What is a French Press?

by Peter Taylor | Last Updated: 13 June 2020

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What is a French Press?

There are many types of coffee brewing devices out there. One of these is the French press – and if you’re reading this article, you’re probably curious about what a French press actually is.

So, what is a French press? A French press is a type of coffee-brewing equipment, and coffee brewed in this system is often referred to as “French press” coffee. This unique coffee preparation device is typically a beaker made out of glass or plastic and has a lid and plunger with a mesh filter that attaches to the top.

It can be difficult to separate the equipment from the type of coffee it produces – many coffee lovers regularly order French press coffee without understanding what goes into making it, and many other coffee enthusiasts use a French press at home without really appreciating the intricacies of this method. To understand more about this type of coffee, we’ll look at what makes the French press unique, and then dive into how you can make it at home.

The Backstory

In some ways, the French press device’s brewing method is very similar to any other method of brewing coffee.

First, hot water and coffee grounds are combined, some extraction occurs, and then the grounds are separated, and the brewed coffee is enjoyed. What’s special about the French Press, though, is that this process all occurs within a carafe, and thanks to a wire-mesh screen.

The story is that this method was first put into practice by a Frenchman who needed a way to brew coffee while on a long walk. He allegedly purchased a cheap screen, filtered his coffee by pressing the screen into the grounds with a stick, and loved the taste of the coffee that his newfound brewing method produced.

Since its humble beginnings, this system of coffee brewing has become wildly popular. In fact, French presses have played a large role in spreading coffee culture broadly. Though originally most associated with the upper class and aristocracy, these presses are now ubiquitous on the breakfast tables of families across the globe.

A French press is a great fit for people who normally only brew a single serving of coffee but who may want to brew more when guests stay over.

These devices are also useful for any small second-wave cafe. The ability to brew strong and small servings makes the French Press a useful tool when it comes to allowing customers to sample specialty coffees.

Benefits of a French Press

There’s more to a French Press coffee than simply the apparatus. In fact, coffee that’s brewed in this manner is generally thought of as being stronger, and richer than coffee brewed with other methods.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and they all have to do with extraction. Extraction is the process through which flavor compounds dissolve out of beans and into the water. In other words, extraction is what makes coffee taste like coffee.

Because this process is all about dissolution, it’s definitely worth thinking about the chemistry just a little bit. These various compounds dissolve at different rates, and this affects the taste. The first flavors that will be released are the brightest and most tart. These come out easily, and they’re bright and punchy.

What is a French Press?

As water flows over coffee in a traditional drip machine, it’s these punchy flavors that are released first. In a typical drip setup, there’s no time for bitter flavors to come out fully, as these compounds dissolve at a slower rate.

But because a French press allows coffee and water to mingle for much longer, these flavors do, in fact, come out.

How to Brew French Press Coffee at Home

Not only does a French Press offer all those flavor benefits, but it can also be a super-simple way to make coffee at home. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Make sure your French press is dry before beginning.
  2. Place coffee grounds in the carafe – use enough coffee to cover the bottom of the carafe with about three-quarters of an inch.
  3. Fill with near-boiling water – water that is too hot runs the risk of burning your coffee, and because the water and coffee will be mingling for a long time, you don’t need to be worried about a precise temperature.
  4. Stir vigorously using a chopstick or a small wooden spoon.
  5. Place the lid on your French press and depress the screen just a little bit – the goal is to push all grounds fully into the water, don’t leave any floating dry on top.
  6. Set a timer for 4 minutes and let everything dissolve.
  7. After the timer goes off, push the screen down all the way and pour yourself a cup.

Be sure not to let any leftover coffee sit in the French Press for too long. As coffee sits on top of the grounds left in the carafe, the flavor compounds will continue to dissolve – and this can lead to some weird-tasting coffee.

If you’re setting this out to serve, I’d recommend serving from a separate carafe.

French Press vs. Pour-Over

Oftentimes people think of French presses and pour-overs together – after all, these two coffee brewing methods are both pretty standard around home kitchens. But are these two preparations similar?

In fact, no – the mechanics of a pour-over are very different from that of a French press.

A French press extracts by letting hot water mingle with coffee grounds for awhile. After everything has brewed, the screen is depressed, and this separates the drinkable coffee from the grounds.

A pour-over, on the other hand, is all just about letting water pass by the coffee. In a pour-over setup, water simply flows over the grounds – and it spends much less time even in contact with the coffee beans.

For the reasons that we’ve discussed above, this does mean that these two methods will yield different tastes. Generally speaking, a pour-over will be brighter and tangier – whereas a French press will be a little bit more chocolatey and complex.

How to Order a French Press Coffee at a Cafe

If you’re curious about French press coffee, then don’t limit yourself to only seeking it out at home. This can be a great option to order at your local cafe. With any luck, you will also be able to have a fun and informative chat with your barista. Here’s some advice.

Don’t order a French press at your local Dunkin’ Donuts. This should go without saying, but the bigger point here is that not all coffee shops will be eager to leap into action and use this particular brewing method for you. A French press can be a fairly labor-intensive method of brewing coffee, and many busy no-nonsense shops might not be set up to do this.

But if your local shop advertises French press, then go for it – just be sure to be extra polite when asking the barista.

Because French press served in cafes is typically a single serving (made in a smaller carafe than you would likely be using at home), you can seize the chance to try some special coffee. I would definitely recommend that you branch out and try something other than the go-to house coffee. Again, this is a good opportunity to chat with your barista – especially if it’s not too busy, they’ll be able to help you find a coffee to match your tastes.

How to Clean a French Press

Half of knowing how to use a French press is actually just knowing how to properly clean it – your work doesn’t end when the coffee is served, unfortunately.

To help with the cleaning process, here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. The first step is to remove the lid and the plunger – this should all come off as one item. Set this aside and carry your carafe over to your compost or trash.
  2. Tap your French press hard in order to get as much of the grounds out as possible.
  3. Reach your hand in and really be sure to get everything out.
  4. Rinse your carafe and send any last grounds down the drain in your kitchen sink.
  5. Disassemble your plunger and screen. You should be able to unscrew the screen, and it should come apart in three sections: a bottom plate, a mesh screen, and the plunger apparatus/lid.
  6. Wash everything with soap and water and then set to dry.
  7. After everything has dried out, reassemble your plunge and screen, and you’ll be all set to brew some more.


The French Press is a unique coffee brewing device that makes a strong and rich cup of coffee. It uses a mesh filter and plunger to compress the grounds in a beaker. This device is excellent for single-serve cups, and you’ll find it readily available at most specialty coffee shops.

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