How to make espresso with a french press(should you?)

Long story short, you theoretically could but as far as I know it hasn’t been done well and it certainly won’t resemble your traditional shot. If what you’re looking for is a traditional shot of espresso then your answer is, unfortunately no.

I’d like to preface this post by clearly stating that I am a specialty barista and as such I’m less forgiving when it comes to my espresso; I do however understand that your average coffee drinker is less stringent and as such I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that you can produce a decent shot of espresso with a french press. I just haven’t seen or had any that I thought was
decent.

There’s one major problem that the french press has when attempting to make a shot of espresso that simply can’t be circumvented (hint – it’s pressure), and there are two other issues that your average person would have to address.

What are We Even Talking About?

First we should talk about brew methods and what they mean ie methods of extraction versus actual beverages. We’ll move on from here by briefly explaining what a french press is for those who have yet to know the greatness that is french pressed coffee.

I should like to follow this up with a brief explanation of the various factors that constitute what I (again as a barista) makes a good espresso shot before addressing the smaller factors that one would have to consider when trying to make espresso with a french press.

Then we’ll talk about the main issue that the french press faces when attempting to make a shot of espresso and we’ll include at the end, a link to an pretty good home alternative for espresso involving an aeropress for the diehard stay at home coffee lover.

What’s Being Asked For?

It’s helpful to understand your coffee in the context of how it’s prepared. For example… you order a pour over and receive a pour over. You’re referring to the drink but really what you’re asking for is a specific method of preparation. At the end of the day it’s all coffee, but you want it prepared a specific way. Like the pour over, cold brew, espresso, and french press are methods
of brewing coffee.

Logistically it just doesn’t seem to follow that you could order an espresso but prepared by a french press because you are in a sense referring to a method of preparation which yields to you a drink, some of which are named after their distinct methods of extraction.

I imagine the dreaded order:

“Can I have a cappuccino but like – with no foam? No wait… can I just get it iced?”

The French Press

The french press itself is typically a glass beaker shaped like a cylinder with a plastic lid. Protruding from the lid is the press itself which can be pressed into the beaker. The end of the press has a mesh wire filter which allows for liquid to pass through while slowly pushing the coffee grounds into the bottom of the beaker.

I’d like to make abundantly clear that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the french press. It tends to produce a heavier coffee, but one that I still prefer despite many years of being a barista. There’s nothing in my mind that can top my morning french press… the mealy, (preferably) rustic, full bodied coffee is my favorite; and thus I prefer the french press. The french press is really good at what it does and that’s producing a nice hot cup of coffee.

Factors in Preparing Espresso

Espresso is generally regarded as being the most complex and difficult style of coffee preparation to master. It’s hugely misunderstood and the purpose of this section is to shed some light on what exactly goes into preparing a shot of espresso (grinder aside).

A good espresso machine is required and this is generally undisputed. Why you may ask? First I find it’s helpful to understand all the pieces required to make a shot of espresso with a machine.

Whatever coffee beans you’re using aside…your average espresso machine will need:

  • A boiler (preferably two if you plan on using a steam wand) to maintain an optimal
    temperature ranging from 195-202 degrees fahrenheit. This affects how the coffee is
    extracted.
  • An internal water pressure of 9 bar ( x9 the pressure of the atmosphere at sea level) is
    optimal and allows for a quick, powerful extraction that basically zaps all the goodness
    out of the coffee grinds.
  • A screen for the grouphead necessarily for keeping coffee grinds from floating up into
    the machine.
  • A portafilter, necessary for allowing the espresso to emerge from the saturated coffee
    grinds.
  • A basket for the portafilter is required to hold the coffee in place.
  • A tamper I suppose isn’t needed with your machine, but certainly helps keep the coffee
    in place, and evenly distributed for an even, consistent extraction.

The importance of each of these factors cannot be understated and as one can easily tell – there’s definitely a lot going on when pulling a shot.

Accounting for Water Pressure

Water pressure is absolutely the biggest problem that one would struggle with while trying to make espresso on a french press. 9 bars of pressure is your typical, constant, and for all extensive purposes standard pressure for an espresso machine. This amounts to 130.534 pounds per square inch.

It’s understandably hard if not impossible to achieve this kind of pressure in a french press assuming you’re not the caffeinated hulk. The pressure is quintessential to producing (extracting) that sweet natural crema found in good coffee beans.

Accounting for Coffee Grinds

A second concern is the leaking of coffee grinds through the mesh filter. Not only would this allow for a greater inconsistency in the preparation of the beverage but it quite frankly, won’t taste very good. You would achieve (I’ve experienced) some of the richness that might be associated with a shot of espresso but this would (again in my experience) be due to fine coffee grinds leaking through the filter producing a slight viscosity that sadly – resembles a meal more than an espresso shot.

But wait! Can’t I just grind the coffee coarser? You honestly can but you’re going to take an L when it comes to the flavor and mouthfeel of your coffee if you do and without proper pressure, the rate and intensity of the extraction just won’t cut it if a real shot is what you’re looking for.

Accounting for Water Temperature

This last concern is admittedly nitpicky and actually fairly easy to work around, but it seems important to mention because the temperature of the water has so many effects on how the coffee is extracted that it’s absurd. Consider not only the time differences between cold brew and your average hot cup of coffee but also the taste. Producing an exact temperature for a kettle requires a precise boiler or a thermometer. Circumventing that isn’t the issue.

Where things get trickier is in how quickly the water you’ve been boiling begins to cool. Degrees are quickly lost once the heat source is removed and even more heat is lost upon the pouring of the water. It certainly isn’t hard to conceive of how this could affect the consistency of the espresso you’re trying to produce. It is however able to be worked around with enough practice
and good equipment, but it’s another thing to account for nonetheless.

An Alternative

I don’t see one successfully modifying the french press to produce actual espresso. It sadly just isn’t in the nature of the brewing method. The biggest problems ranked from largest to smallest are the water pressure, the coffee grinds, and the water temperature. Despite the here you can find a great home alternative for brewing espresso at home with an aeropress.