Coffee percolators get a bad rap in the coffee world. They are known for producing harsh, bitter and over extracted coffee. However, it is very possible to brew a delicious cup with a percolator, especially if you are a fan of the more robust notes.
These days, coffee percolators have become quite rare. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you didn’t even know what a percolator was.
However, lately the percolator has been making a comeback in coffee circles. The fact that percolators are rare is an alluring idea for the coffee obsessed. You might hear the term ‘perked’ coffee being thrown around (hipster speak).
It is a simple and satisfying way of brewing your morning coffee, with a classic, vintage feel to it.
If you need strong coffee, and a simple way to brew it, learn here what a percolator is, how to make coffee in a percolator and how to buy the best percolator.
Brief history and explanation of the coffee percolator
The coffee percolator was first used and invented in the 19th century in Paris. In literature that is set around this time in Paris such as The Count of Monte Cristo (I recently re read it), the characters brew their coffee with Percolators.
The first modern percolator was invented in 1819 by the Parisian tinsmith Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens. The device incorporated the percolation concept of pushing the boiling water through a tube and recirculating the brew until the desired strength was obtained.
What Is a Percolator?
Percolating is the act of a solvent passing through a soluble substance with the purpose of picking up properties from the substance. In this case water is our solvent and coffee is our soluble substance. When water passes through the coffee it picks up some of the dissolvable properties from the coffee bean. Percolating is technically the process that occurs for all coffee making.
However, a coffee percolator refers to a specific type of coffee brewer.
A coffee percolator is a kettle with separate chambers for the water and coffee grounds.
Inside the coffee pot there is a chamber and a tube that runs from the bottom of the chamber to the top. A filter is placed into a slot near the top of the chamber. Your ground coffee goes on top of this filter.
Traditional coffee percolators are coffee pots that are placed on a heat source. The heat source can be a stovetop, a camping stove or even an open fire. Because of this, we tend to associate them with camping. However, modern percolators include electric models that make perking a cup of joe easier then ever.
The Brewing Method
For classification purposes, we could be tempted to think that this is a pressure brewing method, but it is not. Water is indeed pushed upwards through a tube using steam pressure. However, when it reaches the top of the tube the water loses all of the pressure and falls on the coffee bed. This could best described as a gravitational brew.
How Does a Percolator Work?
Water is added to the chamber. When the water is heated, the boiling water travels up through the tube. The water spills out of the top of the tube and onto the coffee bed. The water the passes through the coffee and the filter before returning to the chamber below.
Disadvantages of Using a Coffee Percolator
The percolator has been largely disregarded in the modern day and age of coffee brewing. This is because the nature of the brewing method can easily lead to over extracted, burnt coffee.
The brewed coffee is mixed back in with the rest of the water. This means that the water is re-boiled and passes through the coffee several times, often leading to over extraction.
However, it is possible to brew delicious, well-extracted coffee with a percolator.
Advantages of Using a Coffee Percolator
So why do we bother with a percolator? It actually has a whole host of advantages associated with it.
- A percolator is very cheap. Buying a percolator is much cheaper than buying an espresso machine or even a drip coffee maker. It is the cheapest way of having espresso style coffee at home.
- It is convenient. The stovetop percolator, often called the camping coffee pot, requires no electricity by default. It is also light and portable. This makes it ideal for camping trips where you have no access to electricity.
- The brewing technique is easy. You simply add coffee and water then wait for the coffee to brew. This is similar in difficulty to drip coffee but it would be much simpler than the espresso brewing method.
- It produces strong coffee. Due to the prolonged contact the water has with the coffee, the percolator produces very strong, robust tasting coffee. This is a big advantage for some hardcore coffee drinkers.
- You can make a few cups of coffee if that is what you aim, but there are also small percolators that will allow you to brew 1-2 cups of coffee only.
How To Use a Coffee Percolator in Six Steps
This is the basic method for brewing percolator coffee. A little later I will talk about some tips and tricks for brewing the perfect cup of coffee with a percolator.
- Grind your coffee just before brewing. Coffee needs a coarse grind for best results, and you might need to buy a burr coffee grinder, if you don't have one.
- Add water to the chamber. The water level should be below the bottom of the coffee chamber.
- Insert the filter into its slot.
- Place your freshly ground coffee into the basin of the filter. I usually go with one tablespoon per two cups of coffee and then add an extra tablespoon for the pot.
- Screw the lid on and place on your heat source (normally your stove).
- Remove the pot from the heat after the desired amount of time. Do not keep it too long on the stove to avoid over-extraction.
- You can then pour in coffee cups.
Video Tutorial – How To Make Coffee in a Percolator
Troubleshooting Percolated Coffee
We said it before, and we say it again, you CAN make a great cup of coffee coffee in a stovetop percolator. You just need to make sure you don't burn your coffee in the process. If you are brewing with a classic percolator and not a moka pot, there are a few things you can do to ensure you get a perfect brew.
Percolator grind size
When using a percolator, we recommend that you use coarse grind size. This is for a similar reason that we grind coffee coarse for the French press - the filter holes are too big for finely ground coffee and coffee grounds get through. Do not grind too coarse though. Large coffee particles need more soaking to get a full extraction. So you will need to cycle the brew more through the tube, which is not ideal.
This is another big reason that percolator coffee typically has strong, bold tasting notes. In many ways, the percolator could be considered the French press of pressurized coffee.
I do not recommend using pre ground coffee in a percolator. Pre ground coffee is normally ground somewhere between medium and fine. The preground coffee falls in between drip coffee grind and espresso grind, which too fine for percolator coffee. You will just end up getting bad coffee and sludge at the bottom of your percolator when you’re done.
A good quality burr grinder is a great investment, if you want to prepare great coffee, no matter the brewing method. The idea is to grind your beans as uniform as possible, which improves the extraction.
Kitchen Timer to Control Extraction
Using a kitchen timer to avoid over-extraction is a great idea, but don't simply set your timer and come back when it goes off if you do this, it's easy to over-heat your coffee and create a bitter, muddy product.
Watch over it. This brewing method doesn’t allow for multitasking. You have to watch the brew the whole time or it will burn, trust me.
Once you’re in the water temperature sweet spot, brewing time is around 5 or 6 minutes. This will return the best extracted coffee. A longer brew time will yield the strong, bitter, burnt coffee that the coffee percolator is associated with.
Heat Source - Keep It Low
Water temperature is vital, and this is where things could go wrong with your perked coffee. The brew temperature should stay between 195 and 200 degrees F. Anything higher will make your coffee overly bitter and burn it.
Older style percolators are placed directly on a heat source. If you use one of these, you need to set the burner on medium, or low. Otherwise you will continually boil the coffee. Electric coil stoves run too hot, and you will need a heat diffuser to flatten out the heat spikes.
Electric percolators have a built in mechanism that prevent overheating the brew. However, you will still need to be careful so you don't cycle the brew too long.
The key to successful coffee extraction is not letting your water get too hot. If the water is boiling it is going to burn your coffee. Try and find that simmering sweet spot where the water is bubbling sporadically but not fully boiling.
The water level is important to be below the grounds basket. Contrary to an immersion method, coffee grounds are continually washed by the brew, and soluble solids are dissolved with each new cycle. The temperature is higher than with an immersion method, (French press for instance), so the coffee will over extract if we immerse the grounds. Don’t overfill the percolator.
How Much Ground Coffee per Cup?
For percolator coffee, we need around one heaped tablespoon per each coffee cup. This is is around 6 level tablespoons for 4 fluid ounces. Note that a coffee cup is 5 fluid ounces in the coffee world.
This will give you a strong cup. Adjust for your taste.
Use a Paper Filter
The holes of the percolator's filter are pretty large, and finer coffee particles will pass through. If you love your coffee clear, you can use a paper filter to avoid this. You can use any paper filter. Just cut a small hole in the center for the percolator's tube and place it neatly in the filter basket.
Another advantage with using a filter is that you can grind finer, or use pre-ground coffee. With finer grinds, the coffee extraction improves dramatically, and your coffee will be ready faster. Brewing faster mitigates the risk of burning your coffee, and losing all of the aromatics.
Tamp your coffee
This is actually a super-tip. If you press with a spoon on your ground coffee so it's a little compacted in the basket, you will also speed up the brewing process. The idea is to slow down the water pouring back in. This prolongs the time water is in contact with the grounds, and improves the extraction.
The benefit is twofold. We have less percolating cycles, thus avoiding burning the coffee. Also, by having a bit more water in the coffee bed, we create a temperature buffer. As water goes on the coffee bed from the tube, it is slightly cooled of by the existing brew that didn't have the chance to flow back in.
Visually Inspect your brew
You need to look in the percolator and make sure everything is okay. Also, visually inspecting your brew is the only way you know you coffee is ready. At least for the first few attempts. You can also time your brew, while adjusting your various factors, so you have your recipe.
When combining a fine grind, with tamping and using a filter, water might pool on the coffee bed. You want to keep an eye on that so it doesn't overflow. It happened to me, but I was using a very fine grind; it was for research.
Best coffee beans for your stove top percolator
With percolator coffee, a medium roast is your best bet. I think medium roasted coffee is generally better for all coffee brewing, but this is particularly the case for percolator brewing.
Dark roasts are not recommended because they are more soluble than light and medium roasts, and with percolators is so easy to over-extract.
If you buy a light roast, the percolator brewing process will obliterate all of the tasting subtleties. If you buy a roast that is too dark, the brewing process for percolator coffee would bring out too much of those strong, bold notes. You wouldn’t have a balanced cup and it would be overwhelming to drink.
With regard to the type of beans, South American coffees are a good place to start. The less acidic tones that are naturally found in coffee grown in this part of the world are complimented by the boldness that we get from percolator brewing.
The Moka Pot
The moka pot, often known as the stove top espresso maker, is a variation of the stove top percolator.
Hot water is being heated and passed through coffee. However, there are two major differences between a classic percolator and a Moka pot. The Moka pot has two chambers instead of one. The coffee and filter sit in the middle chamber. As the water rises, it passes through the coffee and the filter before arriving in the top chamber, where it is stored.
This added feature means that the brewed coffee isn’t mixed back in with the rest of the water. It is kept separate in the upper chamber so the coffee isn’t prone to over extraction in the same way.
The other important feature is that Moka brewing uses pressure to expedite extraction. By pushing water forcefully through the coffee puck we extract a different coffee profile than your regular perked coffee.
The finely ground coffee serves to build pressure in the brewing process as it is harder for the water to travel through the finely ground coffee. The result is a stronger brew similar in taste to espresso, hence the name.
At the end of the day, Moka pot is a totally different coffee brewing method, and we have a preparation guide for it here: How To Make Coffee with a Moka Pot.
The stove top percolator is the original device, maybe one of the first coffee brewing methods, that allowed a clearer cup. When we think percolator, we think at stove top ones, that we can use on an open fire, and we use to brew a cup while camping.
These days of course you can get an electric percolator that takes care of the brewing time for you. An electric coffee percolator has a hot plate that acts as your heat source then keeps your coffee warm if you are mass brewing.
The process for how to make coffee in an electric percolator is essentially the same as with a stove top. The main difference is that electric percolators are designed to run at lower temperatures, so it is easier to avoid burning the brew and getting over-extracted coffee.
Tips for Getting the Best Percolator
If you are feeling like a coffee change up and you have decided that getting a percolator is a good plan, here are one or two things to bear in mind when you are shopping.
Firstly, make sure to buy a percolator that has a clear section which allows you to see the water as it is boiling. This is standard for most percolators. Without this clear section, it is impossible to see whether your water is boiling or simmering and you will likely over extract your coffee.
I would really consider giving the traditional percolator a try. It is much more satisfying to create your perfect brew in this way. Then again, I am retro at heart so perhaps this just comes down to personal preference. If you have a busy lifestyle and value convenience over taste, the electric percolator is a good option.
If you are interested in an electric percolator, try to find a cordless one. It will save you a lot of hassle, take my word for it.