Steep or Steam: Your Guide to French Press Coffee vs Espresso
Done with that mild, thin coffee you’ve been getting from your drip machine? Ready to get a handle on two of the most influential methods of coffee brewing?
If so, you’ve come to the right place. Together, the French press and espresso maker rule the coffee shop land.
And while they both make powerfully rich coffee loved by hipsters far and wide, their differences far outweigh their similarities.
Today we’ll walk you through the world of steeping (French press) and steaming (espresso) coffee to help you pick the next method to master.
Comparison: French Press vs Espresso?
Ease of Use
The French press makes a good routine coffee. By that we mean, once you decide how course you want to grind the beans and how long you want it to steep, it makes an easy and enjoyable addition to your daily routine. Here are the basic steps:
- Heat your water to about 205F and pour it over the grounds
- Wait about 45 seconds for the coffee bloom and then stir
- Place the lid on and wait 3-4 minutes
- Slowly press down on the plunger but try to avoid squeezing the grounds at the end
- Pour and enjoy
Espresso can be made in as many ways as there are baristas who make it. If you have a pod machine, it’s as easy as pressing a button. With a regular espresso machine though, following these steps will get you started:
- Heat up your machine
- While it’s heating up, grind the beans very finely and put them in a portafilter
- Tamp the grounds - 30 pounds should be good - so you make a “coffee puck”
- Add the portafilter to your machine and make sure your cup is ready below it
- Begin pulling the shot, stopping before the liquid turns clear
- Stir in the crema and enjoy
Making espresso can prove difficult at first, but after a few tries you’ll know your machine and be able to perfect your pull. So keep at it until then!
Even with a powerful machine doing a lot of the work for you, an espresso maker still requires a lot of skill on your part. So the French press takes the prize for simplicity.
In less than 6 minutes, you can have a steaming hot pot of French press coffee ready. The actual brewing process takes between 3 and 4 minutes, and then you’ll need some additional time to heat up the water while you grind the beans.
Plan on 5 minutes or so to get your machine warmed up and the beans ready. But actually pulling the shot of espresso should take 30 seconds or less, so you may be able to cut the prep time down depending on your machine and experience.
Espresso wins hands down for its extremely quick brewing time. All that pressure is good for something!
Ease of Cleanup
The most important cleaning step for a French press is making sure to get all those leftover coffee grounds. If any stay behind, your next batch will taste bitter. So its best to take the whole thing apart, wash each part individually, and let it air dry.
Espresso machines usually require preventative maintenance to keep them going strong. This means that after pulling shots, you’ll also want to run a water shot to clear everything out. And then you’ll regularly want to clean the whole machine.
Pod espresso machines though are as easy as throwing out the used pod and changing the water.
While cleaning a French press isn’t necessarily hard, it can be time-consuming. So we’ll let the espresso machine have the win here. Once you get used to the cleaning process, it’s pretty quick.
In sizes ranging from 3 cups to 12, the French press can meet most capacity needs. The average press serves 8 cups or a couple large mugs since a cup is roughly 4oz.
Most at-home espresso machines will give you 2 shots max. This should be all you need for specialty drinks or to serve on its own. But if you’re wanting to have an espresso party, be prepared to spend a lot of time at the machine.
Even though you can pull espresso shots quickly to make up for the limited capacity, the French press’s flexible sizing options give it the lead here.
You’ll definitely need a kettle to go along with your French press, and maybe a scale and timer if you want to be extra precise. But other than those things, a French press is pretty low maintenance.
Grinder, tamper, portafilter, steaming wand, milk pitcher, dump box, etc. Collecting additional equipment for your espresso machine could be a hobby itself.
But most machines come with the basics that you’ll need: portafilter and tamper, and maybe even a grinder for that fine espresso grind you need.
French press. Its low maintenance ability means there’s less to keep up with overall.
Buying a French press is a relatively small financial investment. And in return, you get superb quality coffee out of it for years to come. Plan to spend around $30 or less for a top-rated press.
If you go the capsule espresso route, expect to spend $100-$150 for one with any merit. Or if you want the real deal, prices range from $100-$1200 or more. Definitely more of an investment up front than a French press.
Since a French press can fit any budget, it takes the lead here. However, if you have a little more to spend, you can invest in an espresso maker at any number of price ranges.
Rich and strong. Since this is a steeping method, the grounds sit with the water until the very end of the brewing process. This gives a bold, almost thick-tasting flavor. Just watch out for any remaining grit leftover in your mug!
Smooth and bittersweet, with the perk of a delicate crema on top. Espresso stands alone in the flavor category and is also perfectly strong enough for drinks like lattes or mochas.
This all comes down to how you like your coffee. A French press will give you a lot of coffee with a lot of flavor. Brewing espresso, on the other hand, brings out the sweetness of coffee in a way that no other method can. A petite, but perfect flavor.
Adding milk to espresso makes a truly incredible collection of drinks. Lattes and cappuccinos are probably the most familiar drinks, known for their luxurious taste and beautiful art (a special way of pouring the milk into the espresso).
But what every at-home barista wants to know is, can I make these drinks without an espresso machine. Yes. Sort of. Without the strong, concentrated taste and the sweetness of the crema, you won’t be able to replicate a true espresso specialty drink.
But, because the French press offers a rich, strongly flavored coffee you might not be able to tell the difference. Of course it won’t be the same, but using French press coffee to make your specialty drinks will get the job done (and probably save you a lot of money too).
The Tortoise and the Hare
The French press and espresso maker, while both extremely popular methods, treat their coffee very differently.
The French press brews slowly, steeping the grounds in hot water until a richly flavored coffee emerges. A little bitter perhaps, but bold and highly caffeinated.
This method comes in handy when you want to relax and enjoy a slow-paced coffee experience.
Espresso machines, on the other hand, make quick work of the coffee, hitting it hard with 9 bars of pressure. In turn, it spurts out an elegant, nuanced coffee perfect for admiring.
So whether you choose to get there quickly with an espresso maker or to take your time with a French press, the end result of both deserves savoring.