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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

        http://www.coffeegeek.com/guides/pres...

        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:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_p...

            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).
          www.zokacoffee.com
          www.sweetmarias.com

          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:

              http://www.coffeegeek.com/guides/pres...

              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).

            2. Cut back on the 4 minutes. Yes, that is the time that is often recommended, but I don't think is required by every coffee or taste.

              As to the grind, it should be coarse enough so that only a small amount of sediment passes through the filter in the your cup. Finer grinds need less time.

              Have you drunk these coffees made with a paper filter? Press coffee will be somewhat stronger because the longer brewing time, retained oils, and sediment. Sometimes I use a cross between press and paper filter by steeping the coffee in a pan, and then straining it through a paper filter.

              Oh, and relax about the times and details. You are making coffee, not a lab chemical. :)
              paulj

              2 Replies
              1. re: paulj

                This is a bit speculative, but I suspect the acidity of a brew is a function of the beans, while bitterness depends as much on the brewing time as the bean. Acidity has never bothered me so I haven't paid much attention to this, except to note that some beans are marketed as being low acid. I like my coffee strong, but without excessive bitterness. I define 'excessive bitterness' as one which I'm inclined to temper with some milk. In fact for Vietnamese style coffee with condensed milk, I like a brew that has some bitterness.

                paulj

                1. re: paulj

                  Yes, acidity is primarily a function of the beans. To some extent, bitterness is too, though it's also a function of both brewing time, as you hypothesize, and brewing temperature: if the water is too hot, the coffee will be bitter; if too cool, the coffee will be sour. While the temperature-bitterness connection is most obvious in espresso, it's also apparent in French press coffee. (The OP says his coffee is both bitter and sour, which leads me to suspect that the beans may be part of his problem, since the brew temp can't be both too low and too high.)

              2. Definitely try a 3 minute brew time. That's what I use and I don't have sour coffee. And, like others have said, try another coffee from a small batch roaster. I wouldn't think that TJ's coffee is going to make the best french press. Is there even a roast date on it? I've heard people complain about how horrid the coffee is. I even find Peet's undrinkable...

                Here are some directions (including a 2.5-3 minute brew cycle) that you might want to read:
                http://www.sweetmarias.com/brewinstr....

                1. I pour boiling water on mine, I don't stir it, I leave it for about a minute maybe two at the max, swirl it round and then plunge. Been doing it the same way for 20 years.

                  1 Reply
                  1. i'd say you are grinding too finely. why did you set the grinder setting to something finer than the french press setting in the 1st place?

                    1. You're doing everything right. You might want to tweak things here or there (for example, a coarser grind or a shorter steep will tend to reduce bitterness), but the reality is that it's only going to make a little difference in the end product. So I'd say it's the beans.

                      You need to find a coffee shop that roasts their own beans. Sounds easy, but most places that sell bulk coffee just dump pre-roasted stuff into the bins. Since you live in a major metropolitan area, though, you should be able to find someplace.

                      Pay attention to roast dates, and use coffee that was roasted between 3 and 7 days ago. Try a variety of coffees (based on your expressed preferences, make one of them a Sumatra Mandheling). I'm pretty sure you'll get some results you like.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Hi everybody-- op here.

                        Thank you for all of your advice. In the months since I originally posted, I have managed to refine my process and make some really yummy cups of coffee with my french press.

                        I changed up several elements of my brew, so I'm not sure which are most responsible for transforming the coffee. However one thing may surprise you... I'm still using those beans from Trader Joe's... but now I'm getting decent to really good cups out of them.

                        Here's what I changed:
                        1) Dumped the Breville conical burr after the second one broke on me in 2 weeks
                        2) Invested in a Zassenhaus conical burr hand crank coffee grinder
                        3) Instead of weighing my beans, I now estimate... 1 even scoop of grounds per cup, plus one for the pot. Usually I make 1/2 pot of my 8c press, so that's 4.5 scoops.
                        4) I make sure the temp of the water is below 205.
                        5) I begin timing at 4 mins from the moment the water hits the grounds, and I just dump it in (not slowly as I did before)
                        6) Lastly, (I think this is key) I allow the coffee to settle for a few moments after it is poured, so that the bitter grounds settle to the bottom of the cup.

                        When I brew this way (using primarily Trader Joe's Kona and French Roast) I get a really nice cup of coffee. When I used Ethopian beans from local roaster Groundworks, we had some great coffee.

                        A few more questions, though:

                        - When I stir up the grounds of the TJ's french roast, I get very little bloom... whereas the Kona and Ethiopian coffees gave off a nice frothy head. Is this indicitave of the age of the beans? Does the co2 contribute to flavor in any way, as oxygen might increase the flavor of wine?

                        - It's just my wife and I, and we only drink a cup in the morning a few times per week. I know that it is ideal to use beans roasted 3-7 days ago, but if this is not possible then what is the best way to store your beans? Do you leave them in the freezer? In a paper bag? Vacuum sealed plastic? What's the best method?

                        Thanks all!

                        Mr Taster

                          1. re: Mr Taster

                            Never store your beans in the freezer. The moisture will destroy them faster than anything else.

                            Only buy as much as you will use in a week or two. And by all means, buy fresh locally roasted coffee if at all possible.

                          2. re: Mr Taster

                            «When I stir up the grounds of the TJ's french roast, I get very little bloom... whereas the Kona and Ethiopian coffees gave off a nice frothy head. Is this indicitave of the age of the beans?»

                            Generally speaking, yes, or rather of how long ago the beans were roasted. Just-roasted beans contain lots of gas, a by-product of the roasting process. They lose it over time. Many baristas think the optimum window starts 3 or 4 days after roasting and extends for about a week after that. Few would use beans that had been roasted more than 2 or 3 weeks earlier, and then only if properly stored. It's not surprising that mass market beans like TJ's wouldn't be as fresh and therefore as gassy as beans from a boutique roaster.

                            «I know that it is ideal to use beans roasted 3-7 days ago, but if this is not possible then what is the best way to store your beans? Do you leave them in the freezer? In a paper bag? Vacuum sealed plastic? What's the best method?»

                            This is a subject of some debate. Several very geeky coffee geeks have been playing with freezing beans lately and many report no perceptible degradation in coffee made with beans that have been frozen for up to two months. See www.home-barista.com/store-coffee-in-... for the gory deets and focus on the last section of the conclusion. Note that the tests were done on home-roasted beans before degassing, though the author also thinks recently roasted beans would also work. My informal and unscientific tests -- a small reserve kept on hand for emergency situations, like when I forget to buy beans -- seem to support this. I store mine in a sturdy plastic yogurt container. Paper bag wouldn't be good as it allows too much air exchange; vacuum-sealed plastic might not allow enough but you could always try.

                            1. re: Mr Taster

                              I use a ceramic air tight canister to store my beans, in the pantry or on the counter. They have sat there for longer than a week or two and tasted fine when brewed.

                              And I agree, ditch the Trader Joe's. You should have plenty of good local coffee options in LA. It was a revelation for me when I found a local coffee roaster with coffee that actually tasted better the cooler it gets.

                              1. re: Megiac

                                Once we're done with the current batch of TJ's fair trade medium roast Kona, I'll head over to Groundwork (www.lacoffee.com) and try out some of their "black gold" (we've really liked the intense, rich flavor of TJ's French Roast). Only problem is that they roast in a central facility and then ship to their retail outlets, where the beans at Groundwork are sold from bins... so there's no guarantee as to how fresh the beans actually are. I suppose the bloom will tell..........

                                Mr Taster

                          3. Grind for a French Press should be coarser than for drip. I have a Rancilio Rocky grinder and for drip I grind at 25-30. For FP I grind over 40.

                            Typically, with espresso pulls at least, sour means under extracted, bitter means over extracted. However, since you are grinding finer than I'd suggest, you should be over extracting...unless of course, you are brewing too cold.

                            You might try taking the temp in the press pot after you pour in the water. It should be steeping at 195-205. If it's colder than this, that's your problem.

                            Typically, I grind before the water hits a boil. When it hits a boil, I wait briefly and then pour and stir. You'll lose 5-10 degrees simply from pouring into the press pot and stirring. The water may be getting too cold during the time it takes for you to grind? The only way to know is by taking the temp on a sample brew.

                            It could also be the coffee that you are using. You are buying freshly roasted local coffee, right? :-)

                            2 Replies
                              1. re: Mr Taster

                                My first thought is that you may have been using too much coffee initially. Glad to see you seem to have it all sorted out now.