Press Pots: Coffee Worth the Effort

It transmits oils and sediment, the entire coffee flavor, and--because the filter isn't paper--nothing else. It's a little more work but the resulting flavor is worth it. Once you switch to a press pot, you'll never use drip again.

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Photo by bloodstone/iStockphoto

Nearly all the coffee I brew for myself is press pot or espresso. I love my espresso machine, of which you will certainly hear much more in the future, but an espresso or a caffé macchiato just doesn't last long enough for the first awakening of my taste buds in the morning. I no longer enjoy the steamed-milk and espresso cappuccino, and I never liked the extreme dilution of a caffé latte.

Thus, in the morning I use the press pot (also known as the plunger pot or French Press), which can make a mug or two, or four, according to the situation and mood.

The moment I first became enamored with press pot coffee was nearly concurrent with my entry into the profession. [Curator's note: the press pot also shows darker roasts to their best advantage, as Peet's coffee has always demonstrated.] Because the metal screen is more porous than a paper filter, it allows the coffee oils and sediment, and the entire coffee flavor, to be present in the cup, and because the filter is metal rather than paper, it doesn't impart any other flavors (if you keep it clean), as paper filters inevitably do.

The classic press pot is elegantly simple: a glass or metal cylinder, a metal screen filter, and the lid. One should preheat the glass with hot water from the kettle, or at least hot tap water. Measure the coffee grounds (two tablespoons for each six fluid ounces of water), then pour in the hot water--about a third of the pot at first.

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Photo by Jerry Baldwin

Fresh coffee will bloom with bubbles of gas. I pick up the pot and swirl it to get the grounds thoroughly saturated with water, but one could also stir. When the gas has dissipated or three minutes has elapsed, I pour in the rest of the water, swirl or stir, then insert the metal filter apparatus, and plunge. The screen separates the grounds, and I pour into a preheated mug after a brewing time of about three and a half minutes.

All of the popular brands, Bodum, Bonjour, and Melior (now owned by Bodum, also known as La Cafetiere in the UK) make four standard sizes, using the European cup measure: 3, 4, 8, or 12 cups (12, 17, 32, and 48 fluid ounces). Frieling, Bodum, and others also make unbreakable stainless steel and plastic models.

The photo, seen at top, has both the classic eight and 12-cup models. The principal differences among various brands and editions are the finish work of the metal, and the handle and knob. There are inexpensive press pots available, made less expensive by lower-quality elements, including thinner glass.

I cannot recommend this brewing method highly enough, but it does depend on you to purchase fresh beans, grind before brewing, use enough coffee, and only brew the amount you will consume in 20-30 minutes. It's easy to brew more and the method is very flexible. Unlike some other methods, you get equally good results with any fraction of a pot.

Keep the screen filter clean! If you don't want to wash it thoroughly, after you've rinsed out the grounds, put enough water in the pot to cover the screen. This will keep the oils from going rancid. Take the filter apparatus apart and put the whole thing in the dishwasher, or wash and rinse each part carefully at least once a week.

Not everyone loves this method, I'm sorry to hear. People complain of sediment, but this is the byproduct of filtering that lets the oil and the flavor of the coffee pass through into the cup. I find it much, much more satisfying than a cup of filtered drip coffee, though I don't drink the dregs. Others complain that the coffee cools too fast. Preheating the pot and the cups, making smaller, fresher quantities, and using a pot cozy will all help; Bodum makes an insulated glass model, and Bodum and Frieling make insulated stainless steel models. Some people seem to break the beakers often. I haven't broken a beaker in decades, but one could purchase the stainless steel models or be more careful.

[Unlike the curator! I break mine about once a year, faithfully, and have memorized every store in a 20-mile radius that carries refills. Recently I've taken to using an opaque thermal reinforced-glass carafe made by Bonjour, not as elegant or well-engineered as the models Jerry recommends but durable at least. And--subject for another day--I use mine for tea.]

Some people like the simpler cleanup of a paper filter, but I am not willing to sacrifice flavor for convenience. I think cleanup is easy enough. Depending on where I am, I put coffee grounds (not espresso grounds) down the sink drain. This has never caused any problem in my plumbing. But it does remove the grounds from the compost bin, where they really belong. Coffee grounds of all types are a valuable addition to the compost.

The entire coffee buying and roasting crew at Peet's use press pots as their primary brewer. It's the only method that puts all the flavor of our coffee in the cup.