How to brew coffee with a cafetiere

Food & drink
How to brew proper cafetiere or French Press coffee

Coffee is easy to make well, and even easier to make badly.

There are plenty of methods of making coffee, but the stand-out, everyday method is to use a cafetière, or a French press as it’s known over The Pond.

Forget about drip or filter coffee, keep the Italian stove top pot for when you’ve got time to practice more with it (great coffee, tricky to get right), and leave the espresso machine for the weekend…the speed and simplicity of the cafetière is its major selling point, and it’s for this reason that I reach for it every morning.

The cafetière couldn’t be easier.  Just scoop coffee into the jug, pour just off-the-boil water over and fit the plunger to the top.  When the coffee has brewed, push the plunger down, pressing the spent grounds to the bottom of the jug.

Pour.  Drink.  Repeat.

It might be simple, but it’s still easy to get it wrong.  Here are some basic principles that need to be followed for a decent cup:

Clean the equipment properly

Coffee leaves an oily residue behind on brewing equipment, which can leave a bitter and astringent taste in the next cup.

Make sure the cafetière is spotlessly clean, and be certain that all the little coffee grounds are rinsed out of the plunger mesh.  A cafetière can survive in a dishwasher with no problems, so use one.

It’s a good idea to take the plunger assembly apart every now and again and give it a proper wash.

Warm the pot

Before you add the coffee to the jug, swirl some hot water around it to heat it through a little.  Coffee is best brewed at between about 85 and 95 c, and warming the pot first will stop the temperature of your water dropping suddenly as it hits the glass.  It’ll keep your coffee hotter, longer, too.

Remember to also warm the plunger, too.  It’ll expand very slightly and form a tighter seal in the pot. Of course, this is coffee geekery at its best, but still…

Use the right grind

A cafetière needs a fairly coarse grind because the coffee sits in the water for a period of time, to allow the water to extract flavour from the coffee.

In contrast, methods of brewing that rely on steam and pressure to brew short doses quickly need a much finer grind, so that the water has to work a little to find its way into the cup.  This action of brewing under pressure creates a rich and strong brew.  A cafetière is different – the key is time and timing – the coffee needs to brew, and the grind is kept coarse so that it doesn’t over extract and become bitter.

The problem with drip or filter coffee is that it sits between each of these methods.  A filter grind is finer than a cafetière grind, but not as fine as an espresso grind.  Water seeps through the coffee using only gravity, and doesn’t stay in contact with the bean for long enough or under the right conditions.  When it finally reaches the jug, it sits on a hot plate stewing away until who knows when.

The result is a terrible cup of coffee.

Use the right amount of coffee

Two dessert spoonfuls of ground coffee per cup and one extra for the pot.

No more, no less.

Use off the boil water

It’s best to let the kettle sit for thirty seconds or so before pouring the water over the grinds. Water just off a raging boil can kill the flavour of the beans and ruins the brew.

Also, pour about a cup of water over the ground coffee first, and swirl it around a few times before topping up with the rest of the water.  This lets the coffee expand and start to work before the rest of the water is added.

Brew for four minutes exactly

This is vital, and it’s often rushed.

Four minutes.  Just four minutes.

It’s not so long, really.

Just don’t touch that damn plunger for four whole minutes.

If you do, you’ll be punished with a thin and weak cup, and you don’t want that.

I present this as a hard and fast rule, but like all hard and fast rules, it’s there to be bent.  Knocking up to a minute off the brew time will produce a lighter, fruitier, less caffeinated drink that you might just like, but I’d never go below three minutes.  Similarly, brewing for over four minutes is likely to result in a richer, highly caffeinated cup that runs the risk of being over-steeped and could turn out bitter.  Four minutes is the basic sweet spot.

Drink it up

At the weekends, my Mum used to brew an enormous pot of coffee in the morning and then drink it through the day.  We’d go round in the afternoon and be offered this coffee, nuked in the microwave, tasting like you’d imagine water from a stagnant puddle at the bottom of the world’s deepest coal mine to taste, after somebody had tipped a load of kerosene into it.

It wasn’t nice, but, bless her, Mum never liked to waste anything.

For a big cafetière, you get about a quarter of an hour before your coffee goes cold, over-extracted and bitter.  It’s better to use as small a pot as you really need, and just brew more often.

Don’t leave coffee sitting around waiting.  Brew it to order.

This whole subject of coffee-brewing is a minefield, and everybody thinks their method is the right one, me included.  Some people use a set of scales to weigh the coffee in the pot, and then weigh the water as it goes in, to get their preferred proportions just so.  I’ve got to admire that kind of commitment to the cause, but half asleep, first thing in a morning, that’s just not for me.  The first thing I do when I get into the kitchen in a morning is to flip the kettle on…the whole coffee-making process has to be done on auto-pilot, which is why the cafetière is such a good method.  It’s easy and quickly becomes routine, but more to the point, it reliably delivers a clean and crisp cup of coffee.

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