If you have a soft spot for a coffee percolator, I like to think that you’re “my people.” You probably like making coffee for a crowd, you might have a taste for the nostalgic, and maybe you’re interested in zero-waste brewing methods.
Sure, percolators might not always have had the best reputation for making good coffee, but I think that’s an overreaction, maybe even a case of the carpenter blaming their tools. Let’s take a closer look — and a better brew — at ye old percolator.
What is a coffee percolator?
As with just about every coffee-brewing equipment in history, there’s some question about the exact origins of the coffee percolator, or “pumping percolator” as they used to be called. Was it invented in the early 19th century by American-English physicist Benjamin Thompson? Or in 1819 Paris by tinsmith Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens, who was the first to incorporate a tube through which boiling water could rise and fall through coffee grounds, creating a continuous brew cycle? How about Massachusetts resident James H. Nason, whose 1865 patent utilized a “downflow” design rather than rising steam? We can’t forget Hanson Goodrich of Illinois, inventor of the “modern” percolator that predates the kind of stovetop brewers we still see.
Whomever gets the credit for developing the pots, let’s talk about what they are and how they work.
The process of percolation is technically defined as the movement of a solvent liquid (or gas) through soluble material (like coffee grounds) in order to extract compounds. If that sounds like pour over, drip coffee, or even espresso-making, you’re right: The chemical reaction of percolation is one thing, while the way that a coffee percolator achieves that percolation is specific to its design. French press and other immersion-style brews, on the other hand, don’t rely on percolation, because there is no movement of the water through the coffee.
I know, it’s a bit confusing — but isn’t all coffee?? So let’s dig into how coffee percolators work.
These brewers typically have two chambers: One where water is heated until it boils, and another with a perforated filter surface, on which the coffee grounds sit and wait patiently to be brewed. Between these two chambers is a vertical tube. As the water heats and begins to boil, it bubbles up through the tube and is forced out the top, spraying over the bed of coffee grounds. Then, having extracted some material from the grounds bed, it drips back into the lower chamber, where it mixes with the rest of the brewing water and begins to heat up again. This cycle is repeated until the entire liquid reaches boiling temperature, 212°F, when a distinctive gurgling sound signals the end of the brew.
Electric percolator pots typically shut off once the “perk! perk!” sound of the coffee starts beating a tattoo against the top; stovetop models or manual-brew percolators will require you, the attentive coffee lover, to remove it from the heat at that point.
Why use a coffee percolator?
This is a very good question, and I’ll leave it to my coffee hero, Alice Foote MacDougall, to answer: Here is her reasoning from her 1926 cookbook, Coffee and Waffles.
[Percolator coffee] seems to me to be the most satisfactory way and the one nearest fool-proof. The percolator is a presentable article and will not seriously blemish the appointments of your breakfast table; a table that should be especially attractive, since tempers at 8 am are not always what they should be.
While percolators are divisive among true coffee nerds, they do offer convenience as well as the potential for quality — with the right amount of attention. They’re also great for camping and outdoor coffee brewing. Stovetop percolators are inexpensive and can be tucked away easily, are sturdy, require no paper filter, and can often brew a larger batch than most pour over methods. Electric percolators make up in efficiency what they lose out on in looks to their more manual counterparts: They will automatically shut off the heating cycle once the brew has reached that highest temperature.
Mastering the art of water temperature
In order to maximize your nostalgic coffee brewer, it’s important to consider water temperature. While most coffee percolators will recommend that you start with fresh cold water, I actually prefer to start with fresh hot water. This reduces the amount of time that the ground coffee will be exposed to heat as it sits above the water while it comes up to a boil. The less time the water needs to reach its brewing temperature, the better: Then it can get straight to work extracting what the (not-too-hot) grounds have to offer.
Remember to pay close attention to your brew along the way and don’t let it sit longer than it needs to on all that heat.
What’s the right grind size for a percolator?
Most percolators will call for a medium-coarse grind, slightly finer perhaps than you’d use for traditional French press but not so fine that particles will fall through the perforated filter screen. This will also help control the extraction rate as the coffee grounds will come in contact with brewing water time and time again; too fine a grind would easily and quickly become over-extracted.
Our percolator recipe
As with all brewing methods, I highly recommend trial-and-error on your approach to the perfect percolator coffee. Different models will vary widely in terms of size (they typically run larger) and the material used in the pot’s construction will have a strong impact on the way it heats and retains temperature. In other words, your mileage is sure to vary, but here’s a decent starting point.
- Find your right coffee ratio: I like to start with a brew ratio of 30 grams medium-coarse ground coffee to 300 grams of water
- Heat your brewing water in a separate kettle
- Once your water has heated to about 170 to 180°F, pour it into the bottom chamber of your percolator
- Assemble the percolator and place the fresh-ground coffee in the filter basket
- Seal as instructed and put the percolator on a lower-medium setting on the stove
- Watch and listen carefully: You should start to hear the water boiling, and if you have a glass percolator, you’ll start to see the water moving through both chambers and beginning to stain the brewing water brown
- As the coffee approaches a steady boil or starts to make that “perk! perk!” sound, remove it from the heat
- Remove the filter with its spent grounds and serve the coffee
- Enjoy — or at least reminisce!