French press is essentially open-pot coffee with a sophisticated method for separating the grounds from the brew. The pot is a narrow glass cylinder. A fine-mesh screen plunger fits tightly inside the cylinder. You put coarse-to-medium ground coffee in the cylinder, pour water just short of boiling over it, and insert the plunger in the top of the cylinder without pushing it down. After about 4 minutes, when the coffee is thoroughly steeped, you push the plunger through the coffee, clarifying it and forcing the grounds to the bottom of the pot.
The plunger pot was apparently developed in Italy during the 1930s, but found its true home in France after World War II, when it surged to prominence as a favored home-brewing method.
The growing popularity of this method in the United States has unleashed a flood of French-press brewers, most of them manufactured everywhere except France. A consumer’s first decision in purchasing such a brewer is whether to spend a little money on a version that supports the glass brewing receptacle in a plastic frame ($15 to $30), or to spend considerably more on a brewer with a metal frame ($40 to the totally unreasonable). A third alternative, and a good one, are designs that insulate the brewing receptacle to keep the coffee hot after brewing.
The coffee the plunger brewer produces is heavy and densely flavored. The subtle, aromatic notes present in fresh, well-made filter coffee are overwhelmed by a deep, gritty punch. Many coffee drinkers prefer such coffee; others may find it muddy and flat-tasting. Those who take their coffee with milk or cream may prefer it; those who drink their coffee black may not. Some may like it after dinner but not before. It is neither better nor worse than coffee made with filter paper, just different. Its heavyish flavor and dense body are owing to the presence of sediment, oils, and minute gelatinous material that chemists call colloids, all of which largely are eliminated by paper filters.
Style of coffee aside, the advantages of the plunger brewer are its drama, its portability and its elegance, all of which make it an ideal after-dinner brewer. It is more difficult to clean than most drip or filter pots, and, unless you buy a design with an insulated decanter, the coffee must be drunk immediately, which is just as well, since coffee ought to be drunk immediately.