Tinker Your Way To Delicious Coffee - The Guide

Good coffee is essential on any morning, but it’s especially necessary after a night of imbibing, but how to make good coffee — them’s deep waters. Your local beanied and tatted barista would have great advice if you could decipher their mumbling over the either ironic or unironic Belle & Sebastian humming in the background. But since you can’t, you’ve turned to VinePair. Good choice.

There are tons of French press brewing guides from reputable sources (see here, here, and here), that will produce very good coffee. If you’re somebody who thinks there’s one “perfect” way to do things, stop reading and follow one of those guides religiously, every morning for the rest of your life (have you ever considered a career in Ikea manual writing?). If, on the other hand, you enjoy a snippet of variability and wouldn’t mind tinkering a bit, you can start to gain on making the best cup of coffee for you — which might be something entirely different.

First off, I’m not a barista or an independent coffee roaster. My coffee journey starts 5 minutes after I wake up and ends with a distracted pour, while I’m scanning random subreddits or the NYT Top 10 Most Emailed before rushing off to work. My goal with coffee is not perfection; it’s repeatable, adaptable greatness. So if anything I say below strongly offends your sense of what essential coffee brewing is all about, please remember that I’m just some random guy on the Internet. Try drinking a glass of rosé instead of that afternoon espresso.

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Anyway, how does one begin a process of iterative coffee tinkering? The goal here is to develop a sense, a feel, a style that fits you. This is your cup of coffee and it’s a perfect analog to wine in that regard—drink what you like. So here’s a list of a few variables to consider when making great French press coffee.

French Press Coffee Guide Step 1 - Beans#1 – The Beans

Makes sense right? But this is where the one-size-fits all approach begins to falter—and it’s literally the first step. There are different varieties of coffee, fermentation, different drying methods, seasonality, and freshness. And that’s not even going into roasting times and temperatures, which result in completely different flavor profiles. With all that variability, I like to slightly alter my grind size and coffee-to-water ratio based on experimentation. Different roasters have different styles — sample widely.

Maybe this goes without saying, but grind your beans right before you plan to make coffee. It’s super schoolmarm to pre-grind all the beans you’ll need for a week and put them in separate airtight containers with printed labels in the freezer — check that impulse.


French Press Coffee Guide Step 2 - Temperature#2 – Water Temperature

I really didn’t expect for this to matter much when I first started brewing press pot coffee (and you may find it doesn’t), but water just off the boil (say 190º to 205º) seems to produce a cleaner, less astringent extraction. The way I do it is to give the water 30 seconds to a minute off the heat after it’s come to a boil before pouring. It’s not exact, but remember, you just woke up.


French Press Coffee Guide Step 3 - Grinder#3 – Grinder

Get yourself a quality burr mill grinder. A standard whirl-blade spice grinder is cheap, but you can never get a consistent particle size and the coffee always oddly tastes like fennel and cumin.


French Press Coffee Guide Step 4 - Particle Size#4 – Particle Size

As a heuristic — and I’ve seen this referenced several places, including The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (a great book by the way if you want to go deep) — the stronger the roast, the more coarsely you grind the coffee, the lower the water temperature that produces a less bitter extraction (more roast = more bitter). For pure single-origin coffees with a very light roast, I like a finer grind, hotter water, and a slightly longer steep time.


French Press Coffee Guide Step 5 - Time#5 – Time

Most guides suggest 4 minutes is the perfect amount of time for press pot coffee to steep. That’s a great place to start, but there are no immutable laws of coffee brewing. I actually prefer 3 most of the time.


French Press Coffee Guide Step 6 - Other Things To Consider#6 – Other Things To Consider

Some guides stress pre-warming your French press and cups, “blooming” your grounds (i.e., allowing a short preliminary steep with a small amount of water before pouring the balance), measuring your water, etc. See if any of it matters to you.


So What’s In My Portfolio…

I have an 8-cup Bodum French press and I like the beans to water ratio suggested by Stumptown of 56 grams as a starting point. I go as high as 65 grams and as low as 50. I tend to grind slightly finer than the “coarse” setting on my burr grinder. With water just off the boil, I pour all of the water slowly over the beans and stir with chopsticks (no pre-blooming), time for 3 minutes, plunge, pour, try to be present for at least the first sip (i.e., direct eyes away from screen) to evaluate, and make slight mental notes for tomorrow’s brew if using the same beans.

Your results may vary, and that would be great.

Matthew Mullet works in energy and also spends a lot of time writing code. In the summer, he can be found tending to a large garden and sipping chilled rosé on his porch in rural Ohio.