Until the rise of the drip coffee brewer in the 1970s, the percolator was the top way to make a cup of joe at home. But are they still worth using today—and how do you go about brewing up a pot? This article will answer all your questions about this classic coffee maker, along with some helpful tips on how to brew the best cup.
A percolator is a simple coffee brewer that uses gravity and steam to continuously cycle water through coffee grounds to extract the flavor. Fans of percolator coffee enjoy the strength of the brew, which is more similar to stovetop espresso or French press than drip coffee. The down-side is they can easily over-extract the coffee if you don’t monitor the temperature and brew time closely enough.
You can find a few different styles of percolator. Self-heating or electric percolators come with a bottom plate that heats the unit once it’s plugged in and turned on. Other versions are called stovetop percolators or manual percolators. These need an external heat source, though that could be anything from a burner on the stove to a campfire, depending on where you are.
There are two chambers inside a percolator, connected by a small tube. Once heat is applied, the water in the lower chamber boils and rises through the tube into the top chamber, where it drips down through the coffee grounds in the steel filter basket and back to the bottom. This process is repeated as long as you want to get the desired brew strength, though some electric percolators will stop on their own.
As the water moves from one chamber to the other it builds up pressure, which helps to extract more flavor from the beans. This makes it a hybrid of the boiling brew method used in Turkish or Cowboy coffee and the pressure-brew method common to espresso.
Percolators use a similar coffee-to-water ratio to brewing methods like drip. Most people use 1 tablespoon of grounds for every 8 ounces of water. You can adjust this based on your tastes, using less coffee for a weaker brew and more coffee for a stronger one.
Some electric percolators allow you to adjust the length of the brew, but this won’t be the case for all of them. If your coffee is bitter, it’s probably set to brew too long. You can stop the brew early by turning off or unplugging the percolator. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hover over it, either. Just set a kitchen timer for the amount of time you want to brew when you start the perk like you would do with a French press or pour-over.
Manual percolators require a bit more attention than their electric counterparts. They also take a bit longer to brew—usually around 10-15 minutes, as opposed to 5 or 6. The advantage, of course, is their versatility. You can use the same method described below to brew with a manual percolator on a stovetop.
Many manual percolators are made entirely of stainless steel, especially those designed to go camping. This means the pot will get very hot once it’s been sitting on the heat for a few minutes. While some have handles meant to stay cool to the touch, it’s still a good idea to keep a towel over your hand when you’re removing it from the heat to serve, just to avoid any potential burns.
As with any brewing method, the best way to get a tasty cup is to grind your coffee immediately before brewing. Hand grinders give you this option even when you’re out on the trail, though they can be a bit tedious to use. It’s up to you whether a more aromatic and flavorful cup is worth the extra effort.
If you’re grinding at home, make sure you use a burr grinder. Blade grinders don’t do well with coarse grinds. The grind size on these models changes based on the length of the grind. A quick pulse will give you some large particles, but it will also create a lot of fine, smaller pieces. This inconsistency not only sets you up for an uneven brew, it makes it much more likely you’ll have grounds in your cup.
The kind of coffee you use is important, too. Medium roasts or city roasts tend to taste the best. Avoid using dark roasts, which are already more bitter than other beans. Light roasts can work, as well, though they likely won’t taste as good as with other brewing methods.
Keep in mind that percolators aren’t the best way to bring out subtle notes from your coffee, even in the hands of a trained and experienced barista. Because of this, you may want to avoid brewing beans with more delicate notes. They won’t necessarily taste bad—you just may not experience the full potential of the beans.
Coffees grown in Colombia and Brazil are generally going to taste the best when brewed in a percolator. These beans are naturally smooth and well-balanced, with rich chocolatey notes that suit the strong flavor. Some coffees from Central America and Indonesia can also taste quite delicious.
Generally, you’ll want to avoid beans grown in Papua New Guinea or Africa, especially Ethiopia and Kenya. These beans are known for their high acidity, which can become too pronounced in a percolator brew.
After every brew, dump the used grounds out into the trash or compost heap, then remove any parts you can to clean individually. Rinse all components with warm, soapy water, making sure you remove any coffee residue and oils. You can use a pipe cleaner to get down inside the water pipe.
If you have an electric percolator, make sure you read the instructions for cleaning. Many can’t be submerged completely or you’ll risk damaging the heating elements. A damp sponge or washcloth is your best option. Manual percolators, on the other hand, require less care at the cleaning stage, though you’ll still want to avoid the dishwasher.
Once all the residue is wiped away, rinse away any soap and keep the lid open and the pieces separate so it can air dry. Make sure it’s completely dry before reassembling to avoid mustiness and bacteria growth.
There’s more to the grind level than just whether it will escape through the filter. Some people suggest using medium-ground coffee and pairing it with a paper filter in the basket. This can be an option if you only have pre-ground coffee available, but it’s not the best way to get a good-tasting cup.
The finer coffee is ground, the more surface area it has. Given the length of the brew and the heat of the water in percolator coffee, using a medium or fine grind makes it very likely you’ll extract more compounds from the coffee than you want, including the very bitter notes that come through on the back end.
This is known as “over-extraction,” and is the main reason people say percolator coffee doesn’t taste as good as other brewing methods.
Something else to keep in mind is that you can’t use electric and manual percolators interchangeably. Even if the heating element on the electric percolator is a separate piece, the bases of these pots aren’t designed to receive heat from other sources.
They may contain additional electrical components, for one thing, and are often made of plastic or other materials that aren’t heat resistant. You should only use an electric percolator with the heat source provided with it for this reason.
A percolator lets you brew a strong cup of coffee anywhere, anytime. While electric models are faster and more convenient, they don’t allow you the same temperature control as manual percolators—basically, you’ll be at the whim of the percolator’s programmed brew cycle. Keep this in mind while you’re shopping. With the right percolator, the right coffee grind, and a bit of knowledge, you can make a delicious cup using one of these classic brewers.
Drip Coffee Maker vs Percolator: How to Get the Best Cup of Joe
How to make coffee with a camping percolator
What Type of Coffee to Use in a Percolator
How to Make Stovetop Percolator Coffee: The Ultimate Guide