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The French Press Myth

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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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Comments

One problem busy coffee shops have that wish to offer quality drip coffee is the streams of busy, "to go" customers. A busy shop will have its' rush of customers in the morning and the only way to keep up with their busy pace is to offer drip coffee from the large Bunn wells - gallons at a time. Its fair, yes, but not the best for high end coffee varieties. French Press, single cup dripper, or espresso options are great but in some cases cannot be a speedy solution to the “morning routine” of many coffee drinkers. many locations customers expect to wait...others, no way!

One way to overcome this problem is to prepare many press pots of coffee at the same time and decant them into waiting, pre-heated airpots, ready to serve. This can work but still, in shops that move large numbers of drip buying consumers it can be slower than the coffee well. Volume – who wouldn’t like to have this problem these days? I guess this is why many shops eventually succumb to the "Bunn" solution.

I'm a micro-roaster and in the warmer months I operate a booth at a local farmers market offering fresh roasted beans and pour over coffee. Each year I struggle with the issue of volume and brewing speed. We use a single cone drip station (5 cone stations) and still it will take 3-4min per cup and sometimes that is just too long for busy marketers. Others that wait and have tasted the goodness always come back for more – waiting for the good stuff! Often when I see the rush coming I call out to my wife, brewing the coffee to "make 5, then 5 more" and off she goes! Speed and volume is getting better. I’m considering the multi press pot and decant option for the market this year but it has its own problems in that venue.

I guess you have to decide if you’re going to offer the best you have or succumb to those busy dollar waving customers that make your payroll…these days, it’s a tough one for sure! Good topic!

lachris

Agreed. That balance is a tough one to strike; I'm glad I don't deal with it on a regular basis ;)