Use a French press coffee pot backwards


Theodore A. Corcovilos


April 2, 2018

I found a different way of using a french press coffee pot that keeps the coffee from getting bitter if you don’t drink it right away.

Coffee wasn’t strong enough to defend itself. - Tom Waits

I like coffee. I mean I really like coffee, enough that “coffee” appears at least three times in my Ph.D. thesis that has nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. But I’ve never had the patience or inclination to obsess over every step of the brewing process. I have at least half a dozen coffee-making apparatus that I pick from according to my mood, but the ol’ Mr. Coffee drip machine gets the most action. I use whole beans from a bag purchased from the grocery store that I measure with a spoon and grind with an economy conical-burr grinder. My water is always 100C or a few seconds post-boil. I time using the clock in my head. I don’t spend a ton of money on fancy gadgets, roast my own beans, measure by weight, or precisely control the temperature and extraction period. So, I’m only halfway committed to coffee nirvana, but I just don’t have time for more. On the occasion that I want a fancy cup, I trust a professional and go to one of our many fine coffee joints here in Pittsburgh.

But I do like to play and experiment in the kitchen. Here’s one of my recent adventures.

The French Press

Most people are probably familiar with the french press. It’s a cylindrical pitcher with a mesh plunger that is likely a distant cousin of the Stirling engine. The mode of operation is simple enough:

  • Add coffee, coarsely ground
  • Add water and stir
  • Place plunger at the top the pitcher
  • Wait
  • Push down the plunger to shove the grounds to the bottom
  • Pour and drink

Some nice things about french presses is that they often make 1 L or so of coffee and require no power other than a source of hot water. There are no disposable filters to deal with. I won’t weigh in on the pros and cons of coffee made this way, other than the fact that the grounds are never really removed from the coffee. So, some usually gets left in the joe itself, and cleanup can be a pain, especially if the grounds have sat in the bottom of the pitcher for a long time…

So, I started doing something a little different. The original motivation was to find an easy way to remove the grounds as soon as the brewing is finished. In principle, the plunger should push the grounds out of the way and prevent further extraction, but in practice, unless you pour all the coffee immediately, it doesn’t quite work because the plunger isn’t long enough to reach the bottom and really squeeze the grounds. I’ll typically make a full liter and nurse it over a couple of hours, so that last cup can look and taste like used motor oil (or at least bad turkish coffee, and by bad, I mean how it turns out when I try to make it). I know, I know, letting the coffee sit in the pitcher for a long time is uncouth, but I don’t have time to brew each cup separately. (Side note: they should make tea cozies for french presses to keep the coffee warm, but I did finally find a cheap french press with a double-walled insulated pitcher, from IKEA of all places…)

Inverting the press

Anyway, here is my solution: put the grounds on top of the plunger. It goes like this

  • Place plunger about halfway down the pitcher
  • Add coffee, coarsely ground
  • Add water and stir
  • Push the plunger to the bottom
  • Wait
  • Pull out the plunger, slowly, with the grounds, and then discard the grounds
  • Pour and drink

Pulling out the plunger can be messy, so do it over a sink or trash can, but otherwise, I like this for giving me a pitcher of joe that will last a while without becoming bitter. There’s an interesting sucking action that happens as you pull out the plunger, reminding me of the fancy Clover machines you see in some Starbucks, but without the $10k price tag. The resulting coffee seems to be milder in my opinion than conventionally brewed french press coffee, but I haven’t done a scientific study.

Give it a try, and tell me what you think! If nothing else, its an interesting novelty, and may even work its way into your coffee repetoire.