How to Make a Percolator Coffee: Your Perfect Brew Awaits You

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in Coffee & Tea

Growing up, a common sight every morning was my mother setting the coffee percolator on the stove for a flavorful and strong cup of coffee to kickstart her morning.

A common sight across all households right from the early 1920s to 1980s, percolators were synonymous with a good strong cup of joe. Over the years though, coffee percolators have somehow not garnered the patronization and appreciation from the current generation of coffee lovers as it ought to.

While this paradigm shift has a lot to do with the many misconceptions surrounding coffee percolators, it also stems from the fact that we as a generation prefer a coffee to-go from the neighborhood coffee shop rather than making one ourselves. Traditional coffee makers such as the coveted percolator have disappeared, making way for fancy automatic machines.

Well, coffee aficionados such as myself ought to straighten this up. It is only right that this generation is introduced to the wonder that is a coffee percolator. Which is why, today I’m going to touch upon the very basics of how a percolator works, common misconceptions surrounding it and the factors you need to keep in mind when picking out the perfect percolator for yourself.

This article is going to bring back the traditional albeit strong coffee brew that an old-fashioned percolator offers. For those of you who never quite got down to trying your hands on a percolator, well, here’s your chance to fill yourself in!

It is time to give in to nostalgia and bring your old percolator out of the shelf. Trust me, once you take in the aroma of fresh coffee that a percolator exudes, you’re going to be craving for more! Give it a try – you’re going to swear by percolators once you do.

What is a Coffee Percolator?

We don’t blame you if you don’t quite understand what a percolator is and how it works. Let’s begin with the basics. The word percolate means to allow something to filter through. Applying this concept to the process of brewing coffee is fairly easy.

A percolator is a simple appliance that allows hot boiling water to flow over a filter with evenly spread holes on it. This filter holds a bed of ground coffee that infuses the boiling water with the essence of coffee, allowing it to trickle down only to boil and flow over again through a thin nozzle-like stem.

This process is repeated multiple times in a percolator to dish out a piping hot and flavourful cup of coffee.

Percolators were the most commonly used coffee brewing machines in households across US and Europe, until the onset of the drip coffee maker, automatic coffee pots, kettles, and instant coffee powders tipped the balance against the humble percolator. Slowly, percolators and ground coffee lost its holding in the markets and phased off the shelves.

Now, we rarely spot a percolator being set on the hob in any household or the all too familiar sound of boiling water perking through the stem of a percolator. Having said that, for restaurants and cafes that still need to dish out coffee cups by the dozen, percolators are what they rely on.

Percolators allow for large quantities of coffee to be brewed at the same time, unlike the new-age automatic coffee pots. However, there are still those percolator loyalists who just wouldn’t want their coffee done any other way. This article is aimed at unlocking those special features of a percolator coffee.

Before we dive into how to brew the perfect cuppa using a percolator coffee maker, let’s have you introduced to the different parts in a percolator and what use they are in the entire brewing process. So when you get your hands on a percolator coffee pot, you know exactly how to work with it. Let us start from bottom up.

  • The empty percolator pot
  • Next, place the pump stem in the middle of the pot, with the stem facing upwards and the flat round portion on the base of the percolator coffee pot
  • Slide the basket through the stem, allowing the long stem to go through the middle hole on the basket and give it a stronghold. It is in this basket where the markings for the water level is made and water is filled herein
  • The spreader cover comes over the basket, upon which the ground coffee is spread out evenly. The spreader cover too has a hole through which the pump stem passes, in order to all the bubbling water to sprinkle over the ground coffee
  • Lastly, the steel cover/transparent glass cover is placed tightly to close the percolator coffee pot

How Does a Percolator Work?

Think of a water fountain or spring, where the same water climbs through the fountain and sprays into the pool, only to be drawn into the suction of the fountain again. Likewise, a coffee percolator sports a narrow long stem that allows boiling water to shoot through it and spray over the ground coffee which is placed on a thin metal spreader above.

This infused hot water then sprinkles down through evenly placed tiny holes in the spreader, only to be heated, boiled and sucked into the narrow stem again. The spreader, in turn, has a metal or glass covering over it, in order to cover the ground coffee and allow the entire percolator to lock in the heat.

The water in a percolator will continue to go through these cycles of boiling, sprinkling over the coffee, getting the flavor infused and trickling down again. This continues until the brewer achieves the required potency for the coffee and switches off the heat source, for the boiling and bubbling to stop.

The nozzle on the percolator allows you to pour out the coffee into a cup. The spreader allows for a natural strain, leaving you to enjoy the coffee liquid without any coarse remnants of the beans.

Before we take a dive into a step by step guide of how to make the perfect cuppa with your percolator, let’s understand all that you need to place next to yourself in order to get the job done easily.

Your percolator coffee maker is a fairly simple appliance that doesn’t ask much of you to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Here are some of the basic necessities you will have to arrange for:

  • A heat source upon which the percolator can be placed. Ideally, a fire stove is the best choice as most traditional stainless steel percolators do not work on induction surfaces.
  • Water to fill into the percolator
  • Coffee beans that can range from light, medium or dark roast. We’d suggest you go in for a medium roast coffee. A light roast may not be successful in infusing the right flavor into your coffee, while a dark one is so potent that your coffee can turn bitter in no time of the percolator being placed on the heat source.
  • A 4-5 ounce coffee cup

Making the Best Cup of Coffee Using a Percolator

Follow these steps to dish out a delicious flavourful and strong cup of coffee that’s going to get you addicted to this little wonder called a percolator.

Step 1: Screw open the percolator cover, and place the long stem facing upward, at the base of the empty coffee pot.

Step 2: Place the basket on the pump stem and insert it into the pot Add exactly 4-5 ounces of water into the basket, following the quantity markings therein.

Step 3: Place the spreader cover over the basket. Atop this cover, you can add 1 tablespoon of ground coffee for each cup of coffee you wish to make.

Step 4: Close the percolator cover by screwing it on the percolator and place it atop a heat source. In the event that you are using an electric percolator, plug it in, adjust your settings and turn it on.

Step 5: You will start to get the aroma of coffee brewing within 4-5 minutes. Give the entire process not more than 7 minutes for the perfect cup of coffee sans any bitterness.

Step 6: Serve immediately once you switch off the heat source. Ideally, serve it in a small cup and not an oversized mug, in order to enjoy the aroma as well as the satisfaction of a traditional serving style.

Here are some handy tips to ensure you get the best out of your percolator:

Don’t keep the heat source at its peak. In fact, a low flame is ideal for the flavor of your coffee beans to slowly infuse into the water. Too much of heat at the onset of the process can leave your coffee with a burnt or bitter tinge.

In order to retain the freshness of your ground coffee, grind it just before you load it onto the spreader cover of the percolator. Ground coffee that is stored over time is no match to the aroma that freshly ground beans can bring to your coffee.

Trust me, I say this from experience.

When you set out to grind your coffee beans, keep in mind that a coarse blend is ideal. Reason being, coarsely ground coffee can infuse into the boiling water better and hold the water for longer before allowing it to trickle through.

Whereas, finely grounded coffee does not possess the required density to engage the boiling water for long, leaving you with a compromised flavor and aroma that’s far from potent. If you get your coffee beans ground at a café, do mention to them that it is for a percolator, and if they’re a café worth their money, they will know exactly what to do.

The standard measure for a cup of coffee is four ounces. And for this four-ounce wonder, all you need is one tablespoon of ground coffee. Any more, and you will make your coffee bitter. Any less, and you will not make your brew potent enough. The key here is the ratio.

Make sure you clasp the lid on tight. A loosely placed lid is going to give you a half bakes brew and can even cause serious injury due to boiling hot water spurting out.

Different Types of Percolators

Percolators come in varying specifications delivering coffee with different textures and consistencies. Surely the fan of a certain kind isn’t going to appreciate the other very much. My advice as a coffee connoisseur to you would be to try your hand at a few in retail stores or check out online videos in order to figure out what’s likely to suit your palette.

In essence, there are just two types of percolators, stovetop percolators, and electric percolators. However, variations in the percolation process have given rise to a few other coffee makers that somewhat fall under the gamut of percolators. Let us take a look.

  • Stovetop Percolators: This traditional coffee maker involves hot boiling water passing through ground coffee to churn up a slightly bitter but flavourful espresso. It sits atop a stove as the source of heat. Your stovetop percolator takes you back to the good old days of brewing coffee.
  • Electric Percolators: This is nothing but your modern coffee machine that churns out the delicious cups of coffee at most coffee shops. The machine houses the works within it, including heating sources, boilers and motors to give you a no-fuss smooth brewing experience.
  • Siphon Brewer: This type of percolation involves the pressure of steam pushing the hot boiling water through the stem onto the bed of ground coffee where it continues to stay until the heat source is switched off.
    Once the steam pressure reduces, the infused water and vapor condense into the original pressure chamber through a filter that clears off all the ground coffee.
    The primary difference lies in the fact that the water doesn’t do multiple rounds within the percolator but a single one.
  • Filter Drip Brewing: herein, hot water is passed through a bed of ground coffee powder that’s laid out on a filter using the force of gravity. Unlike traditional percolation, water needn’t be boiled to raise itself up to the pump stem for multiple rounds over the ground coffee. Just a single pass through the grounds suffices.
  • Moka Brewing: Moka brewing takes things a step further in comparison to filter drip brewing. A bed of ground coffee is placed between a pressure chamber and a collecting pot.
    Vapour pressure in the pressure chamber forces the hot water to go through the ground coffee bed and then into the collecting receptacle. Unlike filter drip, gravity does not play a role in Moka brewing. Again, water is passed through just once and not many times.

The Moka brewing technique is the latest addition in countries such as the US and Canada but has an established market in western Europe countries such as Italy and Spain.

Tips on Picking Out The Best Percolator For Yourself

Now that we’ve filled you in on the types of coffee percolators, the steps involved in brewing the perfect cuppa and the various components of a percolator, we’ve listed out some useful tips that you must keep in mind before you pick up a percolator for yourself.

  • The material used: The most commonly available options that you should restrict yourself to are either stainless steel or borosilicate glass.
    If you’re known to have butterfingers, then go for the durable steel variant. Steer clear of aluminum or copper, as they aren’t the best products for high heat utensils. Also, stainless steel and borosilicate are much easier to clean and come in variants that are dishwasher safe
  • Additional filter: Some percolators come with an additional filter at the tip of the pouring spout. If you are one of those who are absolutely particular about a cleanly strained cup of coffee without even the minutest traces of ground coffee, invest in one with an additional strainer at the tip of the spout.
  • Well-fitted lid: Often overlooked, this is one of the key pointers to the successful brewing capabilities of your percolator. You absolutely must make sure the percolator lid fits perfectly well, without any trace of room whatsoever.
    Firstly, that’s going to help build heat up within the system and make for a faster brew. Additionally, loosely placed lids can cause the hot water or steam to spurt out of the coffee maker, causing burns on your hand.
  • Handle: While your percolator is going to be red hot, the handle should be made of a material that’s heat resistant, allowing you to hold onto it easily and make a comfortable pour.
    Plastic is a safe handle material. However, you must keep in mind that the shape of your percolator shouldn’t result in the plastic handle being exposed to the heat source directly, as this can cause it to melt.

How Percolator Coffee Lost Out to Automatic Drip Coffee?

A comparison is often drawn between drip coffee makers and percolator coffee pots due to certain similarities in their brewing procedure. In fact, the terms are sometimes even used interchangeably, without a thorough understanding of what sets them apart. Both involve a mechanism where water and ground coffee are placed separately in the entire unit.

While in a percolator, the water passes through the ground coffee several times, in a drip coffee it does so only once. This is the reason why some people believe that percolator coffee to be a little harsh and bitter in taste, while drip coffee is perceived to be the smoother variant.

The main premise on which automatic drip coffee has overtaken the humble percolator over the years is based on the fact that the former is a lot more convenient. While a percolator involves the brewer having to manually watch over and adjust the heat source, an automatic drip does so automatically.

Also, due to the multiple times’ water and coffee interact in a percolator, the strong product thereof is not everyone’s cup of tea (read: coffee). The potency of drip coffee caters to the masses as a mild yet effective caffeine shot.

So while percolator coffee pots were a big hit back in the day, today it doesn’t find as many takers as the automatic drip coffee maker. What it does boast of however is a niche bunch of ardent advocates.

Pros & Cons of Coffee Percolators

Some coffee drinkers swear by a percolator while some others just don’t see what the big deal is about percolators. One thing is for sure, anybody who likes their coffee likes it a certain way and wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.

Needless to say, every method of coffee making comes with its own set of pros and cons. Here’s what I believe are the advantages and disadvantages of percolator coffees:

Pros

  • The percolator is a durable appliance and can last you for years on end. This simple machine will serve you well through the times
  • Coffee brewed using a percolator is usually much stronger than coffee made on other machines. The flavor is potent and distinct, tweaked to the exact measure the brewer desires
  • Coffee produced by percolators is usually done so at high temperatures. This is ideal for those who like their beverage piping hot.
  • Higher temperatures make the beverage more potent
  • You can control the brewing time and switch it off instantly should the need arise
  • Unlike automatic drip coffee machines or electronic kettles, percolators can even be used in outdoor areas
  • Percolators have an antique, old-world feel to it and are pleasing to the eye due to its traditionality and design

Cons

  • Often times, people aren’t able to estimate the exact time coffee should be brewed in a percolator, leading to a rather bitter concoction
  • In some cases, hot water may tend to get overheated and can push the ground coffee to rise and get into the stem, thus mixing into the water and mandating an additional level of straining
  • Maintenance of a percolator is difficult in comparison to other coffee brewing machines. Percolator coffee pots need to be dismantled and every part of it needs individual cleaning
  • You cannot dish out fancy coffees with a dash of hazelnut, caramel or other such currently popular flavors using a percolator. Hence, its reach and acceptance are limited to those who appreciate simple espressos or its few variants.
  • Most common complaints involving percolators coffees is that the potency of the beverage reduces as you pour out of the percolator. For example, if you brew 4 cups of coffee, the first one is likely to be the strongest, while the following ones offer decreasing flavor.

Three Myths

Percolators have not managed to find acceptance and appreciation from the current crop of coffee drinkers, purely because there are a lot of pre-conceived notions and hearsay about percolator coffee.

Well, about time we ironed out some of these myths and set the record straight on percolators. We’ve listed out and discussed three of the most infamous myths surrounding coffee percolators. This should encourage you to give the old-fashioned albeit efficient percolator coffee maker a shot.

Myth #1: Percolators Are Time Consuming

Except for instant coffee, I’d say all other coffee brewing processes take at the least 5 minutes. Whether it’s a French press, a drip coffee maker or the old-fashioned percolator, each requires a couple of minutes to grind the coffee and a few minutes to brew.

What’s great is you can go about doing what you have to, while keeping your ears on the vigil for the sound of boiling water and the aroma of a ready cup of coffee. Besides, irrespective of the coffee maker, a few minutes isn’t much to ask for if you’re getting a lovely strong cup of coffee at the end of it, right?

Myth #2: The Coffee is Too Hot

While this may not be entirely false, there is a good reason for it and also a way to work around it. This is largely due to the fact that infused water circulates in the percolator multiple times and hence spikes up in temperature very quickly. But, in the bargain, you get a brew that’s a lot more flavorful compared to other methods of brewing coffee.

So, it’s a bit of a give and takes the situation really, isn’t it?

Besides, what’s not to love about a piping hot cup of coffee to feel refreshed and energized? I’d say, rather a steaming hot cuppa than one that is even slightly below the mark. Should you wish to, however, work around this, you could choose to let the coffee sit in the percolator for a couple of minutes before pouring it out.

Alternatively, you could also pour already warmed water into the percolator so the infusion process kicks in faster and your water doesn’t get too hot in the process.

Myth #3: Coffee from Percolators are Almost Always Bitter

A first timer on the percolator is definitely going to have this feedback about their coffee. Often times, must people dunk an extra spoonful of ground coffee, because ‘just in case’. What they do not realize is that even a little imbalance in the measurements and ratio of water and ground coffee can send the brew off the charts.

A little extra water and you’re coffee lacks the punch. More ground coffee, and you end up with a bitter concoction. Ignoring the all-important ratio aspect, it is the percolator coffee that is maligned every time the flavor isn’t right. The key here is to follow the thumb rule of 1 tablespoon per 4 ounces of water.

The water level markings in the percolator pot are something you must really comply by. Also, do exercise some patience in keeping a keen eye over the percolator to observe when it stops the subtle bubbling sounds and starts giving out the aroma of coffee ready to be served.

Over time, you will perfect the art of brewing coffee in a percolator and you can say goodbye to any trace of bitterness.

Conclusion

There really is no perfect go-to coffee maker that’s a universal favorite. The beauty of brewing coffee is that it is an art, and every coffee enthusiast has their own preferred choice of flavor, potency, and process.

With the wide variety of global coffee chains and gourmet cafes that have sprung up over the last decade or two, how coffee is perceived and appreciated has tremendously evolved over the years and will continue to do so.

For example, latte art was never heard of until a decade back but is today the sole reason why some people prefer to sip on a latte, just so they can get the perfect picture of a gorgeous piece of art in a cup.

Having said that, percolators were one of the first brewing styles of coffee and have stood the test of time, what with a host of coffee aficionados still swearing by the unmatchable brew of a percolator. I’d absolutely recommend you try a percolator coffee in the near future if you haven’t already.

Follow the instructions illustrated in this article so you can appreciate a truly strong cuppa, even if it isn’t something you’d find yourself stretching out for on a daily basis. After all, what good is a coffee enthusiast who can’t give a first-hand narrative about the uniqueness of percolator coffee?

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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