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Apr 17, 2008 03:48 PM

To all FRENCH PRESS coffee masters.... in desperate need of your help!

Hello 'hounds

At my LTA's (that's Lovely Tasting Assistant's) behest, I have decided to venture into the area of home barista.

To date, I have been failing miserably.

As one who is always up for a new food challenge and discovery, I invested in an 8 cup capacity Bodum french press ($31) and a Breville conical burr coffee grinder ($80).

I have done my research, but the coffee I have produced over the past few days has been terribly sour and bitter.

Here's my process-- please tell me what I am doing wrong:

1. Weigh out 4 oz of Brita filtered water per cup... 4 cups generally equates to two small coffee mugs' worth, or 16 oz in total. (Note that I am only brewing at approx 1/2 capacity of the total volume of the french press.

2. Please water in tea kettle and heat on stove.

3. Weigh out 8.5 grams per cup of whole beans (I have been alternating between Trader Joe's fair trade Ethiopian and French Roast)... that's 34 grams of whole beans in total

4. Place beans in hopper of grinder. NOTE: on the Breville, "medium grind" is recommended for french press, and "coarse grind" is recommended for percolator. I have my setting halfway between these two marks.

5. When water begins to boil, I grind beans (takes about 50 seconds in total).

6. Pour beans into french press and settle so they lay evenly.

7. Now that water has cooled a bit, I pour the hot water slowly and evenly on top of the grounds in the french press.

8. Stir about 6-8 times with a chopstick until brown froth appears at top

9. Add lid and plunger to unit and start 4 minute timer

10. After 4 minute alarm goes off, I slowly and evenly press down the plunger over about 15 seconds. (remember, french press is only 1/2 full)

11. Pour into 2 coffee cups and add (heated) milk

12. Coffee tasted both sour and bitter.

Please help-- what am I doing wrong here? And what precisely causes this sour and bitter flavor to begin with? I had always associated this flavor with old, stale diner coffee and never dreamed you could get it from a fresh home brew.

Please note that there are some local coffee shops near me which make great coffee, so I know what a good cup is supposed to taste like. I love a good smoky, slightly bitter dark roast but what I'm coming up with is truly foul.

Many thanks in advance!

Mr Taster

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  1. youre grinding your coffee for way too long. when i grind coffee beans I grind them in pulses. I pulse about 8-10 times for about a second each time.

    I bet your coffee tastes bitter cause your grinding your coffee way too fine.

    1 Reply
    1. re: bitsubeats

      bitsubeats........ although it takes a while to grind the beans, overgrinding in a conical burr coffee grinder is not possible because the beans fall from the hopper and into the grinder (which is set at a preselected grind size) and then gravity pulls the granules into the collection bin. Once the hopper is empty, it's empty... you can't overgrind the beans because once the hopper is empty, the machine is just grinding air.

      Mr Taster

    2. I'm afraid your first mistake was your most expensive: burr grinders are TERRIBLE for French press coffeemakers, because even at their coarsest setting, they grind too fine. And as bitsobeats says, 50 seconds to grind your coffee? Yikes. My KitchenAid blade grinder takes five seconds exactly to get my beans to the perfect grind for a French press.

      4 Replies
      1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

        I thought the whole point of avoiding blade grinders for french press is that by their very nature they produce an inconsistent grind, so you wind up with dust at the bottom and coarse grind at the top. Oversteeped dust supposedly produces bitter coffee. Or so they say... what do I know? I'm getting bitter coffee myself.

        Mr Taster

        1. re: Mr Taster

          I'm just going by my personal experience, and having dealt with both, I'm here to say that in my experience, a blade grinder knocks a burr grinder into a cocked hat when it comes to French press coffee. I never have any trouble with dust in the grinder OR sludge in the bottom of the pot, just a pure, clean-tasting coffee with zero bitterness. It's an unpopular opinion (burr grinder partisans insist that burr grinders are infallible for all forms of coffee brewing, whereas I think they're best only for drip and other finer-grind methods), but it's one that my experience bears out.

          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

            For sake of clarification, there appears to be a difference in quality of grind with regard to burr grinders versus conical burr grinders:


            Were you using a burr or conical burr grinder in your home brewing experience?

            I really have no prejudice in this matter-- I can still return my conical burr grinder :) I'm just trying to find out what works.

            Mr Taster

            1. re: Mr Taster

              Conical burr grinders work perfectly for french press, you just need to get one that has a sufficiently coarse grind setting. They're mainly aimed at espresso drinkers, so most of them don't have settings coarse enough for french press. I'd try setting yours as coarse as it will go.

              Also, I'd try some different beans. Trader Joe's is OK but try to find a local place that roasts their own beans and buy from them.

              For my morning coffee I use a 16:1 ratio of water to beans, by weight.

              I think you're be brewing it too long, bitterness comes out when beans are brewed too long. In your step 7 you say you "pour the hot water slowly and evenly on top of the grounds in the french press.", after which you start the timer. I don't know how slowly you're pouring the water, but that may be the problem. Try starting the timer right before you start pouring the water, not after. And I wouldn't worry too much about pouring slowly and evenly. My procedure (omitting the grinding and water boiling):

              1. Pour the water over the grounds. Going slowly has no effect one way or the other in my experience.
              2. Start the timer.
              3. Stir up the grounds vigorously with a spoon or whatever to distribute the grounds evenly throughout the water, then put the lid on.
              4. At the 2-minute mark, a lot of the grounds have floated back to the top and aren't really taking part in the brewing like they should. Grab the press and swirl it around for 5-10 seconds to redistribute the grounds.
              5. Plunge it after 2 more minutes (4 total).

              Obviously you can play around with the time. If your coffee is coming out bitter, shorten the brewing time.

      2. i didnt even know that there was a difference between grinders like that...shows how much I know. I dont make french press coffee...but my ex did every morning and loved the stuff. Everything had to be precise or well he'd be grumpy for the rest of the day ):

        But yeah try pulsing the grounds. They should be fairly chunky and large when mixed in with the water. They should be the size of small lentils to possibly small grains of rice.

        1 Reply
        1. re: bitsubeats

          Just as you cannot overgrind or "pulse" a pepper mill, you cannot overgrind or pulse a conical burr coffee grinder. The mechanism is similar.

          As I understand it (and remember, this is all theory for me), the primary purpose of a conical burr coffee grinder is consistency of grind.

          The theory goes something like this. If coffee grounds are overextracted (i.e. if you steep the grounds for too long) the taste of the coffee is bad.

          If you have an uneven grind (for example in a blade grinder, the beans at the bottom are ground finer than the beans on top) you wind with with chunks on top and "coffee dust" on the bottom.

          Coffee apparantly has a very specific extraction time based on the coarseness of the grind. If you oversteep the coffee grounds, the flavor will be off. Obviously "coffee dust" will extract very quickly before going bad whereas the coarser grounds will require more steeping time.

          So you can see the problem if you have mixed dust and coarse granules is that the overextracted coffee dust will taint the flavor of the rest of the pot.

          My understanding is that french press coffee is particularly fickle because there is no paper filter sucking up essential oils and flavors of the coffee before it gets to your cup. Automatic drip filters apparently provide more consistency, but lack depth.

          Again, this is all theoretical for me as I have yet to see any practical evidence of these theories pan out!

          Mr Taster

        2. Try adjusting your grind (I like it finer than usually recommended). Try shortening the brew time (I usually steep for 2-3 minutes). Get an instant read thermometer and take the water's temp; should be between 195 and 200ºF. Lastly and most importantly, try using different beans. French presses are merciless about showing a coffee's flaws. I've never tasted coffee made from Trader Joe's beans but would be surprised if they can hold a candle -- in quality or freshness -- to beans from a top-notch roaster. If you can't find any near you, look to mail order (Zoka's Paladino blend is great in a French press). Or consider getting a home roaster and roasting your own (Sweet Maria's is a fine source for both roasters and green beans).

          1. I can think of two reasons why coffee tastes sour.
            First ,do you notice oil beads floating on the surface of your cup after you brew? I find that the essential oils in coffee give a sour taste. Paper filters will not let the oils pass as much as reuseable mesh strainers (as for french presses)
            Secondly, you might be overextracting the grounds, releasing undesirable tannins which are bitter just like in tea. I suggest adding a little more coffee and letting it brew for less time. Check to make sure that your grounds still weigh 34 grams after grinding. You might be losing some mass. Where does this 8.5 gram/4 oz H20 ratio come from anyway? I know what I like, and I just eyeball the amount to suit my tastes.

            2 Replies
            1. re: jtpeters

              Thanks for this advice.... the 8.5g beans/4 oz H20 comes from the link I posted above. I'll print it again here:


              I will have to examine whether or not I see oil beads. I do see swirly patters on the skin of the coffee.

              I like your idea about adding extra coffee and brewing less time.

              What I'm really looking for is a deep, smoky, rich flavor with just a slight bitterness and NO sourness. Is this something that can be achieved by french press?

              Mr Taster

              1. re: Mr Taster

                Be aware that oils are considered essential to a good cup. Many coffee purists shun paper filters precisely because they don't allow the oils through. Of all popular domestic systems, French presses produce coffee that is most similar to that produced by "cupping," the method used by professional tasters to evaluate java because it takes nothing out, shows the coffee at its purest, shows the bean's qualities and flaws. You can't make good coffee with poor beans, and that goes double for espresso and French press. The Paladino beans I mentioned above give me a wonderfully rich, deep brew in a French press, with a hint of bitterness and no sourness. Smoky I'm less sure about; it's not a descriptor I associate with coffee (as opposed to, say, tea and wine).