There are more ways of preparing coffee now than ever before, some dating back many years, others more recent innovations.
Each brewing method has associated advantages and disadvantages, and the resulting beverages have varying characteristics.
Of all the styles of coffee, the French press and the espresso could probably not be further apart. Everything from the grind of the coffee beans to the taste and mouthfeel of the final beverage is different.
Here, we look at French press vs espresso to help you understand the characteristics of these two drinks.
What is a French press
The French press is a device for making coffee by the infusion method. This means hot water is added to the ground coffee, which is then left to steep for a period of time to extract the flavor.
Infusing coffee is the oldest way of preparing coffee and has been in use ever since people began roasting the beans of the Coffea plant to make a drink. Using a French press is a way to control the infusion of the coffee to make sure the final brew is not over-extracted.
A French press consists of three main parts. The first part is a container, usually a glass jug, where the coffee grounds are placed before brewing. The second part is a plunger, which is pressed down when the coffee has infused. The last part is a mesh to prevent the grounds entering the drink.
Using a French press is one of simplest ways there is of making coffee, but when done well, the coffee produced can be rich and strong yet refined.
What is espresso
Espresso coffee is perhaps the polar opposite of French press coffee. It requires special equipment to make, and the coffee that ends up in your cup is far removed from French press coffee in taste, aroma, mouthfeel, density and just about every other aspect.
Contrary to a widely-held belief, “espresso” does not mean “express” in the sense of “quick”. It actually comes from the Italian word esprimere, meaning “to press, force out”.
In the simplest terms, espresso is made by forcing hot water through ground coffee under pressure. This pressure causes the oils to be extracted which are suspended in the liquid as microscopic droplets. The resulting drink is a short, intense shot of coffee of about only about 1oz in volume.
The emulsification of the oils also creates what is known as “crema”, a golden-brown layer of froth that sits on top of the espresso. No other method of preparing coffee causes this emulsification and no other types of coffee have crema like espresso.
The crema is not just decoration, it is one of the most important components of the espresso. It is part of what causes the flavors, aromas and mouthfeel to be so different from coffees made by other brewing methods.
It is also a good way to judge how well an espresso has been made. If the crema is thin and disappears quickly, very little emulsification has taken place and the drink can only very loosely be termed an espresso.
Making espresso requires an espresso machine. While the cheapest ones available can cost less than $100, professional-grade espresso machines can as much as $3000 and more.
Check out this video of a blind taste test to see how much money it’s worth spending!
This means making espresso at home has not always been popular, although it has become much more widespread in recent years.
Many other coffee beverages are made from espresso. Popular and well-known drinks such as cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites all start with a shot – or a double shot – of espresso as their base.
The art of espresso
Perhaps more than any other method of making coffee, pulling the perfect shot of espresso is a fine art that takes time and practice to master.
Many people mistakenly believe that if you have the right beans and the right equipment, you will automatically end up with a good cup of espresso.
However, the truth is, in the hands of a poorly-trained barista, the best espresso maker and top-quality beans will only yield a passable cup of espresso at best. There are so many variables involved and a failure at any step will result in an inferior coffee.
What isn’t espresso?
For the uninitiate, espresso is sometimes taken to mean simply a strong, short coffee, but this is not true. If coffee is not made under pressure, the same oils are not released from the grounds and there will be no crema. This is not espresso.
Another common misconception is that coffee made using a Moka pot is espresso; these are sometimes referred to as “stovetop espresso makers”. However, this is also something of a misnomer.
The Moka pot is a traditional device for making coffee that was invented in Italy and is also very popular in Spain. They are placed on the stove and water rises up through the coffee from below to extract the coffee.
While coffee made in a Moka pot is made by forcing water through the coffee grounds under pressure and a small amount of crema is sometimes even formed, this method is really a form of percolation and is not really a true espresso.
Advantages of French press
When comparing the French press with the espresso, the main advantage is clear.
A French press is a very simple way of making coffee and the French press itself can be very inexpensive. A functional French press can be picked up for no more than about $5.
The preparation method is also very simple. You grind your coffee, you let it steep and you serve – in a nutshell, that’s it.
Of course, there’s more to it than that – we’ll have a look at some tips for making perfect French press coffee in a moment – but it’s much easier to make good French press coffee than great espresso.
Advantages of espresso?
As we’ve already mentioned, you need an espresso machine to make espresso, and while cheap machines are available, if you want to make decent espresso at home, you need to be prepared for a certain amount of initial outlay.
While you don’t need to install a coffee shop-grade espresso machine in your home, opting for one of the cheaper models will not allow you to produce satisfactory espresso.
Having chosen the machine you think is most suited to you, the next step is to learn how to use it.
Whereas by following a few simple instructions, you will be able to start making a good pot of French press coffee right away, with espresso, you need to pay careful, loving attention to each step of the process and improve with experience.
If you don’t have patience and a good level of attention to detail, you will never come close to making a top espresso like a well-trained barista. Again, we’ll give you some tips on how to improve your espresso-making skills in just a moment.
However, the rewards of learning how to make a proper espresso are worth the effort. If you invest in good equipment and know how to use it, you will be able to make rich, aromatic and intense espressos – for many, the king of coffees – in the comfort of your own home.
Tips for making French press coffee
Making good French press coffee is relatively simple, but there are a few points to bear in mind.
First, the grind of the coffee is important. Since the infusion method involves the coffee being in contact with the water for a relatively long time, you should use coarse-ground coffee. If the grind is too fine, you will over-extract the coffee and the drink will be bitter.
Make sure you use the right amount of coffee – a ratio of 1:10 of coffee to water is a good guideline – and don’t let it steep too long. Steeping for longer than about three or three and a half minutes will result in a bitter brew.
Finally, when the coffee is brewed, push the plunger and serve immediately. Don’t leave it sitting in the pot or it will continue to extract – again, resulting in bitter coffee.
Tips for making the perfect espresso
While the art of making the perfect espresso takes time to perfect, we can offer you a few tips.
For espresso, you need a fine grind. You should grind the beans just before you use them to ensure the coffee is at its very best and you should use a burr grinder to do it. Burr grinders ensure an even grind, important for accurately controlling the extraction of the coffee.
Other factors to take into account include water temperature, pressure, amount of coffee used and extraction time. Good guidelines to follow are 190°F (88°C), 9 bar of pressure, extraction time 25 seconds, 0.2oz (7g) of coffee.
The water temperature and pressure may or may not be adjustable on your machine.
Check out this video for more tips.
Pursuit of perfection in a cup
Each of the two methods has its advantages – and indeed, many people will have both at home.
The French press may appeal to those who want a quick brew with a minimum of fuss while an espresso is the drink of choice for those who enjoy taking the time to chase perfection in a coffee cup. And we love both.
Which do you prefer? Are you a French press wizard or are you a home espresso barista extraordinaire? Or perhaps this all seems a bit too much and you just prefer a good old cup of instant.
Whichever it is, please leave us a comment as we love hearing from you – and if you enjoyed our article, please don’t forget to share