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Take the Plunge

Shahen Naidoo

The plunger, or French press as it is also know has always been among the most used coffee making rituals, but yet it has a bad reputation for producing inconsistent results. This article will show you the basics for using your plunger to create a delicious, silky smooth cup from your plunger.

Fans of the plunger love the extra control they get from being able to manage the extraction time during which all of the grind is immersed and in contact with the water. The plunger does not use paper to filter, so you end up getting a stronger, more flavourful infusion in your brew. It is really convenient, as you don't need the more costly equipment needed for espresso or filter coffees. Do it right, and the aroma and you'll create a soul nurturing drink that's perfect any time of the day. But beware, this is not a ritual to be rushed - it needs a bit of patience and precision to get a perfect cup.  

So whether you're just getting started using your plunger and want to work out the best way to get your brew going, or you're a seasoned plunger user who just wants to fine tune your techniques, this article is here to help you make the best coffee you can. 

Fun fact: The French press must have come from France, right? The first patents for the device were actually Italian, although legend has it that a Frenchman accidentally invented the plunger trying to get rid of floating coffee grind from his flask. The story is that a Frenchman was making his coffee, and forgot to add his coffee to the pot before boiling his water. Once he added the ground coffee, it all rose to the surface and started floating on the hot water. He bought a metal screen from a passing Italian merchant hoping to salvage some of the brew and used a stick to push the screen down trapping the ground coffee beneath it - and eureka, the plunger was born! 

The water: As with any coffee, good water at the right temperature is essential. You want to use water between 90 deg Celcius and 93 deg Celcius. If you have a thermometer, you can get this right, but if not a good rule of thumb is to allow your water to boil and then wait about a minute. If you're at the coast, you may need to wait just a bit longer, as water boils at a higher temperature than inland. It's always better to err on side of using water that is slightly cooler rather than using water that's too hot. 

The coffee: You need to start with good coffee. Look for coffees that have floral, fruity flavours that can really blossom in a plunger. Medium bodied coffees with some chocolatey aftertastes work well to introduce a bit of sweetness into your plunger brew. I love the Tanzania Mamsera for my plunger, but the Brazil Santos is also a wonderful roast for this method. 

The grind: This is by far the most important factor in any coffee making method, and especially important when it comes to plunger coffee. Too course, and you under extract resulting in a sour, quick finish. Too fine, and you end up with a whole other type of awfulness in your mouth that's full of bitter sludge. You need a grind level that is just course enough not to get through the metal mesh.

It's always best, no matter what brewing method you use to grind your coffee just before using. You will need to use a good burr grinder for this - get the best burr grinder you can afford. If you can't get your hands on a burr grinder, then you're better off buying pre-ground coffee specially ground for a plunger rather than using a blade grinder.

The dose (how much coffee and water to use): Use a dose of 15g coffee for every 250ml water. I measure this with a digital scale. This seems insane, but its important for two reasons. Firstly, knowing exactly what you did when you make a great cup of coffee allows you to replicate that consistently. And secondly when you make a bad cup of coffee, you know what you're changing to improve it. If you can't get your hands on a digital scale, 15g of coffee is about 1.5 tablespoons.

The Technique: 

  • Put your measured dose of coffee in the plunger jug.
  • Start by pouring a small amount of hot water over the ground coffee. You only need to wet all the coffee, but you don't need to be too accurate with this step. Watch as the coffee blooms and releases its gasses. Enjoy the aroma, and the sight of the grind expanding. Start your timer, or look at your watch as the water hits the coffee.
  • After a few seconds, pour the remainder of your hot water into the plunger jug. You should see a thick crust of ground coffee float to the top. Use a spoon to break the crust and give the mix a gentle stir. Place the lid on the jug, but don't push the plunger down yet.
  • Now comes the difficult part of the ritual... you need to wait till your timer reaches 4 minutes. I find watching the ground particles start to sink to the bottom of the jug oddly satisfying.
  • Once your timer has reached 4 minutes, push down gently on the plunger. You don't want to agitate the coffee grind at the bottom too much while you do this.
  • Pour out your coffee into your cups immediately. Don't leave in the plunger, as the liquid is still in contact with the ground coffee and will continue extracting flavours, resulting in a bitter drink.

Now sit back and enjoy the smoothest most delicious sludge free coffee that you will get from a plunger as a daytime drink, or use your plunger to make a delicious after dinner Irish Coffee.


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