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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rugged French Presses for Your Coffee-Fueled Summer Adventures

A few months back, my morning ritual was thrown into total disarray. I pulled my French press from the dishwasher and caught the lip of the glass carafe on the edge of the counter, and years of faithful service abruptly ended as a tiny shards of glass scattered across the floor. I looked around for replacements and found a carafe often costs about two-thirds as much as a whole French press. It's very annoying math. I pivoted a bit and sprang for an insulated metal Bodum Columbia ($39 and up). When it arrived, along with being able to make my regular cup of coffee again, it looked so good that I felt like I'd classed up the joint.

Like many other people around the world this past year, I went camping more than usual and, looking at the Columbia, I realized it could pull double duty, brewing large batches of Joe for Joe at home or on the road. Antenna raised, I quickly found other rugged, non-glass French presses that could safely endure car camping and still look stylish enough to have on display at home.

I called in several contenders and integrated them into my daily routine. One of the first to arrive was the Stanley Stay Hot French Press ($65). The company’s limited-edition press, in powdery “polar” white, was surprisingly good looking and promised to make 48 ounces (or 1.4 liters) of “caffeinated gold."

There was also the BruTrek 32 and 48 by Planetary Design ($60 and up), campers' favorites with unique metal flaps over the plunger filter. Along with a stunning ultramarine color, it also comes in a silver version that might please Philippe Starck. (Fellow WIRED coffee nut Scott Gilbertson likes another of Planetary Design’s camp brewers.)

Also highly touted was the Espro P7 ($110 and up) with its elegant carafe, 18- and 32-ounce sizes, and its fine-mesh double filter.

For fun, I also called in a prototype that I nicknamed "The Hulk" and whose real name I shall keep a secret for reasons that will soon become clear. It was a heavy stainless bruiser with lots of right angles. My first thought when I pulled it from its box was that I was holding the perfect prop for Charlize Theron's agent Lorraine Broughton to use to pummel a foe in an Atomic Blonde kitchen fight.

Outside of my tiny, half-liter Columbia (two larger sizes are available) the rest of the contenders held capacities between a scant liter and a liter and a half.

Start the Presses

Adversaries assembled, I laid out some ground rules beyond brawn and beauty. Along with readiness for kitchen or campsite, I wanted a few other things. Simplicity and ease of cleaning—including a strong preference to be able to throw the whole thing into the dishwasher—was tops among them. (Coffee snobs may wince at this, saying dishwashing can leave residue that imparts bitterness to your coffee, to which I say you can give it a quick rinse in the sink.)  I was curious to see how all of these insulated containers would do at keeping things warm, but leaving brewed coffee in contact with the grounds after depressing a French press’ plunger is frowned upon, as it means that you'll overextract your coffee and cause the brew to take on an unwelcome bitterness. Slow sippers of large quantities like me will be much happier with a dedicated thermos to hold your coffee. Finally, of course, the coffee they made needed to be good.

I was already used to and happy with my Bodum. It uses a fairly fine filter that features a silicone ring around it, and that combination keeps most of the tinier bits of grounds known as “fines” out of the coffee once the plunger is depressed. What little of the fines that get through don’t improve the coffee’s taste, but they add a mouthfeel and richness that people like me find pleasant and even preferable to what you can get out of a “regular” coffee maker. My Bodum provided a nice, high bar to judge the competition against.

So when the Stanley arrived, it surprised me. The company’s PR rep sent that limited-edition white number and, despite a gray plastic handle, I was amazed by its good looks. I liked how wide the brewing chamber was, making stirring (aka “agitation”) easier. The plunger depressed and came out easily, and the carafe poured beautifully.

For something completely different, I tried the Espro P7, which, with those two fine filters, produced a surprisingly clear cup with even fewer fines. It's like coffee-maker coffee for people somehow forced to make only French press, or for campers too far from an outlet to plug in Mr. Coffee. This “clean cup” isn't a bad thing, but it's certainly different and perhaps not exactly what French press fans, myself included, want from a press pot. The Espro's double interlocking baskets are one more thing to clean, but I guess you'd get used to it.

For another outlier, I tried the BruTrek 32 and 48 by Planetary Designs. Despite being drawn like a magnet to the lovely blue color, I struggled with the designs of these, wanting to like them more than I did. The lid stopper gives the BruTrek a bit of a sippy-cup feeling, and you need to screw the lid on before you can depress the plunger. Also, with a rounded bottom corner it's not completely firm on its feet.

I did find its claim to fame to be an interesting idea: the flap on a metal disc above the filter turns it into something of a one-way valve; once the plunger is depressed, the brewed coffee can't circulate into the grounds and become bitter, theoretically allowing you to keep the coffee in there longer without it becoming a bitter mess. (The company calls this feature Bru-Stop.) Yet even for me, an appreciator of the ever-so-slightly-sludgy cup, this was a bit much, as the filter let a surprising amount of fines through. This was especially odd as those extra fines in the coffee seemingly negated the work of the flaps. The larger flaw, in my book, is that the BruTrek isn't dishwasher safe. Not a big deal when you're camping, but that's a deal breaker at home.

Finally, there was the “Hulk” prototype, which struggled mightily. The big problem was the hairline crack I discovered after putting it in the dishwasher. When I removed the brewer from the dishwasher, I could hear water sloshing around in the space between the interior and exterior walls. The only effective way I found to expel that water was to fill the brewing chamber with hot water, thus heating the air in the space between the walls and causing the water to squirt from the crack in the bottom corner. Furthermore, the lid was quite difficult to horse off the rest of the vessel, which is not something you want when dealing with hot, wet grounds.

Around this point, just to say I did it, I filled all five presses with just-boiled water, put the lids on and set a timer for an hour. They all emerged at least hot enough for steam to come off the top when I lifted the lid. The Bodum was lowest at 156 degrees Fahrenheit, but cut it some slack! It was half the size of the competition, and I'm feeling protective as I explain it. The Hulk and Espro came in at a just-fine 160 and 165 degrees, respectively; the Stanley Stay Hot stayed an impressively hot 175. At 185 degrees, this was the BruTrek's moment to shine. If you're not going to put your coffee in a thermos after you brew it, and the hottest coffee for the longest time is your highest priority, this might be your best bet.

Ground Control

After all of my in-home testing, I was most happy to discover that while there were a few nits to pick and stylistic variations here and there, all the machines seemed to make a pretty good cup of coffee. So at this point, I brought in some coffee pros from Olympia Coffee for some socially distant testing.

Olympia co-owner Sam Schroeder and the company’s retail trainer, Reyna Callejo, met me in their Seattle coffee lab. There, while all double masked, we brewed five batches fairly simultaneously using all five French presses. We then poured samples from each carafe into five cups for each of us to do a blind tasting in opposite corners of the empty café. While all the brewers made coffee that each of us enjoyed, we did select some favorites. The deciding factors weren't over the quality of what was in our unmarked cups, it was the before and after that made the biggest difference.

Sam enjoyed the Stanley, noting its nice pour and easy cleanup. Reyna was taken with the Espro's coffee, noting "it's so clear!" comparing it to the others when she first poured it. She also then enjoyed that cup most, realizing that it was closest of the five to the Breville coffee maker she has at home. She struggled with the BruTrek's slow plunge and the way the rounded bottom created a bit of wobbly uncertainty. She also disliked needing to screw the lid on before she could push the plunger down.

"I don't want extra effort making coffee at 7 am," she said, while looking longingly at the four simpler options on the counter. "It's not a good brewer if it's hard to brew with it."

Removing that lid from "The Hulk" drove both Sam and Reyna crazy.

We were using 50 grams of coffee to 850 milliliters of water for the larger brewers, and half of those amounts in the smaller Bodum. We prepped a large grind, poured in 200-degree water, stirred at the one and five minute marks, then pressed down the plungers.

This gave us a surprisingly and uniformly low level of total dissolved solids in the coffee. Sam gave a quick definition of TDS as “the amount of coffee in your coffee” and Reyna measured ours with a refractometer, finding they were all between 0.93 and 1.13, where at Olympia’s coffee shops the crew shoots for 1.3 to 1.45.

We tried each of the coffees about 40 minutes later and, while our preference for transferring just-brewed coffee to a thermos remained unchanged, we learned two things. One was that we didn't notice much of a difference between the BruTrek—with its unique Bru-Stop flap—and the others. Two, they were all still warm and the coffee decent.

"We're calibrated to taste bad things," Reyna said, referring to their training. And considering the coffee samples had sat around for a bit, they weren't that bad.

Sam and Reyna cleaned the pots and plungers, then Sam walked over to them and nudged the Stanley and the Bodum, the two simplest and easiest to clean, to the right. Reyna, wordlessly nudged the Espro into the group with them, and presto! We had our preferred presses.

It's really splitting hairs between the Stanley and the Bodum. You can safely decide on looks alone and be confident you'll end up with a lovely cup of coffee. If you want a cleaner, less sludgy brew, get the Espro. Then make a pot, sit back in your sofa or camping chair, and enjoy your cup.

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