The French Press Myth
A week or two ago, Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea shared a thought on Twitter: many high-end coffee shops that pride themselves on the quality of their espresso serve downright mediocre filtered coffee. This is not a sentiment I can agree with based on my own personal experience, as I've not been able to frequent many such shops in person, but I do agree with it in principle.
I was asked to help a friend of a friend answer a question on Twitter today: "Does anyone know the science of why coffee made in a French Press is so much better?" It didn't hit me until after I responded that I had been contemplating the inherent problem with this question for a long while, and that Kyle Glanville's observations hinted at the answer. Most folks in America don't understand the flavor potential that coffee has; much of it is brewed very weakly, and of the coffee that is not brewed weakly, very little of it is actually good coffee. Very little. I'll be brutally honest here: those large drip machines you see in coffee shops that brew a couple liters of coffee directly into those air pots are not the way to go when you want a good cup of coffee. Yes, they're convenient, but no, they're not likely to be doing the coffee justice...and that's if the coffee is good to begin with, which is also unlikely.
So, back to the topic at hand. All of this creates an environment in which any brew method that offers a stronger -- and therefore, what will likely be perceived as a more flavorful and superior -- cup of coffee is seen as The Best Way to Brew Coffee. Unfortunately, this just isn't true. Ridiculously delicious coffee can be made through paper filters, cloth filters, even glass filters, and that's before a french press is brought into the equation. Pour-over brewing, which is done by pouring hot water through a filter holding ground coffee, can yield a surprisingly flavorful cup, and one that doesn't have the muddy sediment that plagues a french press. The syphon, or vacuum pot, has been around for about 180 years, but it takes a fair amount of skill and patience to master it.
The french press enjoys a fair bit of popularity these days, but it's far from the only way to enjoy a flavorful cup of coffee that hasn't been made in an automatic machine. Please don't hear this as me saying I don't like french-pressed coffee; far from it! I'm sipping on coffee from a press as I type, and believe me, it's delicious.
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