Craving an espresso or cappuccino and don’t have access to an espresso machine but do have a French press? Can you accomplish something similar? Let’s find out.
A French press is not able to make espresso. Mainly because it’s impossible to replicate the necessary pressure of an espresso machine. It’s possible to make changes to the brewing process to get a very strong and thick coffee. The result is not great to drink black but suitable to mix with dairy.
Why is it not the same and how can you get close and even make something like cappuccino? Find out below.
Can a French press make a shot of espresso?
What is an espresso? That’s the question we have to answer first before we can say if you can make espresso in a French press.
In my opinion, it’s not possible to make a good espresso in a French press. Even when changing the brewing process (Grind size, ratio, steep time), the flavor is not right and the viscosity is a little too thin to make it a convincing espresso.
Dictionary.com provides the following definition; a strong coffee prepared by forcing live steam under pressure, or boiling water, through ground dark-roast coffee beans.
Cambridge dictionary says; strong coffee, or a cup of this, made by forcing hot water through crushed coffee beans and served without milk:
So those dictionaries give a slightly different definition but there are large similarities as well (obviously);
- Strong coffee
- Made with hot water
- Water is pushed through the ground coffee
Those are the dictionary definitions. Everyone will have had an espresso at some point in their life so here are some things you expect from it;
- Very dark and bitter
- Full body
- Little bit of sourness
- Small serving
- Served in shot glass or tiny cup
Espresso is made in roughly 30 seconds by pushing very hot water (but not boiling) through a puck of very finely ground coffee at a very high pressure (+-7-9 bar). The ratio of grounds to water in the cup is usually around 1:1.5 to 1:2. This results in a very strong (and small) cup of hot coffee with very intense bitter taste. It has a full bodied taste and the viscosity is quite thick.
The hot, very intense flavor and thick consistency are what make an espresso an espresso for me. Especially the thicker consistency than normal drip or French press coffee is important.
The high pressure of an espresso machine is largely responsible for this. To get that intensive taste and thick viscosity, you need a lot of the compound in the coffee grounds to get into a little bit of water. This isn’t possible to do without high pressures. In a French press you can’t get those high pressures so you need more liquid to extract everything you need. That will result in a coffee that’s less viscous.
So the drinking experience is just not the same. Not to mention that what you have to do to get close won’t result in very good tasting coffee.
So that means it’s not really possible to get real espresso from a French press. If you don’t have an espresso machine, a moka pot is actually a better alternative since it can actually create a bit of pressure.
How to get close
There are some ways you can get closer to an espresso while using a French press. As described above, I don’t feel you can make anything in a French press that can really be called an espresso. And also, the tips given below aren’t going to give you the best tasting shot.
However, if you want to make espresso based drinks without a machine and are going to mix the coffee with dairy (or dairy alternatives), this will get you close. I think the result of the tips down below is coffee that is too bitter to drink black. While espresso is always quite bitter, this is a bit too much in my opinion.
Here are some things you can try to make something close to an espresso in a French press;
- Grind your coffee very fine. Espresso is made with coffee grounds that are much finer than normal filter coffee. That is because you want to extract a lot from the grounds in a short amount of time.
- Use a much stronger ratio than usually in a French press. A normal espresso from a machine uses a 1:2 ratio. That means 1 gram of coffee grounds for 2 grams of liquid in your cup. Because we don’t have the high pressure to extract with such little liquid we’ll have to use more like 1:3.5 in a French press. Also, the coffee grounds absorb an amount of liquid equal to their own weight. French press coffee ratio
- So if you want about 70 grams of liquid in your cup, you have to use 20 grams of grounds and pour in 90 grams of water.
- Preheat the French press with boiling water. Then pour in the grounds and the water.
- Make sure all the grounds get wet so pour in the water and stir the mixture to break up any clumps.
- Wait about 3-4 minutes to let the brew steep. Put on the lid to keep in the heat.
- Press down the plunger. Push slowly to make sure the least amount of grounds get forced through the filter.
- You’ll likely end up with a lot of sediment in your cup because the filter of a French press is not made to filter out finely ground coffee so quite a bit of it will make it through. You could filter it though a paper filter after brewing but this will also remove a lot of the oils and other compounds that give this brew its viscosity. If you just use this for a dairy drink, the bitterness alone might be enough for you though.
So as mentioned above, I don’t recommend this for drinking black because it’s too bitter and kind of hollow tasting. That does make it suitable to mix with dairy though. The bitterness of coffee and the roundness of dairy complement each other. You still taste that punch of bitterness but it’s blunted by the dairy. At the same time, the dairy fills up the hollowness in this brew.
Why is a French press recommended as an alternative?
Why do people say you can make things like cappuccino with a French press?
The main reason for that is that it’s possible to make pretty good milk foam in a French press. So you can brew a strong, bitter coffee and also foam your milk. That combo is why a French press is often recommended as an alternative if you don’t have a machine.
- Brew a strong coffee, pour it in a cup
- Clean the press
- Heat the milk in a separate vessel. Don’t put your French press on the stove.
- Pour hot milk in the press and push the filter up and down.
- Once you’ve got foam you’re happy with, pour it in the cup and you’ve got yourself a cappuccino/latte.
All of that in a piece of equipment that costs $20-$50 and you’ve got a package that’s very hard to beat (to make milk based drinks).
And since you’re masking the less favorable notes and consistency differences you get from the coffee with dairy, that difference doesn’t matter as much and you’ll get a latte that’s close enough to scratch that craving once in a while.
I prefer a shot of espresso without any sugar or dairy so for my purposes, a French press isn’t going to cut it. However, if you just want to make espresso based drinks once in a while it’s a bit different.
You can foam milk but also brew something that can be mixed with the milk in a French press. And since the dairy covers up a lot of the difference in consistency and taste between a ‘real’ and a French press espresso, you can get really close to a cappuccino or latte with a pretty simple $30 piece of equipment.
No need for an espresso machine and milk steamer that cost at least a couple of hundred dollar. Is the end result as good? No, in my opinion it isn’t but, you can definitely whip something up that is 85% of the way there and the equipment you need costs less than 1/10th of an espresso machine. That price difference is something that’s hard to argue with.
If you want espresso and/or cappuccino every day and you’ve got the money, I would still recommend buying a decent machine. But if you just want to drink an espresso based drink once in a while and/or don’t have the money for a machine, a French press will do the job.
Favorite French Press Brewing Tools
Here are some things that help you brew better coffee:
- French press: This beautiful stainless steel Meuller French press (Amazon) is high quality yet affordable and the double filtration system means less sediment in your cup.
- Grinder: Fresh beans have to be ground. A hand grinder like the Hario Slim (Amazon) is affordable yet effective hand grinder that will improve your cold brew.
- Scale: The amount of grounds you use makes a big impact on what your cold brew tastes like. A simple set of scales will makes your brews more consistent. I’ve been using this one (Amazon) for over a year with great success. Not the most aesthetic but effective.