Are you looking to get more from your coffee? I have been, but home-brewing has left me feeling frustrated. There’s a world of coffee-brewing methods out there that I know I’m only scratching the surface of.
Normally I would reach for my french press – but it’s come to my attention that cupping is beginning to emerge among indie and third-wave coffee shops as a contender to that time-honored brewing method.
I was curious. I started doing my research. To my surprise, a lot of articles I found said that cupping is the answer to both the acidity I’ve encountered with presses, and to the mouthfeel that isn’t quite right.
So I researched more, and I did a few tests, and now I want to give you my results in the cupping vs french press debate that’s been, shall we say, brewing, among the coffee-drinking elite.
What is cupping?
Cupping was originally developed as a tasting method for quality control tasters and potential coffee buyers. Usually done right in the roasting plant, this method was meant to highlight the nuances of different regions and roasts.
Professional coffee tasters and quality assurance tasters can go through 200-300 cups in a day.
Because of this, a brew method was needed that would stand up to the demands of the job - quick, easy, and able to sit out for a long while without losing its flavor.
What resulted was a method that keeps the grinds in contact with water for an exceptionally long time for a hot-brewing method.
While general coffee knowledge would equate a steep time over five minutes to usually mean an over-extracted cup, many baristas in specialty coffee shops are actually turning to cupping as better than a french press for getting a coffee that’s just right.
The stages of cupping
What makes cupping unique? The difference lies in the steeping process. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, hot water (about 200F) should be poured over freshly ground coffee.
Preferably, the coffee should have been roasted no more than 24 hours prior and let to rest for 8 hours (1).
As with a french press, the grounds are left to be undisturbed for 3-5 minutes. Once that time has passed, the “crust” of the coffee is gently broken by stirring it 3 times.
This is the optimal time to smell your coffee; the fragrances reach their peak, and can be best noted by smelling the spoon used to stir rather than the coffee itself.
The tasting, however, waits until after - about 8-10 minutes after, when the coffee has cooled to the 160F-140F range.
The coffee doesn’t need to be filtered; simply sip from the cup. This initial taste is the best time to pick out your coffee’s flavor, acidity, and body. Letting it cool until it’s around 100F is the best time for you to pick out the roast’s sweetness.
Common French press preparations
As a method that’s been on the wider coffee scene for longer, a world of variances has appeared in french press brewing methods.
Most people recommend a coarse grind for your press to ensure fewer grounds make it through the filter; others recommend a medium grind for better extraction.
Generally, you follow the same basic process: grounds first, then water, using the pouring to help mix in the coffee. Let it steep with the plunger up and a timer going for four minutes, then stir, plunge, and pour.
There are a few extra steps that, while lesser-known, can lead to a better cup of coffee.
Things like scooping off the cream-colored foam after you stir the coffee at that four-minute mark and letting the coffee settle to the bottom of the press can help prevent bitter notes, and using the plunger as a strainer rather than a press can do the same.
In fact, letting the coffee sit and waiting for the grounds to settle doesn’t over-extract the coffee, so long as it’s done right and you don’t plunge it, but instead let it filter as you pour.
The grounds responsible for the infusion quickly settle to the bottom, slowing the process down and allowing the body of the coffee to develop into a richer and fuller flavor.
Related Post: What's the Best French Press Travel Mug?
So how do these two methods compare? One of the first differences to note is the equipment.
While a french press is well known for being one of the simplest methods to brew a “fancy” cup of coffee (that is, one that doesn’t function around pressing buttons), it still requires a press. Cupping is unique in the fact that it only requires a cup.
While this may win the cupping vs french press debate for someone looking for the most cost-efficient way to brew their morning cuppa, I was most intrigued by the difference in the grind.
As mentioned earlier, a french press is often recommended to be ground on the coarsest setting of your grinder.
Most often, this is prompted by a sometimes-misguided sentiment that a coarser grind will keep grounds from slipping through the filter. However, I’ve never seen this to be the case - even with as coarse and consistent a grind as I can manage.
Among some of the other myths surrounding french press grind, I’ve been told that a coarser grind means fewer oils lost to the grinder and more oils present to be released into the coffee.
I’ve also been told that the larger grinds reduced bitterness. However, I’ve had a lot of problems with getting a cup that’s too weak - even with water temperature, grounds ratio, and recommended steep time followed precisely.
To be honest, I ended up giving up on the French press for a while. A pour-over of the same bean, ground a bit finer, often gave me a better-tasting cup, even if it did require me “nursing” it to ensure all of the water made it through the grounds.
Cupping, however, demands a finer grind from the get-go - often just a bit coarser than a standard flat paper filter grind. I’ll admit, I was nervous at first.
After all, if a coarser grind in my french press was supposed to be ready in five minutes, how was a finer grind supposed to taste, openly floating around in the cup, after fifteen?
Why the difference?
I’ve left my coffee in the French press too long, before, when I thought I’d be able to dodge around using a timer. You know how bitter it tastes, even for just a few minutes longer, after you press it?
Yeah, none of that with cupping. I was floored when I first tasted it. It was like the first time I’d sat down to taste a really good coffee: the flavors were clear and untainted by the bitterness and too-high levels of acidity I’d come to expect.
What, exactly, was going on? Why do a finer grind and a longer steep time than a french press make a coffee that isn’t nearly as bitter?
I have a hunch that it has to do with the actual “pressing” part of a french press, and another coffee aficionado agrees that this might be the case.
Their experiments with french pressing and cupping led them to create a hybrid method to get the best cup of coffee from a french press; the method, like the one I mentioned in the French press section, centers around the principles of cupping.
Pros and Cons
While I was impressed with my first try of cupping, I knew I didn’t have the resources to run a wide array of tests. So I turned to the internet.
After wading into the heated debates of coffee drinkers around the world, I’m left with the truth that I’d taken from all of my previous journeys into brewing methods: Different preparations are better for different beans.
Personally, I’ve found this to be true. One of my favorite Kenyan roasts tastes fantastic cold-brewed and awful as a pour-over; my preferred dark roast, an Indonesian blend with herbal notes, is one I’ve consistently had the best luck within a french press.
Ironically, that Indonesian dark roast was the roast that taught me that cold brew was not the be-all, end-all brewing method; I had to trash my attempt at that, the result was so unpalatable, despite preparing it exactly the same as the Kenyan.
The French press is a tried and true method, and many people are starting to say that a medium grind is actually preferred (2).
The bitterness I ran into might have come from anything from an uneven grind (I’ve only recently invested in a burr grinder, and I’m still getting the hang of it) to a bean that just doesn’t work well with the method.
More importantly, though - French presses can be used to make more than one cup at a time, and they present you with multiple cups that are both full-bodied and relatively grounds-free.
Comparatively, cupping is first and foremost a method for tasting large amounts of different coffees at once - often, without drinking it. It’s been developed specifically to highlight the initial flavors of the beans, within a day of their roasting.
And if it means that much to you - you're far more likely to find a local coffee shop that can offer you a french press rather than one that can offer you cupping.
I enjoyed my foray into cupping, and I’ll be adding it to my repertoire of coffee preparation methods. It really seemed to bring out the best in the beans I was trying it on.
For those occasions when I get a couple of different roasts from my local shop, and I want to try them all at once to get a good idea of their flavors, cupping is, without question, the best way to taste them all.
Cupping is efficient for individual cups and multiple different roasts. It also addresses the fact that I - or anyone else, for that matter - can’t really taste coffees that are too hot; it demands to wait until it’s cooled down enough for me to sip.
However, I can’t see myself explaining cupping to family or friends when I have them over, or the fact that we have to wait fifteen minutes to taste it - or the fact that they’re just supposed to sip a bit off the top, not actually drink the entire cup.
That’s where, I think, the French press wins the most; it’s a good way to get a full, drinkable cup of coffee for everyone you have over.
More and more people are bringing up the question of traditional french presses and how the process can be altered to make a better cup. Personally, I love the strange mix of traditional press and cupping that’s been cropping up; the melding of both methods has seemed to create a process that has the benefits of both.
I also look forward to asking about cupping at my local coffee shop, though. Places that roast locally seems the best places to start learning about cupping.
If my local shop doesn't already do it, I’m curious to see if they’d be willing to hold a tasting day to both familiarize their customers with their roasts, and to introduce a unique brewing method.
Cupping vs french press - it’s a difficult decision to make, especially when considering the wide variety of ways a french press can be made. While equipment and grind vary, the most important difference to consider is the reason behind the different methods.
Because of that, it’s hard to say which one is inherently better; they’re both good at what they’re meant to do.
The thing I’ll walk away from all of this with, I think, is one I’ve heard the professionals repeat over and over: Different coffees taste best with different methods.
Don’t sign yourself over to a single method, don’t be afraid to experiment, and always be open to trying your favorite roast with a different preparation. The results may surprise you - they certainly did me.
My name is Kathy Gallo, Editor of Daily Cupo, a Coffee buff. The guide you find here is designed exactly for you, and it is our hope that you find it not only interesting but also actionable.