worth it. Remember the grinds are larger, so there's more airspace between each particle, so it looks a bit like more than it really is. Be good about measuring both the grinds and the water the first couple of times until you get the right eyeballs from it. The big mistake most people make is to use too few grinds and/or too much water.
Next (or concurrently with grinding the beans) boil some water, take it off the heat, and wait a little bit until it cools a few degrees to around 185. Pour the water gently over the grinds in the pot to cover them, swish the pot a little to get all the grinds wet, and then fill it up to the top with water. Place the plunger assembly on top of the pot with the plunging handle all the way up. Wait about three and a half minutes, plunge by pressing down slowly and steadily on the handle, pour, and enjoy.
The only twist to this method that's worth mentioning is that some people use a wooden spoon to stir the grounds around about halfway through the brew. The idea is to circulate some water to make sure all the grinds are steeping evenly and thoroughly. I just plunge up and down an inch or two in the pot and return the handle to the 'up' position, sort of like a washing machine agitator. That methods works well, too. If your beans are fresh, you'll notice a significant 'bloom' of bubbles. This bloom is just CO2 escaping from the beans. C02 is one of the by-products of roasting, and the fresher the beans, the more CO2 will bloom when you brew.
This page has very complete instructions with photos. The recommendations the author makes for burr grinders, however, are out of date. The models he suggests are no longer available, but just poke around a bit and you'll find good ones. Sweet Maria's has many for sale, although they tend to be on the more serious side. You can find cheaper ones if you look around.
Don't forget, used coffee grinds are compostable.
Higher end grinders brought to my attention by my Tab addict friend, Chris.