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Plunger (French Press) Brewing

At its simplest, a plunger consists of a cylindrical jug, a filter with the same diameter as the interior of the jug, and a stick attached to the filter which can be used to push it down into the jug, filtering the coffee from the grounds as it goes. The simplicity of plunger brewing has made it the most popular method used in Australian households; the complications involved mean it's rarely used at its full potential.

To get the most out of a plunger you need fresh coffee, the correct medium grind and the right technique. As with filters, the manufacturers of plungers all have their own definitions of what constitutes a cup, so it's wise to measure the actual capacity of your plunger before you begin.

  1. If you like really hot coffee, heat your plunger by swirling some boiling water in it. Discard this water.
  2. Using 10g of coffee per 180ml of water, add coffee to plunger.
  3. Boil your water, remove from heat and allow to stand for 30 seconds, then pour onto the coffee.
  4. Be careful as you're pouring, fresh coffee will produce lots of foam. If you're brewing a full plunger, fill only to within 3cm of the lip of the jug.
  5. Using a wooden spoon to avoid damage, stir the coffee for 90 seconds.
  6. Insert the filter, lower the lid then push the filter about 2cm under the surface of the coffee.
  7. Wait 30 seconds, then plunge all the way with a slow, steady pressure. Serve immediately.

Basically the extended stirring provides the maximum extraction at the right temperature, leaving you with a rich, hot coffee. Most plunger instruction manuals say something like "pour on hot water, insert filter, allow to stand for 4 minutes", but in my experience fresh coffee brewed this way can end up underextracted and too cool. The froth, gas, adsorbed air etc. on the surface of the coffee means that particles never wet properly, and as a result significant amounts of coffee are wasted.

Other Methods

There are probably at least as many other ways of brewing coffee as the ones described above, but they tend to occupy minor niches in the overall scheme of things. One method is the Napoletana or Neapolitan "upside down" brewer, where water is boiled in the bottom half of an espresso pot like device, with the coffee in the middle, and it's then flipped over! The hot water actually filters through into the "base" and is poured from there. It tastes like coffee brewed using a "gold" filter.

Vietnamese "screw down" filters are another variation, usually one cup affairs that drip into a cup which already contains sweetened condensed milk..an acquired taste, and often mostly VERY dark roasted robusta coffee. In Singapore and Malaysia you sometimes still see the coffee "sock" used for kopi-o and kopi-susu, black coffee with heaps of sugar and white coffee made with sweetened condensed milk respectively. The preference for sweetened condensed milk in the tropics is a holdover from the days when this was the only type of milk product which didn't go "off" in the heat and humidity.

Then, of course, we have the good, old fashioned recirculating percolators, which force boiling water up through a tube, over the coffee, which then flows into the bottom of the pot to be recirculated again. My advice on using these, manual or electric is:

  1. Grasp percolator firmly by the handle.
  2. Hurl forcefully into the nearest bin.
  3. Go and buy a plunger.

Coffee in a percolator is inevitably boiled several times over, leading to significant overextraction and the tarry bitterness which boiling produces. If you HAVE to use a percolator, choose a coffee which is low in acidity and VERY smooth, and grind it even coarser than for plunger. Allow it to perk for no more than 3 minutes. That said, you can get excellent coffee by simply pouring "off the boil" water into a ceramic or metal pot which has 10g of coffee per 180ml of water in it, stirring for a couple of minutes and allowing a couple more minutes for the grounds to settle. If you're really fastidious, pour through a strainer when serving.

Of course, there is one brewing method that surpasses all others (except perhaps espresso, which is so different a beverage) in clarity of flavour, purity of aroma and ultimate cup satisfaction; coffee that tastes like it smells. And that is…

 

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