Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?

A French press.
A French press.

A little while back, I posted a blog and video about using the Toddy Coffee System to make iced coffee. With the Toddy System, you steep coarsely ground coffee in water for 12 hours and then drain the coffee through a very fine, fibrous filter. The result is a potent coffee concentrate that is low in acid — you dilute it with water and can drink it over ice or heated in a microwave. Either way, the system does the trick. I tend to prefer Toddy-made iced coffee to most coffee shop iced coffee, since it’s less bitter but still seems to contain full caffeine content.

I was intrigued, however, when a few readers mentioned the idea of using a French press to “cold-brew” coffee in this way. With a French press, if you’re not familiar, you put coffee grounds into a central chamber, pour in hot water, and then after a few minutes depress a plunger that pushes the grounds to the bottom, leaving you with hot coffee. Substitute hot water with cold and let the grounds sit for 12 hours instead of three minutes, and, in theory, the French press should do the same thing as the Toddy system. However, after a few weeks of French press cold-brewed coffee, I’ve concluded that the Toddy system is better for cold-brewing coffee in two important ways:

1) It’s sedimentary, dear Watson – The round, tightly knit woven filters used in the Toddy system catch nearly every particle of sediment from the coffee grounds. The metal mesh filter of the French press, with its larger openings and imperfect seal with the sides of the container, allowed fine particulates to enter the final product, even with coarsely ground coffee. Not the end or the world, but if you’ve ever swilled a silty final draught of coffee from the bottom of a cup, you know how it can set your teeth on edge.

2) If a little iced coffee is good, more is better – I’m not one to go with quantity when quality is on the line, but in this case, the capacious brewing container of the Toddy system allows me to cold-brew a large amount of high-quality concentrate at once, meaning my supply lasts one to two weeks, depending on how frequently I need a coffee fix. My French press made less than half the concentrate of the Toddy, so I was making batches more frequently. If you have a massive French press (which you probably don’t), then I guess this isn’t a problem for you, and you have only a little sediment to worry about.

The Toddy System
The Toddy System

The verdict: If you’re an iced coffee lover and you plan to drink the stuff daily  (or if you have an issue with acid, which, according to Toddy, a lot of people do), then you should just bite the bullet and get the Toddy system, even though it costs $40. The high volume and low sediment make it superior to a French press for the purpose of cold-brewing coffee. Plus it comes with a nice, lidded glass carafe.

Important note: I don’t work for Toddy and I bought their product with my own money and of my own accord. I did, however, shatter the glass carafe and ruin a brewing container by trying to push the filter out with a butter knife, thereby nicking the drainage hole, which in turn ruined the seal with the rubber stopper. Replacing these items doubled the cost of the Toddy system. Still, I would recommend it, with the caveat that it’s kinda breaky…

[Video] How to Make Iced Coffee that Doesn’t Suck With the Toddy System

Among the many things I’m snobby about, coffee is pretty high up on the list, right next to booze, food, and writing. Coffee, though, is special. I can enjoy a Pabst Blue Ribbon, a meal at White Castle, or a page-turning schlocky sci-fi novel, but I will not stand for bad coffee. What do I mean by bad coffee? I mean Folgers, flavored coffees, coffee brewed (read: burned) in a cheap coffee maker and then left to turn lukewarm and acrid. I mean coffee that’s been watered down, polluted with non-dairy creamers, posioned with carcinogenic sweeteners… the list goes on. But today, I’m going to show you one way to make iced coffee that doesn’t suck: the Toddy Cold Brew System.

A lot of people make iced coffee by first boiling water, then hot-brewing coffee, and then pouring that over ice. This can be done properly (i.e., you must brew the coffee at double strength, as it will be watered down instantly when you add ice), but even then, it leaves the coffee tasting a bit acidic and sour. To make a tastier cup of iced coffee, I learned from my friend JD, founder of the Brooklyn-based Oslo Coffee, one needs to cold brew it. A misnomer, in that it actually takes place at room temperature, cold brewing is basically a long steeping of coarsely ground coffee in water. This method reduces bitterness and and acidity greatly, to the extent that the coffee becomes so mild in taste you can easily drink it without sugar or milk. Cold-brewed iced coffee is very tasty, but also dangerous — you might drink yourself into a state of uncontrolled vibration if given too much of the stuff. I know this from experience, dude.

The method JD used to make iced coffee in the shop was scaled for commercial purposes, but the Toddy is basically a consumer-grade version. The system is stupid-simple. You really could make one yourself were you so inclined to dig up the individual components. Then again, you can spend the extra twenty bucks and save hours of your life if you just buy the Toddy  System straight from the toddycafe.com. It’s also available on Amazon and other online retailers. The full instructions for using the system are here; I’ve based the times and measurements in the video, above, on these. They work well enough, though I haven’t experimented.

When you cold brew a batch of coffee in the Toddy system, it makes a large carafe of concentrated liquid. Unless you’re a hardcore addict, you must water it down before you drink it. The concentrate can be stashed in the fridge for a week or two. You can also heat it up in the microwave with respectable results — it’s certainly not as rich or complex as a hot-brewed coffee, but if you’re sensitive to acid, it’s much easier on the stomach. When it’s hot, I’ve noticed Toddy coffee tends to have a more herbal, tea like flavor profile, which might turn off some coffee drinkers, especially those used to dark roasts. According to the packaging, you can also make iced tea with the system, but I have not tried this, as tea is not my thang.

The video is both a way for me to communicate the use of the Toddy system, which I dig, and to practice the complex arts of shooting and editing video. Like most things on this blog (or in my life, for that matter), it’s an experiment. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below. I <3 your feedback.