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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Want to see how the French press compares to some other top coffee makers? Look no further than the below guides:
French press brews via steeping. This is where the coffee grounds are submerged in water to allow the flavors to infuse over time. The grounds are then removed from the finished coffee before drinking.
The result is a cup of joe bursting with flavor, aromatics, and body.
Espresso uses pressure to extract the flavor from the coffee grounds. How much pressure depends on the espresso machine. But by quickly forcing water under high pressure through the coffee grounds, the flavor molecules are transferred to your cup.
This makes espresso a short, intense drink.
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. So, if you need a hit of caffeine quickly, espresso is your guy.
Whilst your home espresso machine may take a minute or two to set up, it’ll also 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 around 200°F, but even then espresso probably wins.
However, this is to produce just 1 espresso coffee, which brings us neatly to the next big difference between the two coffee makers:
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 because you certainly aren’t making 4 espresso-based drinks in the same time as 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 takes 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.
So for crowd-pleasing, bulk, quality coffee with minimal time expenditure, the 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 will be 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 different types of coffee beans 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 with light roast beans.
As the beans are roasted longer, the flavor compounds become more water-soluble and 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 to help you work out 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, this just isn’t possible 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 excited about. It’s also a lot easier to only change one factor like the French press ratio or grind size.
However, if you change the ratio or grind size with espresso coffee, you will automatically change the extraction time which isn’t always ideal.
I always reach for my French press when I have new beans I want to try out. It’s simple and I know I’m always going to get the best from them, allowing me to really taste where the coffee has come from.
To make French press coffee, you just need to throw coarsely ground coffee into the carafe, add hot water, wait for 4 minutes, then plunge and enjoy. It’s easy to measure everything out, even if you don’t have scales, and we all have timers on our phones these days.
The skill required to make espresso, on the other, depends hugely on the type of espresso machine you’re using:
There are bean-to-cup, super-automatic machines that operate at the push of a button. Any adjustments can be made by changing the machine’s settings. But, they come with a high price tag and give you less control.
Or there are the push-button Keurig or Nespresso machines that give you maximum ease. The downside is being tied into branded coffee pods and having no control.
At the other end of the spectrum are the manual espresso machines. They can make incredible-tasting espresso. Just as long as you know how. Whilst they take skill and practice, the option to tinker is almost certainly the reason you would buy one in the first place – it’s all part of the fun. The reward is a “perfect” espresso.
Overall, if you’re after easy, fuss-free coffee then choose the French press.
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 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. By adding different quantities and foaminess of milk, you can add sweetness and mellow some of the harsher flavors.
Americano (hot water with a shot of espresso) gives you a long drink with all the virtues of the beans nicely diluted down for consumption. Whereas cappuccinos or lattes are more mellow and creamy.
If you’re new to coffee, drinking espresso shots probably aren’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 just find yourself loving it. Plus, if you can make café quality coffee at home, you get 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.
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. If you don’t want to invest in a full setup like a grinder for French press, you can ask your roaster to coarsely grind your beans for you. Then you’re ready to go. (Although freshly grinding will always taste better.)
Espresso coffee makers are expensive. Whilst you can get a “cheap” espresso machine for under $100, it probably won’t be perfect every time. Or you can easily spend well over $2000 on a top-line super-automatic machine like a Jura, that will make incredible coffee.
If you want to grind your own coffee, the cheap manual grinders can do the job, but the margin for error is much smaller as you need a fine grind. 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 setup 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.
Cleaning a French press is very simple but it can be messy.
There will be a wet collection of coffee grounds to dispose of (great to throw on your plants or compost heap). Then the carafe and plunger will need to be rinsed. All in, it can be done within 2 minutes but the wet grounds can get everywhere and be difficult to shift.
Unless you have a garbage disposal unit, don’t throw the used grounds down the sink. It can end up with a costly call to a plumber thanks to blocked pipes.
Depending on your espresso machine, you might not really need to be involved in the cleaning or you may have to get very hands-on. Removing the puck from your portafilter into the knock box and then rinsing the basket may be all you need to do after each coffee.
If you’ve used the milk wand it’ll need wiping down after each use. Plus it’s recommended to do a thorough clean each day as they can get very nasty, very quickly.
Almost all espresso machines need to be descaled every few months. This is due to mineral build-ups in the narrow pipes around the boiler. Descaling can take anywhere from 20-45 minutes and usually requires input from you.
So the French press is the winner here as its clean-up is always easy, and quick. Espresso has many more moving parts that need cleaning daily and occasional deep cleans to keep it in good working order for years to come.
At the end of the day, they’re two fundamentally different styles of drink and coffee brewing methods.
While French press is the clear winner 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.
Espresso coffee makers are more expensive and more complex to use but faster for making 1 or 2 coffees. They also let you make lots of mixed coffee drinks. But French press is cheaper, easier, and can be scaled up with no difficulty. Plus, it’s superb for trying different styles of coffee beans.
Armed with all the answers, go forth and make delicious coffee.
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