Coffee is a great simple food, or beverage, because one of the best ways to prepare it is also one of the simplest. I’ve owned a fair number of coffee makers, ranging from simple to fairly complex, and not one of them was able to produce coffee that could rival the coffee that comes out of an ordinary $25 French press. It allows the coffee to capture more of the essential oils, and therefore flavor, from the beans than do most other methods of brewing. The same is true of any technique that lets coffee grounds sit in water, rather than filtering water through the grounds (and then, usually, through paper); I also have an ibrik that makes great Turkish coffee, for the same reason. The fundamental correctness of the design is reflected in the fact that the gorgeous, state-of-the-art, absurdly attention-grabbing Clover coffee maker is, essentially, a big, automated, upside-down French press — albeit one that costs about as much as my car.* (Another advantage of low-tech methods like the French press came to light recently when it was discovered that the Internet-enabled Jura F90 coffee maker was vulnerable to hackers. Imagine — a denial-of-coffee attack….)
Anyway! So how do you make good coffee in a French press? The basics aren’t too hard, and 95% of getting a good cup of coffee is pretty easy. The water should be just below the boiling point (around 195-200° Fahrenheit; remember that the spout of a hot teapot will heat it up as it comes out). The beans should be ground immediately before the water is poured. Informed opinion differs regarding grinds: the usual advice is for a coarser grind (to avoid sediment in the coffee), but I don’t mind the sediment so much, and I find that a somewhat finer grind imparts more flavor.
How to get that grind is something of a matter of contention. Coffee snobs are often of the opinion that nothing short of a conical burr grinder will do. For a long time, I was a blade-grinding Luddite holdout, arguing fervently that the coffee produced by a $20 blade grinder can be very good — as long as you hold it at an angle while grinding, to ensure that the beans circulate. (Some have sloped grinding bins to ensure the same thing.) I still believe that to be the case, and although I’m sure the $575 Mazzer Mini will produce better coffee, I’d be amazed if the coffee were 29 times as good.
That said, my brother was good enough to buy me my first electric burr grinder, a Breville BCG450XL, for my birthday this year (I’ve had a Zassenhaus hand mill for quite some time, but grinding beans by hand gets old), and as I type this I’m sitting next to my second cup of Breville-milled coffee. I have to admit, it’s definitely, noticeably better. In theory, this is because there are fewer small grounds slipping through the press and sitting at the bottom of the cup, making the coffee bitter, and fewer too-large grounds retaining their flavor. In practice, the result is that the cup just has more flavor. So the bottom line, I think, is that if you’re currently buying pre-ground coffee and are looking for an inexpensive way to improve your cup, moving to a blade grinder is a no-brainer; if you’re already using a blade grinder, or if you don’t mind a heavier investment and are looking to step up your game, a Breville, or the equally well-reviewed Capresso 560, would be well worth your time.
The quantity and freshness of the coffee and the origin of the bean are the remaining variables. Quantity is a matter of personal taste too; as a rule of thumb, shoot for about one standard 7.25-gram coffee scoop per 4 or 5 ounces of water, but adjust to taste. One common misperception has to do with bitterness: People tend to think that it comes from having too much coffee in the pot, when in fact it usually comes from having too little — the grounds get overextracted and the brew becomes thin and bitter. So when in doubt, add that extra scoop. Freshness is crucial: oxygen is the enemy of flavor in coffee, so do what you need to to keep it at bay. I keep my freshly-roasted beans in a small VacuVin Coffee Saver, which lets me extract much of the oxygen by hand (no batteries needed!). As to origins, different people like different things, so I hesitate to make blanket recommendations. My own tastes run strongly toward coffees from Africa and the Pacific Islands; I’m a big fan of Sumatras, I like Sulawesis, and a nicely roasted Tanzanian Peaberry can be a wonderful thing too. Regardless, though — buying fresh whole-bean coffee and keeping it in an airtight container is perhaps the best single thing you can do to improve the quality of your cup.
I wrote earlier that 95% of getting a good cup of coffee is pretty easy. What, you might wonder, is the last 5%? The answer may surprise you: If you want really, really fresh coffee, you can roast your own, right in your own house. I use an air roaster called the iRoast 2, and it produces about three press pots’ worth of beans in about a half hour, including setup and takedown. (You really want to vent a coffee roaster to the outdoors, which requires a bit of setup. You would think that the smell would be nice, and it is — outdoors. Inside, it’s so concentrated that it’s actually pretty awful, and it’s very hard to get out of things like drapes and cats.)
Green — that is, unroasted — coffee beans are available from a variety of places, and they’re generally less expensive than roasted coffee. The best balance between price and selection that I’ve found locally is Yeah Me Too, the tiny Clintonville roaster/brewer that keeps a half-dozen or more different kinds of coffee on hand and sells their green beans for $6-$7.50 a pound. (That’s not many, but I’m generally a fan of the beans they do choose to carry.) Stauf’s sells all of their beans green, but only at a 10% discount; and Luck Bros’ Coffee House in Grandview sells green coffee for $6/pound. On the internet, Sweet Maria’s, which moved to West Oakland, CA from Columbus in 2005 (they used to be six blocks from where I live now — the pain!!) has an excellent selection (60-70 coffees, usually) at around $5-$6/pound or so, plus shipping. They’re my preferred source, mainly because they’re so thorough with their selection and review process and they work hard to source their coffee from specific farms or plantations rather than cooperatives whenever possible, which is crucial for consistency. For that reason, though, their offerings are seasonal and can go quickly. Also, Coffee Bean Corral has an utterly absurd selection — over 100 different kinds of bean, at this writing! — from which to choose, with plenty of organics and fair trades. Sweet Maria’s also has a great page about the iRoast 2, with lots of helpful roasting tips. I’ve settled on a variant on Tom’s custom roast profile for the beans that I roast; it outperforms either of the pre-programmed ones.
Roasting your own beans requires a little reading about how roasting works, and what terms like “city,” “full city,” and “first and second crack” mean. It also requires some experimentation, and unless you’re very lucky, you will drink some very bad coffee at first. I’ve had some that tasted strongly of charcoal, and some that was so green that it literally didn’t make coffee — it just sat there in the water. In my case, though, it turns out that the chaff collector was too loose, and tightening it, an easy adjustment, greatly improved the consistency of the roast (long story). In any event, the payoff is roasted coffee that’s never more than a couple of days old — you want it to be at least twelve hours old, to ensure that the CO2 has had time to offgas, so roast the night before –, and although I won’t claim that the difference between those beans and the best beans you can get from a commercial roaster is like night and day, it can be kind of like the difference between, say, evening and day: really fresh beans have a flavor that just resonates on your tongue, the way sound resonates in an acoustically live room. (That can be good or bad: if you can’t ensure a consistently good roast, your mistakes will resonate on your tongue too.)
So, what’s the takeaway point? There are a staggeringly wide range of options for making coffee, and how much time, effort, and money you put into it really depends on how much you care about your coffee. Regardless of which of these you choose, though, the best way to make a really good cup of coffee is also one of the simplest: just grind fresh beans, add water that’s barely below the boiling point, wait four minutes, plunge, pour… and savor.
*I was gratified, after writing this, to read a review of the Clover in the March 26, 2008 New York Times in which the author wrote, “Finally, the French presses arrived. The coffee was comparable to that from the Clover, but between assembling and steeping, a cup of coffee in a French press takes close to 10 minutes to make.” I thought to myself, “Forget the ten minutes! Why isn’t the headline, `$11,000 Coffee Machine Fails to Outperform French Press’??”