What Is a French Press and How Does It Work?

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Last updated on December 31, 2023


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Whether you're an enthusiast looking to expand your brewing horizons, a prospective buyer researching which French press to purchase, or a beginner brewer starting your coffee journey, if you identify as “French press curious”—you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we'll walk through everything you need to know about the French press—what it is, how it works, and why it's such a versatile and flavorful brewing method.

After Reading this Article, You Will: 

  • Understand the basics of how a French press works and the principles behind its unique brewing style.
  • Be able to choose the right French press size and materials best suited to your needs.
  • Discover why the French press is such a favored starting point for home coffee brewing.
  • Learn to appreciate the rich, full-bodied cups of coffee the French press method delivers.

We'll start with a brief overview of the French press's history and then dive into the details of its simple construction and easy step-by-step brewing process. 

Whether you're passionate about perfecting new techniques or just wanting to learn the fundamentals, we'll provide all the information you need to join the ranks of pressed coffee lovers. 

The Short Answer

A French press, also known as a cafetière or coffee press, is a simple manual coffee brewing device that produces a rich, flavorful cup of coffee by steeping coarse-ground beans in hot water and then separating the grounds from the brewed coffee using a mesh plunger.

The full-immersion brewing method results in a robust, intense coffee. You get more oils, body, and darker roasted flavors from your beans with a pressed cup of joe than from dripped coffee.

While it's one of the easiest methods, you still have control to cater your coffee to your tastes. 

For those considering purchasing a French press, there are a few key factors to consider: 

  • Look for a sturdy, BPA-free construction of glass or stainless steel. 
  • A traditional 4-cup (1L) capacity is ideal for most single-serve needs. 
  • Additionally, premium brands like Bodum, Espro (affiliate links) and Frieling offer smoother-operating plungers for an optimal brewing experience.

Let's dive into the details on how it works.

The French Press “Background Story” 

The French press has been a favorite of coffee lovers for decades thanks to its simplicity and the full-bodied flavor of the coffee it produces. 

At its most basic, a French press is a glass or stainless steel cylinder with a filter screen and plunger mechanism. Some also call it a cafetière, which we'll discuss more later. 

Coffee has been pressed for centuries but the modern design we know today was popularized in the 1930s by the company Bodum (affiliate link). Today, whether you're a newbie brewer or a seasoned coffee enthusiast, the French press remains a top choice for delicious coffee without fuss.

So what exactly does this handy brewing gadget comprise? 

The main part is a hollow cylinder called the carafe which holds the water. A tight-fitting lid housing a disk-shaped mesh filter with an integrated plunger is used to drive down the grounds after steeping, separating liquid from solid.

Pushing down the plunger effectively filters most of the used grounds from the brewed coffee below. The mesh filter is held in place by the rim and crossbar so no flecks make it into your cup. 

With just these simple parts, you've got all you need to transform beans into a serious cup of joe.

Is a French Press the Same as a Cafetière?

You may hear the French press referred to as a cafetière, especially in Europe where this name is more common. But whether it's called a French press or cafetière, yes, we're talking about the same brewing device.

Both terms simply describe the classic cylinder-shaped manual coffee maker. The French word "cafétière" directly translates to coffee maker, so cafetière is a fitting name. 

In North America, most folks use “French press”. Maybe this helps avoid confusion with the coffeehouse drink “cafe latte” which can sound similar to “cafetière”?

So in summary—a French press and cafetière are exactly the same brewing gadget and the terms can be used interchangeably.


Why Use a French Press?

The French press stands out as an ideal starting point. It provides hands-on involvement, visual appeal, and simplicity with few steps, and cleanup is just a quick sud-n’rinse.

You don't need any special skills or to spend lots of money before discovering if you even enjoy home brewing (a standard, good quality French press will put you out about $25, tops). Simply add ground coffee and water then steep and press—it’s hard to mess up!

Due to the control you have over several variables, you’ll find that this is a brewing method that can accompany you as you deepen your knowledge and appreciation of coffee.

While you can make a number of tweaks to the brewing process to pull different characteristics out of your beans, you’ll find the French press is most known for the deep, creamy cup of coffee it offers. 

In short, you should give French press a try because it’s an easy, inexpensive, and visually appealing coffee brewing method that can adapt to your evolving tastes and produces a dependably delicious cuppa. 

How Does a French Press Work — The Nitty (And Sometimes) Gritty

Now that we know what makes up this simple contraption and why it’s a good choice, let's go through the full brewing process step-by-step:

  1. Grind your favorite coffee beans to a medium coarse consistency, about the size of sea salt grains. A burr grinder (affiliate link) works best for a consistent grind.
  2. Add the ground coffee to the carafe. A coffee-to-water ratio of 1:15 of water is a solid and often recommended starting ratio.
  3. Heating the water is crucial—aim for ~200-205°F (94-96°C) which is usually just a bit off the boil.
  4. Slowly pour the water over the grounds to ensure even steeping. 
  5. Now the magic begins as your oils are extracted for maximum flavor. Let it brew for around 4 minutes depending on your taste preferences. The longer it steeps, the bolder it will be—but too long and your coffee will be bitter and over-extracted.
  6. Slowly press the plunger all the way down to separate the grounds from your coffee.
  7. Pour your coffee delight straight into your mug and enjoy! The oils stay suspended, giving your cup more body.

With the French press method, the coffee steeps in the hot water allowing for full immersion brewing. This results in a thicker, richer coffee compared to drip coffee where the water passes more quickly through the grounds. 

You get all those delicious coffee oils without a paper filter stripping them away. The deep flavors and intensity it produces are why so many coffee fans choose this simple brewer.


Choosing a French Press

With an understanding of how the French press works, you're almost ready to pick one out. Here are several factors to consider.


French presses come in a variety of sizes, from personal 8 and 12oz options (236-355 ml) up to larger carafes that can serve groups. For one or two people, a standard 32oz (xx ml) size is ideal. Larger households may prefer a  51oz (1.5 L) press. For a more in-depth comparison, see our article on French press sizes.


Glass showcases the brew but isn't shatterproof, while stainless steel is durable yet conductive. Double-walled stainless combines strength with insulation. Dishwasher-safe parts suggest a sturdier build (but we still recommend cleaning by hand).

Filter Type

As for filters, single mesh is standard or opt for double layered (affiliate link) for even finer filtration if sediment bothers you. Or try the French Press paper filter method. 


Well-insulated models (affiliate link) like double-wall stainless or vacuum-sealed glass retain brewing heat longer for optimal flavor.

Ease of Use

Ease of use also matters—look for a smooth-gliding plunger (like Bodum, Espro, and Frieling) and spouts that pour neatly without dripping. 


Choices include basic stainless or classic glass, to colorful acrylic and sleek titanium options. Traditional and modern styles allow for personalizing your coffee station.

Again, glass is gorgeous but can break, while standard stainless steel models are shatterproof yet won't retain heat as well. 

For the best of both worlds, stylish and insulated stainless steel models are also available—such as this French Press from Meuller (affiliate link).

By considering these key factors—size, material, filter, insulation, usability, and design—you can choose a French press perfectly suited to your needs and aesthetics. 

Whether opting for basic functionality or high-end features, the right model will allow you to focus on enjoying your coffee without hassle or waste. 

No matter which model you select, a French press remains one of the most straightforward and satisfying ways to experience coffee in your home.


Final Thoughts

Today, the French press endures as a classic brewing device thanks to its straightforward design and incredible taste results.

Now that you understand how it works, why it produces such robust coffee, and have a clear picture of choosing your own, you're ready to join the ranks of pressed coffee devotees. 


What Is the Point of a French Press? 

The French press produces a full-bodied, flavorful cup of coffee by fully immersing the grounds in hot water and then separating them through a mesh filter. This results in more oils and robust flavor compared to drip coffee.

What Is the Difference Between French Press and Regular Coffee? 

French press coffee is richer and more intense due to the full immersion brewing method. Regular drip coffee is lighter-bodied since the water passes through the grounds faster without steeping.

How Does a French Press Work? 

Medium-coarse coffee grounds are fully immersed in hot water to steep, and then a plunger with a mesh filter is pressed down to separate the grounds from the brewed coffee

What Kind of Coffee Do You Use in a French Press?

Use a medium-coarse ground coffee, like sea salt grains. A consistent grind size is key, so a burr grinder (affiliate link) is recommended. 

As far as roast goes, you can use what you like best, though many coffee drinkers note that the French press does a great job of fully highlighting the flavor profile of medium and dark roasts. 

Can I Use Regular Ground Coffee in a French Press?

Yes, but a finer regular grind may result in more sediment in your French press coffee. A medium-coarse grind is ideal.

Do You Need Filters for a French Press? 

Yes, the reusable metal or nylon mesh filter attached to the plunger acts as a filter to separate grounds when pressed down. There is no need for paper filters.

Do You Let French Press Sit Before Pressing? 

Let the French press steep for around 4 minutes to fully extract flavors and oils before slowly pressing down the plunger.


Gloess, A. N., Schönbächler, B., Klopprogge, B., Blome, A., & Blank, I. (2013). Comparison of nine common coffee extraction methods: instrumental and sensory analysis. European Food Research and Technology, 236(4), 607–627. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-013-1917-x

National Coffee Association USA. (n.d.). French press. Retrieved from https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/How-to-Brew-Coffee#FrenchPress

Serious Eats. (2014, July 29). How to make better French press coffee: Tips and technique for a smoother, bolder cup. Retrieved from https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/07/how-to-make-better-french-press-coffee-tips-technique-grind-timing.html

Wang, X., & Lim, L. T. (2023). Effects of grind size, temperature, and brewing ratio on immersion cold brewed and French press hot brewed coffees. Applied Food Research, 3(2), 100334. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.afres.2023.100334

About the author, James Allen

James is a seasoned coffee enthusiast, dedicated home roaster, and brewing aficionado with over 15 years of immersion in the world of coffee. His passion for the bean has taken him on an incredible journey, from assisting locals in establishing farm-to-cup micro-roasteries and cafes in Bali to pioneering one of the first blockchain projects aimed at enhancing traceability in coffee supply chains. Based in Japan, James spends a significant portion of his year embarking on travels to coffee-producing countries with a recent focus on the rapidly advancing Thailand arabica scene.