In early 2019, while living in Colombia, I realized that I had been drinking awful coffee all of my life. I learned everything I could and started developing an appreciation and understanding of specialty coffee.
If you want to learn how to become a full-fledged coffee snob, this article is for you. Alex and I love our morning coffee ritual, and we want you and your partner to have the same coffee experience.
We’ll teach you how to make the best coffee in a French press. Along the way, we’ll share what we learned from farmers and coffee experts across Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica and give you a process to select only the highest quality coffee beans.
So, let’s begin!
how to make the best coffee in a french press
My Coffee Inspiration
I lived 30 years of my life before discovering good coffee. At the age of 18, I started drinking it out of necessity while working for the city public works. I didn’t want to fall asleep while operating a 20-foot wide riding lawn mower a second time.
Then, came a decade of office coffee in a styrofoam cup. It was like drinking burnt mud, yet every day I poured cup after cup. When I upgraded my home office to a Keurig Coffee, I felt quite smug.
But, little did I know that I was still drinking coffee that was a 5-10 on a scale of 100. Even when I stocked up on Starbucks, the “gourmet coffee” in my cupholder was a 15 at best.
Then, we lived in Medellin, Colombia, where we discovered the art of coffee. We worked at all of the different coffee shops that were part of the specialty coffee movement and geeked out about finding the best coffee in town.
When we did, we would bring their freshly-roasted beans home to prepare with a French press. It quickly became a ritual that we looked forward to while working from home.
When you make your first cup of coffee in a French press that is 80-90 on a scale of 100, you will have a new appreciation of coffee.
From then on, when you walk into a specialty coffee shop, you can ask the right questions and walk off with whole beans to grind at home. Even the baristas will talk amongst themselves about how you’re such a coffee snob.
In this post, we are going to dive deep into finding the best coffee and capturing the flavor after learning how to use a French press coffee maker. To find the best coffee, it’s helpful to learn a bit about coffee culture.
Learning About Coffee Culture
Fresh, specialty grade Colombian coffee blew my mind. Colombian baristas are incredibly proud of their world-class beans.
At our favorite coffee shop in Medellin, they bring the freshly ground beans to your table to smell them before brewing. They treat it like an aged bottle of fine wine. Of course, every time the coffee aroma instantly puts a smile on your face.
Once we got hooked on the coffee, we wanted to meet farmers and learn about the whole farm-to-cup process. We visited three coffee fincas, two of which consistently earned the top “cupping” scores in the world. After our field trips to these farms, it was no mystery why their coffee tasted so incredible.
Significant knowledge, experience, and labor goes into growing, harvesting, and processing the world’s top-ranked coffee beans.
Speaking of fine wine, the equation for the best cup of coffee is strikingly similar to that of the best glass of wine. It all comes down to the quality of the climate and soil, harvesting at peak ripeness, and careful processing after harvest.
Before leaving the fincas, we had the coffee experts teach us cupping with a French press, which is the best way to preserve the bold flavor and enjoy the highest quality coffee.
In Central America
Colombia is a beautiful country with incredible biodiversity. The flavor of their coffee reflects this. Since Colombia, we have visited coffee farms in Panama, Mexico, and Costa Rica, and it’s clear that it’s not just Colombia who produces excellent tasting coffee.
However, we also noticed that some coffee farms cut corners in their process. After learning from the best of the best, we could see, smell, and taste the difference in the beans those farms produced.
Searching For The Best Coffees
My new hobby has been searching for the best coffee every time we move to a new country. I buy bags from various farms in different regions and determine which is the highest quality and best tasting.
To do this, you don’t need in-depth knowledge or a coffee certification. Instead, you need to be observant and hands-on while searching for and preparing your coffee beans.
I do have a process to identify good coffee from plain average coffee. And, if you’re like I was, you’re probably not even drinking average coffee.
In the rest of this article, I’ll teach you what to look for when searching for the best coffee. Then, we’ll go through the best recipe we learned for a French press.
What Makes The Best Coffee
First, there are two main types of coffee: arabica and robusta.
Arabica beans are sweeter, lighter, and have tones of sugar, honey, herbs, nuts, caramel, chocolate, and fruit. The difference is easy to remember because robusta beans are more robust. They grow faster, thrive in harsh conditions, and they scare away bugs and fungus.
Robusta beans are stronger and bolder with tones of grain and nuts. While robusta beans are great for espressos and offer 2X the caffeine content, arabica is far more superior in quality and flavor. Since robusta beans are easier to produce and significantly cheaper, it’s what you get with cheap ground coffee or instant coffee.
If you’re looking for a cup of coffee that will “put a hair on your chest,” robusta is a good option. If you want to experience a variety of flavors (not just smoke) and enjoy a tea-like cup of coffee, arabica is your bean.
Coffee farms in Colombia, and most in South America and Central America, only produce arabica beans. But, just because it’s arabica doesn’t mean it’s high quality.
For example, the best arabica beans are grown at elevation because the cold nights slow down the ripening process.
What’s The Best Coffee Bean?
Arabica is the best and highest quality bean. Farms that produce high-quality arabica beans grow coffee trees among a diversity of plants, and only pick the coffee fruit when it’s ripe.
Additionally, high-quality arabica coffee is only medium or light roasted and always sold in whole bean form. Why?
Dark roast coffee is meant only for the low quality, defective, unripened, or rotten coffee beans. If these beans were a light or medium roast, they would taste terrible.
Therefore, they cook the flavor out of the beans and sell them to Starbucks, Nescafe, and Folgers. Since the beans are poor quality and defective, they sell them ground so that the end-user doesn’t see the ugly coffee beans.
Can you guess which of the coffee beans below would be sold to Starbucks, Nescafe, and Folgers?
When you’re shopping for high quality, specialty coffee, you’ll see a lot of buzzwords. For example, single-origin, hand-picked, gourmet, fresh roast, fair-trade, premium, organic, and shade-grown.
Most of these buzzwords are just that, words. So, what matters?
What Matters When Buying The Best Coffee?
What’s most important is that you buy specialty grade coffee beans. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) is a global organization that sets the standards for sustainability and quality world-wide. Specialty grade is the highest grade of coffee.
All specialty coffee beans go through a “cupping” process and earn a grade out of 100. According to the SCA, specialty coffee is arabica coffee with a cup score of 80+ points.
To achieve these high coffee standards, farmers follow an insanely long list of quality control checks during the growth, harvest, and processing of the beans. One bad bean can dramatically impact the cupping score.
Therefore, the dried but unroasted “green” beans are manually inspected for defects multiple times before packaging and shipment.
To grow specialty grade arabica beans, farmers grow coffee trees on a hillside, at the right altitude, in a subtropical climate with distinct seasons, and among naturally diverse plants and trees.
Growing coffee plants among an abundance of local flora ensure that the soil remains healthy, coffee plants are shaded, and coffee fruits take on floral, chocolate, honey, and fruit flavors from neighboring plants.
However, moisture and biodiversity do present one problem. The bugs and fungus that thrive can quickly demolish a crop. For this reason, certified organic, specialty coffee beans are disadvantageous.
In truth, most specialty coffee farmers do not go the organic route, because the selling price of organic coffee is too low to subsidize the work and loss of crop when avoiding chemicals.
While organic coffee is terrific since the farmers are doing their best to take care of our planet, Rainforest Alliance coffee is, quite honestly, just smarter farming.
This is an organization that focuses on climate-smart agriculture. They pay the farmers fairly, invest back into the community, and protect the local wildlife, trees, and waterways.
Additionally, the Rainforest Alliance only allows friendly, globally approved chemicals that don’t harm the soil, wildlife, or waterways.
Finding The Best Coffee
Where To Look?
So far, we’ve learned a lot about what makes the best coffee.
We already know that specialty grade coffee (arabica) is the highest quality. Also, we learned that medium roast, whole bean coffee is best for capturing the most flavor. However, there is one more crucial factor in making the best coffee.
To make the best coffee in a French press, you have to buy coffee freshly roasted. This is challenging. Fortunately, this automatically rules out most places where you can buy coffee.
For example, anything in the grocery store aisle is not freshly roasted.
Your Local Coffee Shop
Local coffee shops or roasters are the first places you should look at.
Local coffee is best because you can taste and quality test the coffee before buying. Ideally, you’ll find the best coffee that you love at a shop that can consistently sell you freshly roasted coffee.
Any coffee shop that prepares the coffee with a French press or a V60 pour-over is likely a good source. It’s a hint that they are confident in the quality and flavor of their beans. Other indications that the coffee is quality are on the bag itself.
One The Bag
The bag should include the origin (country, region, or even farm), flavor profile (fragrance, flavor, body, acidity), and the roasting date.
When you find a quality local coffee supplier, ask when they get their freshly roasted beans and try to pick up a new bag within a week. If they write the roasting date on the bag, that’s a great sign that they value freshness and quality.
If you can’t find anything local, a decent option is an online subscription service that ships you fresh roasted specialty coffee. I have tried several in the US, and settled on JavaPresse’s Coffee Subscription as my favorite.
They have a great selection of specialty beans and they roast right before shipping. One time I received the coffee in the mail just two days after it was roasted.
However, they don’t always offer a Colombian bean. So, if you want to try world-class coffee so that you have a baseline for incredible beans, buy it online from this farm in Colombia.
Pergamino’s Finca Lomaverde was our favorite. They have a great video on their website as well.
Quality Testing The Coffee
Now you have found the best coffee that hopefully meets the following requirements.
- Specialty grade (arabica)
- Medium roast
- Whole bean
- Freshly roasted
Next, take these steps to confirm the quality.
1. The Smell Test
Squeeze the bag (if it’s vented) or open it and smell the beans. The coffee beans should smell beautiful. If they don’t smell glorious, the cup of coffee won’t taste glorious.
The first and primary smell should be floral, chocolaty, or fruity aromas. If the first smell is burnt toast, leather, or smoke, you should pass. Trust your nose. The smell test is a reliable indicator of high quality coffee.
Let’s say you can’t find a bag of coffee that meets the above requirements. As long as it passes the smell test, I vote you give it a try.
2. Visual Inspection
Visual inspection is another test to quickly rule out lousy coffee. If the coffee was grown, harvested, processed, and roasted correctly, the beans should be the same size, consistently colored (light brown to brown), and without defects.
Since coffee fruit doesn’t ripen at the same rate, it’s not possible to harvest all the fruit from one coffee tree at the same time. But, some farmers (and machines) do because it’s more efficient.
Therefore, if you see a mix of big and small beans during the visual inspection, that means the farmers picked ripe (big and red) and unripe (small and green) coffee fruits.
Coffee beans are the seed inside of a cherry-like fruit (pictured below). An unripe coffee fruit lacks sugar content, water, and flavor.
Therefore, those small coffee beans in the bag will taste bland. As they say in Colombia, “It only takes one bad bean to destroy the flavor profile of your whole cup of coffee.”
While doing your visual inspection, see if you can find any peaberries. Typical coffee fruits contain two coffee seeds that grow with flat facing sides. Sometimes, only one seed is fertilized, so it develops completely round.
The fully rounded coffee beans are called peaberries and are packed with flavor.
Only 1 in 100 coffee fruits contain a peaberry, and they are usually removed during quality control because they sell them for a much higher cost. If you find one, it’s your lucky day!
3. The Surface Analysis
If you don’t know how recently the beans were roasted, the surface analysis is a way to check the freshness. As a general rule of thumb, if the beans passed the smell test, they are probably fresh. But, this surface analysis is also useful.
If they are freshly roasted, the coffee beans should be light brown or brown and lightly glossy. They should not be black with an oily sheen.
The roasting process helps activate the oils and flavors in the beans. If you see the light gloss on the brown beans, that’s a good sign that they are freshly roasted.
Just remember, highly glossy beans are not fresher. Instead, that means that they were roasted too long, and are closer to a dark roast than a medium roast.
When possible, always ask for the roasting date. If they focus on freshness, they should be able to tell you.
Again, the highest quality coffee has the date written on the bag. The more recently the beans were roasted, the better. Once roasted, they maintain their flavor for about five weeks.
But, that timeframe depends on the climate and storage. Where we are living now, in the high mountain desert of Mexico, I can see and taste a difference between coffee beans roasted 10 days prior and 20 days prior.
They lose their powerful aroma and unique taste quicker than if we were in a humid climate.
Now that you have found a quality local bag of coffee or signed up for JavaPresse, let’s talk about making your first cup at home with a French press.
How To Make Coffee In A French Press
French Press Benefits
There are a lot of reasons why the French press is the best way to prepare coffee.
The first benefit of French press coffee is simplicity. Just add hot water and coarse ground coffee.
Second, it’s the most flavorful. Traditional paper filters trap some of the coffee’s oils. However, the metal mesh filter in a French press lets those oils and bold flavors pass through.
So, while it’s easy to prepare French press coffee, there is still a process to follow.
However, this process isn’t that rigid. There is room for creativity and experimentation. In these directions for French press coffee, I outline my favorite method, which is the same process we learned from experts in a Colombian coffee lab.
Before we get to the recipe for French press coffee, there are tools that you need to fully reap the benefits of French press coffee.
French Press Coffee Tools
Make Your Life Easier Tools:
Let’s start with the required tools. Since coffee must be ground immediately before use, a grinder is necessary. Coffee beans begin to lose their flavor 15 minutes after they are ground.
Therefore, there is no point in procuring the best coffee if you can’t grind it yourself.
I was intimidated when I had to learn how to grind coffee beans. But, the burr grinders are really simple. French press coffee requires a coarse grind. Finely ground coffee extracts quickly, while course grounds extract more slowly.
Since the coffee grounds will be steeping in the French press for a fairly long time, 4-5 minutes, a coarse grind will prevent over-extraction. A burr grinder does this best because it delivers a consistent grind size, unlike grinders with metal blades.
We recommend the JavaPresse burr grinder because it’s travel-sized, easy to clean, well-built, and manually operated. Although it’s tempting to get an electric grinder, don’t. Just don’t. There are three reasons why I won’t allow it.
First, manual grinding has exercise value. While grinding, you’re burning calories and strengthening your grip. Secondly, making specialty coffee needs to be a ritual. Slow down, enjoy this environmentally friendly habit, and reap the rewards making the best coffee in a French press.
Lastly, manual grinding is part of the quality control process. In addition to the smell test, visual inspection test, and surface analysis, the manual grinding test is another measure of the coffee bean’s quality.
In my experience, the more difficult a coffee bean is to grind, the more complex flavors it has. Since I don’t have sufficient data on this theory yet, I ran it by a Costa Rican friend who is SCA certified in roasting coffee.
He confirmed that it’s possible that coffee that requires less muscle to grind manually could be “over-developed” or roasted unevenly.
To achieve a coarse grind with the JavaPresse grinder, tighten the dial and then turn it clockwise 15 clicks.
The French Press
The second required piece of equipment is a French press. We have the Bodum French press, and it’s perfect.
It has a quality glass carafe for holding the coffee and water, an aluminum frame to keep the carafe, and a rod with a fine metal filter attached to the bottom.
We have used and cleaned ours daily for eight months, and the filter and plunger work correctly every time. You don’t need to buy a French press that comes with spare filters since they are reusable.
The Optional Tools
The optional equipment will make your life easier, especially the gooseneck water boiler with a temperature gauge.
However, since we are traveling and living out of suitcases, we cannot rationalize these items. So, I will share with you my methods of making-do without them.
Recipe For French Press Coffee
There are various ways to make the best coffee in a French press.
As long as you like the taste, there is no right or wrong way. Below are our directions for French press coffee and the exact method we learned in the Ocaso Coffee Lab in Salento, Colombia.
1. Heat The Water
First, start heating about 4 cups water. Water temperature is critical to making the best cup of coffee. If it’s too hot, the coffee will taste bitter. You want your coffee to be 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. This is where a thermometer or temperature-controlled gooseneck water boiler is best.
If you don’t have these tools, keep a close eye on the water as it heats up. Once you see quarter-inch bubbles slowly rising from the bottom of the pot (a slow boil), take the pot off the heat.
This method will get you close to the right temperature if you are at sea level. Currently, we live at 7,000 feet where the water boils at 197 degrees Fahrenheit. In this case, I bring the water to a full, rolling boil.
It’s also important to not make coffee with hard water. The calcium content will ruin the flavor.
2. Grind The Coffee
While the water is heating up, start manually grinding your coffee. The French press coffee water ratio is decently important.
If you use too much water, your cup of coffee will taste weak and possibly bitter. Conversely, too much coffee will result in an acidic and overly potent cup of coffee.
So, what is the French press coffee to water ratio? The target ratio is 1 gram of coffee per 16 grams of water. Again, this is where a scale is useful. Or you can estimate.
For me, it’s always easy to determine how much coffee to use in the French press. I always max out the volume of the JavaPresse grinder, which is about five tablespoons of coffee beans (approximately 35 grams).
Therefore, to hit the target ratio, I need 560 grams of water or 2 1/4 cups. It’s up to you to experiment and decide on your favorite French press coffee to water ratio.
As my certified SCA coffee friend said, “Ratio is not a bible, it’s just a reference point, which is usually given by companies selling coffee.”
Also, it’s essential to clean your grinder frequently. Otherwise, you can contaminate your fresh ground coffee with stale flavors and calcium that built up on the parts.
3. Preheat The Carafe
When the water is at temperature, start the French press process by pouring hot water into the carafe along the sides of the glass.
Swirl it around and thoroughly heat the glass. This prevents the coffee from cooling too quickly during the brew process.
4. Start Brewing
Now, pour the hot water back into the pot (no wasting water) and dump the freshly ground coffee into the carafe.
Start a timer for 4 minutes and 30 seconds and start slowly pouring water into the carafe down the sides. Do this delicately, so that you don’t agitate the coffee.
Only pour enough water into the beaker to soak the ground coffee. If the ground coffee sat an inch tall in the carafe, it should be two inches tall after adding the first water portion.
Then, let it steep for 1 minute. This is the critical step in our recipe for French press coffee.
A four-minute brew will make a lighter cup of coffee. Four and a half minutes is the most typical and my favorite. Five minutes is the maximum, and this brew duration produces a stronger, sometimes more bitter, and more caffeinated cup of coffee.
Within that range, it’s up to you to decide how long to steep French press coffee. The timing is critical, so set a timer and don’t get distracted.
Watch the coffee steep in the carafe and enjoy the aroma.
Do not stir. Most baristas do, and the directions on the side of your French press tell you to stir. Instead, let the coffee steep in peace. The Colombians say, “Our coffee knows how to brew itself.” Stirring and agitating the coffee makes it more bitter.
6. Finish Brewing
When the timer strikes 3 minutes and 30 seconds, slowly pour the rest of the water into the carafe.
Hold the french press at an angle and rotate it so that you are slowly pouring water along the full circumference of the glass carafe. The gooseneck water boiler makes this easy.
The goal is to pour the water in as gently as possible to not disrupt the steeping coffee.
7. Bonus Quality Test
At this point in the process, there is another critical quality control check.
Look for large white bubbles blooming out from under steeping coffee where you’re pouring the water. This reaction is an indicator that the coffee is alive, fresh, and packed with nutrients and flavor.
Stale coffee produces a weak, light brown foam. When you see these bubbles, you know that you are making the best coffee in your French press.
8. Heat Your Mug
Once the proper amount of water is in the carafe, put the piston in place until the buzzer along the top of the liquid.
While you’re waiting for the time to run out, pour hot water into your coffee mugs. This keeps your coffee hot for longer, which is useful because coffee becomes more bitter at lower temperatures.
9. Cup It
Once the timer goes off, gently press the piston down and drain the coffee into your mugs. Enjoy it black. In Colombia, they say, “A good cup of coffee doesn’t need sugar, and a bad cup of coffee doesn’t deserve it.”
Your last quality check is to taste the coffee. I do not claim to be an expert taste tester. We have done blind taste tests for each other, and I have a hard time noticing the differences between one quality cup of coffee and another.
However, I can always identify a high-quality cup of coffee from an average quality cup. If the primary taste is smoke or burnt leather, it’s not quality.
Now that you are a coffee snob too, you’ll be able to find the best coffee and make the best cup of coffee at home with your French press. Alex and I love breaking our morning fast by making and sipping amazing coffee together.
Before we depart, one last word on healthy coffee consumption. Generally, it’s best to stick to a cup a day. Even with this moderate amount, you’ll likely become caffeine dependent.
Therefore, after Alex and I finished our caffeine withdrawal duration experiment, we decided that one cup every other day was a healthy amount for us. We didn’t want to have to deal with caffeine headaches (or terrible coffee) when we were traveling.
Also, based on our research and experience, anything greater than 3 cups a day is overstimulation. We recommend making the lifestyle changes necessary (like sleeping more) to cut back.
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