Taking the plunge

caffeine magazine australia cafetiere plunger coffee opener

Whatever you choose to call it, there’s an art to making good coffee in a French press
By Jem Challender of Barista Hustle

By the 1850s, the desire for a more transparent brew really started to move coffee tech forward. Early versions of the stovetop brewer, such as Parker’s Patent Steam Fountain or Platow’s Patent Filterer, were in common usage. But according to the Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy from 1855, the most common way of making coffee in England was more or less like making what Aussies refer to as a ‘plunger’ — but without the plunging part. Americans call this way of brewing ‘cowboy coffee’, and our English cousins call it the ‘jug’ method. In short, you put your grinds in a jug, add water, stir the mixture, and then let it stand long enough for the grinds to sink to the bottom.

A patent was lodged in 1852 by Frenchmen, Mayer and Delforge which certainly looks like a plunger — though it appears this design never entered production. The first patent for a plunger that did take off was lodged in 1929 by Italian, Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta, and ascribes the invention to Ugo Paolini. Six years later, Italian, Bruno Cassol patented the spring that helps the filter seal more effectively against the edges of the carafe.

In 1957, another Italian, Faliero Bondanini, patented a version that was a huge seller in France. Reportedly, nearly every French home owned one by the end of the 1960s. Finally, the Brits got in on the act when Household Articles Ltd. introduced their version in the 1960s, they called it La Cafetiére. So clearly, the design wasn’t exclusively French — yet Americans still refer to it as the French press.

Australians generally prefer things to do what they say on the tin. We say ‘runners’ when referring to shoes that we run in. The whipper snipper whips and snips the grass, and is named accordingly. So, for us, the French press is naturally called a plunger. 

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Plungers fall into the category of ‘immersion’ brewing devices, which includes syphons, AeroPresses, and ibriks. Basically, anytime you have grinds steeping in water rather than having water percolating through them, it’s an immersion brew. The team at Barista Hustle have been writing an online course called Immersion. During our research, a realisation dawned on us — one that calls our Aussie naming system into question. We found that the plunger really is the least crucial part of this device. In fact, because the wire mesh in most plungers is so difficult to clean, unless you are meticulous in washing them, you’ll probably make tastier coffee without using the plunger part at all.

Here’s what we recommend: Pour the water in, vigorously to begin with, ensuring that no dry clumps of coffee remain. Then, wait. Don’t be tempted to disturb the crust of coffee that forms at the top of your plunger until at least five minutes have passed. You’ll reach around 20% higher extraction yields if you don’t break the crust too early. After five minutes, you could take the plunge, although you’d be better off taking seven or eight deep stirs, not just through the crust of coffee at the top, but down to the bottom of the coffee bed as well. After the big stir, follow the gorgeous advice published in the Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy that, 165 years later, still rings true:

‘After the heaviest parts of the grounds have settled, there are still fine particles suspended for some time, and if the coffee be poured off before these have subsided, the liquor is deficient in that transparency which is one test of its perfection; for coffee not well cleared has always an unpleasant bitter taste. In general, the coffee becomes clear by simply remaining quiet for a few minutes.’
After that final sentence, the authors do unfortunately go on to recommend using flocculants such as egg white powder, isinglass, and eel skin to clarify the brew. Please don’t. Simply leaving your coffee to ‘remain quiet’ for a little while certainly does feel like a nice approach to brewing in these turbulent times. If you do take the plunge this week, take your time… ‘How’s the serenity?’

Jem Challender is the Dean of Studies at Barista Hustle (BH) in Melbourne. He’s a former UK Brewers Cup Champion and the author of 10 online courses about coffee production. To check out the library of coffee courses from BH, visit baristahustle.com

This feature appeared in issue 01 of Caffeine magazine Australia

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