French press and espresso: Two very different coffee brewing methods that are immensely popular with coffee drinkers the world over. Both produce a deep, rich brew and can be made at home with relative ease, but there the similarities end. We’re going to deep dive into the big flavor coffee battle of French press vs espresso.
Time, cost, and difficulty are all factors that determine which is the better coffee brewing method for you. As well as the flavor profile of the finished brew.
Let’s dive into this rich, syrupy caffeinated battle.
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It’s a rather basic concept – there’s a metal or glass cylinder that you put ground coffee into. The coffee grounds are immersed in the appropriate amount of hot water for a few minutes before pressing down on the plunger. As the plunger has an attached sieve, it separates the grounds from the now brewed coffee. Et voila!
The first coffee maker of this style was created by two Frenchmen in the 19th century, hence the name. However, the French press as we know it today was created by an Italian gentleman named Attilio Calimani in 1929. The modern coffee press wasn’t created until 1959, in Switzerland and produced by a French company called “Chambord” (not to be confused with the raspberry liqueur). This is why Chambord is another name for this type of brewer.
HOW DOES A FRENCH PRESS WORK?
So, how does leaving ground coffee beans in some water for a few minutes result in coffee? Single-word answer, diffusion.
Diffusion is when compounds move from an area where they are at a very high concentration, to an area where they are at a very low concentration until they are equally distributed.
This means that all the water-soluble compounds within your coffee grounds, like caffeine and all the tasty bits, slowly seep into the surrounding water. This continues until the concentration of them in the water is the same as in the coffee grounds. Remove the coffee grounds and you have your cup of joe.
Depending on your preference, each of these can be tweaked to change the strength and general flavor of the finished coffee. Now, this is a highly personal choice but we’ve got some general rules as a starting point.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to this brewing method, check out our complete guide to the French press.
You’ll find quite an astonishing array of ratios online dubbed as the “perfect” ratio for French press. This is obviously a deeply personal thing that will greatly depend on the coffee beans too.
Somewhere between 1 part coffee to 11 parts water and 1 part coffee to 17 parts water seems to be the consensus. After years of restaurant work, I drink obscenely strong coffee so I use the 1:11 end of the scale. But it’s probably best to start at 1:14 and work from there. You can use our French press ratio calculator to make sure you get the perfect balance.
This one is nice and easy. 200 F (93C) is the almost unanimously agreed temperature for brewing coffee. If you don’t have a temperature-controlled kettle, boil then wait around 1 minute before brewing.
COARSENESS OF GROUNDS
The coarseness of your coffee grounds (how big they are) makes a huge difference to the final result. Smaller grounds will have the flavor compounds extracted much faster than larger grounds. This is due to there being a much higher surface area of the coffee grounds compared to volume.
Flavor compounds are extracted at different speeds. So if your grounds are too small, you will extract too many of the bitter compounds when you plunge your French press. Conversely, if they are too big then you won’t get all those delicious flavor compounds and your coffee will taste very thin and acidic.
You need coarse coffee grounds, possibly the coarsest setting your coffee grinder has, or ask for French press grind from your coffee shop/online roaster. It may need tweaking a touch, especially when you change beans, but a couple of tries should have it nailed down.
You should brew your French press for 4 minutes before plunging. For the best results, you want to “bloom” your coffee first. Add a small amount of water to the coffee grounds and wait around 30 seconds before adding the rest. This allows the gasses trapped in the coffee grounds to escape and produces a much more flavorful brew.
If you want to learn more about the French press, jump over to our Complete Guide for everything you need to know.
To make espresso, steam is forced through tightly packed coffee grounds at high pressure, at least 9 bar but usually more like 18 bar, to quickly extract the flavors and create a shot of rich and syrupy coffee. The reason that espresso machines are so big is that it takes quite a bit of machinery to generate that kind of pressure.
Coffee shop owners started experimenting with increased pressure during brewing in the late 19th century to serve more coffee, faster. Time was the limiting factor in early coffee shops, it took roughly 4 minutes to brew coffee and there was no way of speeding up the process. This is when the first pressurized coffee machines were invented.
It wasn’t until post World War 2 that the espresso machine as we know it today was invented. This lever-driven design was created by Achille Gaggia, founder of that Gaggia, and was the first machine that produced enough pressure to create what we would call espresso today.
His innovation was combining steam pressure, around 1-2 bar, with a manually operated lever. This meant the pressure created got up to the magic 8 bar threshold that is now considered the minimum for producing espresso.
Brewing coffee is a chemical reaction and chemical reactions can be sped up in a number of ways, including adding energy (heat) or increasing the pressure. Since we don’t want to burn the coffee grounds, we don’t want to brew our coffee any hotter than 200F (93C). To increase the speed of brewing we increase the pressure.
This, combined with much finer coffee grounds, means we can extract the perfect balance of flavor in 30 seconds, instead of 4 minutes. Just like magic.
The machine itself also makes a difference. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly espresso machine for home, check out our best espresso machines for under $200.
For a reason unknown to me, everyone measures the weight of grounds for espresso in grams and the volume of water in fluid ounces. With this in mind, you’re looking at 6-8 grams of ground coffee per fluid ounce. This is important as too much coffee will make your espresso brew too slowly, bitter coffee. Too little will give you the thin acidic coffee associated with brewing too fast.
COARSENESS OF GROUNDS
The grounds need to be very tightly packed to produce espresso. Water being forced into them at high pressure means fine grounds, too coarse, will result in your espresso brewing too quickly and being thin and acidic.
If they are too fine the pressure may not be enough to force the water through them. Best case you get a very small, very bitter coffee. Worst case you shower your entire kitchen in hot water and coffee grounds as the pressure becomes too high for your coffee machine to contain (this is incredibly rare). You’ll need a grinder that is very precise at finer coffee grinds or get your coffee roaster to grind it for you.
TIME TO BREW
Most espresso machines, certainly more affordable ones, won’t let you mess with the brewing time settings. This is fine as changing the amount of coffee and the grind size basically ends up doing the same thing. You want to hit that magic 25-30 second brewing time for the perfect espresso.
While it may be more entertaining to find a hardcore fan of each method and have them fight to the death, we would probably achieve more by looking at the relative merits and drawbacks of each. So let’s find the right coffee maker for you.
It takes at least 4 minutes to get your French press coffee ready, not including grinding the beans and heating the water. Espresso can be made in 30 seconds. If you need a hit of caffeine quickly, espresso is your guy.
Your home espresso machine may take a minute or two to set up but then it’ll take a few minutes to boil the water for the French press too, so the prep time is fairly identical. Unless you have one of those fancy taps that immediately dispenses water at near 200F, but even then espresso probably wins.
However, this is just to produce 1 espresso coffee, which brings us neatly on to the second thing to consider:
Brewing multiple espressos is time-consuming. You can find many espresso coffee makers that will do 2 at once but as soon as you need 3 or 4 or even more than that, it all starts to get quite slow.
Maybe you can make 4 espressos in the 4 minutes needed to brew French press coffee but it’ll be close. Unless you’re a purist and only drink espresso as is, you aren’t making 4 espresso-based drinks in the same time it takes to make a 4 cup pot of French press coffee.
The great thing about the French press is that it is scalable. 1 cup of French press, 4 minutes. 4 cups? 4 minutes. 8 cups? 4 minutes. So on, and so forth until you have a comically large French press and you’re making coffee for the whole block in, yep, 4 minutes.
For crowd-pleasing, bulk, quality coffee with minimal time expenditure, French press is the clear winner. You might be happy to spend 2-3 minutes per flat white on your machine at home, but by the time you’re making the 5th one, people are getting tetchy and no amount of glorious latte art will smooth that over.
Now you may be thinking of the big board in Starbucks that is covered in vaguely Italian sounding options with espresso bases. But most of those aren’t about the coffee, they’re about making a mixed coffee drink with a smorgasbord of accouterments.
If you’re looking to enjoy lots of different coffees from all over the world to explore their characteristics and flavors then the French press is the method for you.
With both methods, you can adjust the grind, ratio, and brewing time but espresso doesn’t really work well with light roast beans.
As the beans are roasted longer, the flavor compounds become more water-soluble and thus take less time to be extracted. This is great when you’re looking to extract something in 30 seconds. We’ve explained all the different roasts available here, so you’ll know exactly what you want.
But at the lightest roasts, you need immense pressure to extract all those delicate flavors in 30 seconds and outside of the very top end of espresso machines, you aren’t doing that at home.
French press coffee will probably just need a slight grind adjustment to get the full experience from those super aromatic, light roast, Yirgacheffe beans you’re super excited about. It’s also a lot easier to only change one factor with French press coffee. If you change the ratio or grind size with espresso coffee, you will automatically change extraction time, not always ideal.
My French press is always the method I go to with new beans to try them out, it’s easy and I know I’m going to get the best from them.
Most coffee beverages use espresso, but this isn’t related to quality, just style. They are stylistically very different, so let’s explore that so you can decide for yourself which you will prefer.
French press coffee is rich and oily. By steeping the grounds in water, all the precious oils are retained in the final brew. You are left with a very aromatic and flavorful cup, which can easily be adjusted to a strength of your choosing.
The slight downside, for some, is that the fine mesh used when plunging your coffee leaves the very fine, sand-like, sediment in your brew.
This gives French press a particular texture that is not to everyone’s liking and means the bottom of the cup can be a bit sandy. But good French press coffee is a rich and full dream, loaded with flavor and nuance from your amazing beans.
Espresso is rich, bold, and powerful. A little shot of syrupy coffee concentrate. However, most do not drink espresso in shot form.
The addition of various amounts, and foam levels, of milk, add sweetness and mellow some of the harsher flavors. Americano, hot water with a shot of espresso, can give you a long drink with all the virtues of the beans nicely diluted down for consumption.
If you’re new to coffee, drinking espresso shots probably isn’t the way to start. Most people start with milkier drinks like lattes then slowly increase the intensity. Or dive in at the deep end, you may find yourself loving it. Plus, if you can make café quality coffee at home, serious kudos from friends and family.
French press is one of the cheapest ways to make coffee, you can pick up a French press for 1 person for under $20, and essentially that is all you need, as long as you have a way to heat water at home and no, your shower is not hot enough.
For those who need a mug of coffee for the commute or make their brew at the office, there are some excellent travel French press options.
As you go up the sizes they are more expensive but you’re not going to spend more than $50 on one of these things and it’s literally all you need. You can get the people at your coffee roaster to grind it to French press grind for you and you’re ready to go.
We always recommend grinding your own and there are some amazing budget manual coffee grinders around.
Then there is the Aeropress. Aeropress uses paper filters and kinda French press style and can produce as high-quality coffee as any brewing method so far devised, and it’s like $35. With a terrifying number of YouTube videos to guide you through the best ways to brew using it too.
Espresso coffee makers are expensive. Even a “cheap” espresso machine is around $80 and the coffee from it probably won’t be perfect every time. You can easily spend over $2000 on a top-line super-automatic machine, that will make incredible coffee, but hardly budget-friendly.
If you want to grind your own coffee, the cheap manual grinders can do the job, but the margin for error is much smaller so you tend to have to spend a little bit more.
All that said, you can get a good espresso machine for around $100 and a spectacular manual coffee grinder, 1zpresso JX-Pro, for about $160. So, you’re looking at a good set up costing $250-300. Not outrageous, but far above the $50 or so it would cost to get a serviceable manual grinder and French press for one.
They’re completely different and not as comparable as some of the other common coffee brewing methods. While French press is the clear winner for making at home in all the ways that matter to a normal human making coffee in their kitchen, that doesn’t really help if you drink flat whites or different mixed coffee drinks.
The whole French press vs Espresso debate is a bit redundant, like asking if Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps was better. Yeah, they’re kinda the same thing, but they’re not really comparable.
I’m pretty sure Bolt can’t run on water and I’m very sure Phelps can’t do butterfly on land. But both things should be tried before the next Olympics.
Espresso coffee makers are more expensive, more complex to use but faster for making 1 or 2 coffees. They also let you make lots of mixed coffee drinks.
French press coffee is cheaper, easier, and can be scaled up with no difficulty. It is also superb for trying lots of different types of coffee beans. Armed with all the answers, go forth and make delicious coffee.
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