That Ubiquitous French Press

I like coffee, I really like good coffee, but I’ll also drink cheap instant stuff if that’s all that is on offer, because sometimes life is just like that.

So, whoever I visit I can normally be found in the kitchen watching coffee being made. Some people will throw some instant stuff in a cup, some people will have a fancy expensive espresso machine grinding fresh beans before making you a cup, but I noticed that a huge majority, including both of the previous groups, and in every country, have a French press sitting around.

It’s an object with many names, growing up I always heard it called a cafetière, but it seems that depending on where you are or who you talk to it might also be called a French press, press pot, coffee plunger, or asorted other titles. Whatever you want to call it, this simple coffee making device is ubiquitous and is essentially a design that is a couple of centuries old already.

There have been many great inventions that don’t exactly change the world, or let people do something that they couldn’t before, but do make simple everyday tasks just easier or better somehow. Think how much easier and neater the ballpoint pen made writing, or how velcro makes sticking and unsticking stuff such a simple pleasure, you could possibly argue that the French press (or cafetière) did something similar with home coffee making.

Most people have one, it might be tucked away in a cupboard somewhere (maybe with a missing broken glass bit) if they aren’t using it, and you can find them in super cheap shops or pay far too much money for one. They seem to fall in and out of fashion and right now lots of hip coffee bars who server you various ‘method’ coffees feature the French press on the menu, I’m not really sure what taste or quality it is supposed to impart but it does make pretty decent coffee.

For some reason, that I can’t really explain, I started to wonder just where this ever-present device came from…

It all begins might begin with Elizabeth Dakin

Back in 1841, Elizabeth Dakin was married to a tea and coffee merchant whose business was based in London. She was well ahead of her time in realising that iron, which was most often used as a traditional roasting facility at the time, passed over its own particular and not overly desirable flavour into the coffee. She decided to put a stop to that, and using various other metals including gold, silver, and platinum, she developed a coffee roaster which removed the iron flavour from coffee.

The second problem that Mrs Dakin decided to set about solving was the way that water was poured directly over a pot of coffee grinds. At that time while you could enjoy the initial coffee flavour and she, like I, didn’t enjoy ending up with a horrible mix of coffee and bits in her mouth. Yes, I know some people still like to make coffee like this and somehow drink it happily, but I just can’t.

Elizabeth Dakin is recognised by some people as the being responsible for transforming the traditional coffee pot of the time by adding a cylinder that was perforated, quite similar to a sieve, which seems like it should have been a pretty obvious idea really. Then she experimented further with a plunger on a screw thread which could be moved up or down inside the middle of the cylinder as she turned the handle on the top.

In very much the way that you would make coffee in a French press today, the coffee is put into the bottom of the cylinder with the hot water poured over the top of it. After waiting an exact period of time the screw was twisted This in turn moved a disc down into the coffee pot which forced the coffee grounds to the bottom of the utensil, separating the brewed liquid coffee from the original coffee.

She found that this invention served two purposes; first the grinds were kept away from her daily cup of coffee and two, the flavour was significantly enhanced because the coffee was no longer brewing. Over time, the whole complex screw thread idea has evolved into a much more simple push rod, but the original concept remains.

Or was it Mayer and Delforge Paquet dit Jolbert Atillio Calimani

So, it might have all been down to Elizabeth Dakin, but it might not. Two French inventors, Mayer and Delforge, patented a similar idea in 1852, and another Frenchman, Marcel-Pierre Paquet dit Jolbert, officially published a patent in 1924.

Another patent by Attilio Calimani, a designer from Milan took the whole concept a little closer to what we now recognise in 1929 by removing the metal of the coffee pot container and replacing it with glass and a spout making it easier to pour the coffee, while the plunger was fitted with a filter, to force the ground coffee away from the liquid.

Finally another Italian, Faliero Bondanini, patented his own version in 1958 (yes that’s a lot of people patenting a seemingly simple coffee maker) and began manufacturing them in a French clarinet factory under the brand name Melior. Soon Melior produced a new model that included a stainless steel filter within a metal outside body which contained the glass jar.

So, like most inventions (and most cocktails and recipes too) it seems pretty tricky to actually say who is responsible for the French press, and they may or may not have been French. What is clear is that it owes a lot of it’s popularity and widespread use worldwide to a Danish company, Bodum, who bought the early designs from Melior and made it a worldwide ‘thing’.

While some inventions change drastically as people find ways to reinvent the wheel, the original French press has hardly changed in almost 200 years.

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