Wake up. Brew. Drink. Repeat.
Sure, your daily routine for brewing rich coffee can be soothing, but sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up, you know? Maybe you want to make your cup of coffee with a retro brewing process, or maybe you just want to step out of your comfort zone. We’re betting you can do both. All you’ve got to do is give a percolator a try.
No, seriously, hear us out. Word on the street is that the stovetop coffee maker is the worst way to whip up a batch of coffee. But, since we live in a world filled with different tastes and preferences, you can’t take this opinion to heart. You might decide percolators are even better than the old reliable automatic drip coffee maker!
Besides, while the coffee brewing device on which you settle has a lot to do with the quality of the coffee you drink, whether or not you’re using the best-tasting coffee beans possible ultimately determines how good the contents of your coffee pot will be. All we’re saying is, don’t discount stovetop coffee percolators until you’ve tried one; just make sure you’ve got quality joe on deck before you do.
What is a Stovetop Percolator?
If you’re even slightly curious about this old-school brew method, you should know what the percolator is and how it works.
To percolate is to make a solvent — which is, in this case, steam — pass through a permeable substance like coffee grounds, for example. Given this definition, the percolator’s name makes perfect sense.
Most stovetop percolators look like taller and thinner kettles, but warming water isn’t the only thing they do when connected to a heat source. The inside is a reliable, steam-powered coffee brewer. Unlike pour-over coffee, where clean water is filtered through the layer of ground coffee, vacuum brewing creates an environment where steam saturates your ground coffee beans before filtering.
The percolator isn’t the only coffee maker that uses a vacuum to produce a potent brew. Siphon coffee makers work similarly. These brewers look as if they were pulled right out of a science lab and are perfect for those who want something a bit more entertaining than the average drip coffee maker.
Moka pots also work in this way, using high-pressured steam to produce a coffee with such a rich and concentrated taste that it can be used as an adequate substitute for a shot of espresso. Unlike the percolator, though, a Moka pot’s espresso-style coffee doesn’t continue cycling through the brewer until it’s removed from the heat. Once all of the joe has been pushed to the upper chamber, it stays there until you pour it into your cup.
A Bitter Brew
In 1889, Hanson Goodrich filed for and received a patent for what became the classic stovetop percolator with the intention to remove both grounds and impurities from the hot coffee it would brew. Goodrich’s patented product did just that, but, unfortunately, not without a few side effects.
Some people describe a cup of percolator coffee as somewhat bitter, and for that reason, stovetop percolators have quickly fallen out of favor with many java lovers. But we think it’s important to appreciate a wide variety of flavors and mouthfeels, so batches of coffee brewed with a percolator are worth giving a second chance. After all, you can’t call yourself a true coffee aficionado unless you’re willing to try different methods for brewing coffee, can you?
But even if you’re adventurous enough to try the stovetop coffee brewing machine so many have dismissed, you’re probably wondering what makes the resulting coffee bitter and unsatisfying in the first place.
Well, high heat is necessary to create the steam pressure for brewing the black coffee in a percolator, and those high temperatures tend to bring out the metallic flavors of the typically stainless steel coffee maker. That’s why we highly recommend you pay attention to the brewing temperature when you’re using tools like this to carry out your coffee routine.
Brewing temperature isn’t the only thing that affects the taste during this process. The way the brewer works plays a significant role in the joe’s flavor and texture. As the steam soaks the preground coffee, the already-extracted coffee drains back into the water chamber. The brewed coffee is reheated and re-steeped several times during this process, resulting in over-extracted coffee.
Despite this information, we stand by this sentiment: don’t knock it ’til you try it! It’s all a matter of taste. If you’re all about some bitter flavors, we heartily encourage you to give the percolator a try. If you know you prefer to start your day with something milder, however, maybe stick to the average cup of drip coffee.
Stovetop Percolators: An Active Brewing Method
Before you start browsing the many different types of percolators on Amazon, you should know that the percolator is an active method of coffee brewing, unlike your “set it and forget it” drip coffee pot. This means you can’t just turn it on and walk away; you’ve got to keep a close eye on it, or you risk overboiling your coffee — that goes beyond bitter coffee and ventures right into yucky joe territory.
If you don’t mind keeping an eye on them, though, traditional percolators can be a soothing way to get your morning started. These brewers require you to be present in the moment, rather than rushing through your routine, almost like a calming meditation to start your day!
How to Make Coffee with a Stovetop Percolator
The hardest part about brewing with this method is getting the water just right. But once you get the hang of it, managing water heat with a stovetop percolator is simple. The trick is to pay attention and trust your gut.
What You Need
Aside from your stove (or some other external heat source), of course, you don’t need much to brew coffee using this old-fashioned method.
- Whole coffee beans of your choice
- Coffee grinder
- Spoon for measuring coffee
- Stovetop percolator
- Your favorite mug
Step One: Grind and Measure Your Coffee
The first thing you’ll need to do is whip out your handy burr coffee grinder and your favorite great-tasting coffee beans — it’s time to grind! Percolators require coarse ground coffee (the same size you’d use in your handy French press coffee maker), so be sure your grinder is capable of producing this grind size before you begin.
Once you’ve got your coarse grind ready, it’s time to measure. In most cases, an incorrect coffee-to-water ratio is the only thing standing between you and delicious cups of coffee. With that said, getting a good-tasting brew depends in part on the volume of your stovetop percolator, so you’ll need to measure your coffee accordingly. (Pro-tip: use a coffee scale for accuracy!)
We recommend using about one tablespoon of coffee per cup of water, but feel free to adjust the ratio accordingly to meet your taste preferences. And remember: whatever fresh grounds you don’t use should be stored in an airtight coffee canister until you’re ready to brew again!
Step Two: Assemble and Fill the Percolator
Now, it’s time to start assembling the percolator. If you haven’t already, install the pump stem, then pour cold water into the reservoir.
Next, place the filter basket inside the brewer and scoop your freshly ground beans (you can use pre-ground joe, we won’t judge) into it. Be careful not to overfill! Percolators naturally make strong coffee, so adhering to the “less is more” principle here is wise. Besides, you don’t want to waste any of your beloved beans, do you?
Top the filter with a lid if it has one, close the percolator, and you’re done with assembly!
You should note that there may be some slight variations in assembling your percolator depending on the brand and model you chose, but for the most part, the process is as outlined above. If this step has you a bit stumped, though, make sure to consult the manufacturer’s instructions for guidance.
Step Three: Turn Up the Heat
Place your filled percolator on a stove (or camp stove, if you plan on enjoying this brew in the great outdoors) and set the burner to low or medium heat. You want the heating process to be slow, so the water doesn’t boil, and the finished coffee doesn’t end up burnt or boiled.
Once your water is hot enough to steam the coffee, it begins bubbling. You’ll want to maintain this ideal temperature, which you can do by making sure the bubbles appear through the glass knob on top a few seconds apart. If the bubbles are more of a constant stream than an occasional pop, your water is boiling, and you need to turn down the heat. Conversely, if bubbles aren’t happening often enough, turn it up just a bit.
Step Four: Let It Perk
Once your water is bubbling at regular intervals, set your timer for no more than 10 minutes. Some percolator pros only brew for six to eight minutes, but ultimately, how strong you want your coffee will determine the brewing time; feel free to adjust the time on your first few brews until you settle upon your perfect cup. Remember, the longer your joe percolates, the stronger it will be.
Step Five: Remove it From the Heat
Once your timer is up, turn off the burner and carefully remove the percolator from the heat source. The vessel will be extremely hot, so be sure to use an oven mitt or kitchen towel to protect your hands!
We know you’re itching to pour that first cup, but not so fast, friend; you should remove those used grounds from the coffee basket before you serve the joe. You might be able to get away with skipping this step and pouring a cup immediately, but some percolators don’t have strong seals separating the basket from the reservoir. If you leave the grounds in while you pour, there’s a chance you end up with a mug filled with more grounds than coffee — gross.
Step Six: Enjoy!
Once you’ve tossed the grounds out (or added them to your compost!), replace the percolator lid, and pour yourself a piping hot cup of joe — you earned it!
How to Clean a Percolator
Whether you’ve got a traditional stainless steel coffee percolator on your countertop or you’ve opted for a more modern electric coffee percolator, one thing is sure: a clean coffee maker produces the best brew. Sure, the cleaning process might be a bit tedious, but adhering to a consistent routine is one of the easiest ways to ensure your morning cup tastes great every time.
You should wash your percolator with soapy water immediately after each use; this keeps oils and residue from previous brews from building up and interfering with your next batch’s flavors. When it’s time for a deeper clean, though — and you should put this on your calendar at least once a month — consult our how-to guide for cleaning a coffee maker. There, we’ve got step-by-step instructions for cleaning pretty much any coffee brewing device, including the good old percolator.
The People Want to Know
How does an electric percolator know when to stop?
Now, we know not everyone wants to go old-school and use a stovetop percolator. That’s why electric coffee percolators exist! When your dark roast finishes brewing (or light roast, if you prefer brighter, more acidic brews), the machine stops on its own. But how?
Most electric percolators are programmed to stop at certain temperatures, so when it reaches that point, your percolator will either turn off or enable its keep-warm function.
Why is my percolator coffee weak?
You could be choking down less-than-flavorful coffee for a few reasons, with one of the most common being an underfilled coffee grounds basket. If you aren’t using enough joe and your coffee-to-water ratio is off, your resulting brew will be lackluster; add more beans!
You may also be grinding your favorite coffee bean incorrectly, and that, of course, plays a role in how your joe tastes. If you use a grind that’s too coarse, the flavors may be under-extracted, but if percolator coffee fans choose too fine beans, they risk clogging the brewer or over-extracting the joe.
Finally, your freshly perked coffee may be a bit weak because the water isn’t heating enough. Percolators require extremely hot water to function at their best, so if you’re getting a brew that’s a bit disappointing flavor-wise, you may need to turn up the heat.
Can I use regular ground coffee in a percolator?
Any joe you’ve got at your disposal, from a bag of strong dark roast coffee beans to a brighter light roast, will perk just fine so long as it’s coarsely ground. However, most of the pre-ground options on the shelf at your grocery store are a slightly finer grind than you need for this brewer, so be sure to check the label carefully before you buy anything. Many coffee brands have the grind size printed on the packaging.
If you’re still unsure if your pre-ground joe is fit for a percolator, do a bit more research online, or bite the bullet and get a good grinder and whole beans.
How do you know when percolator coffee is done?
Ultimately, when you’re making a cup of coffee using a percolator, your preferences determine when your brew is complete. It’ll take some trial and error to figure out how long it takes to create your perfect cup, but we recommend starting with the typical six to eight-minute brewing time and experimenting from there.
Do you need a filter for a percolator?
A paper basket filter isn’t necessary when using this coffee brewing process, as these gadgets are designed to work without one. However, using a paper filter may add to your percolator experience for a couple of reasons.
If you’re a health-conscious coffee drinker and looking for ways to make your morning cup a bit better for you, adding a paper filter is probably one of the easiest healthy coffee hacks you can use. Some studies show a correlation between coffee oils and high cholesterol, and paper filters tend to absorb most of those, making for a slightly healthier cup.
A paper filter also keeps any grounds from slipping through the built-in filter and sneaking into your cup. That’s super helpful, as nothing is more disappointing than bringing your mug to your lips and being met by grit instead of smooth, flavorful coffee.
Which is better, stovetop or electric percolator?
Whether you keep things traditional with a stovetop percolator or go the modern route with an electric model is up to you, but keep a few things in mind when you’re deciding between the two.
A non-electric model is a more economical option, though many find the convenience of the electric percolator is worth the extra bucks. Electric percolators require less of your attention as they shut off on their own; all you’ve got to do is press a button. But unlike its electricity-free counterpart, the electric brewer can’t be used as a camping coffee pot. This isn’t a problem for some, but that lack of portability may be a dealbreaker for the avid outdoorsman.
The point we’re making is that we can’t give you a concrete answer on which is the better buy; only you can decide which best fits your needs and lifestyle.
Can you use a percolator for tea?
Yes, you can use your trusty percolator to make tea. Just give it a thorough cleaning first to keep day-old coffee residue from tainting your cuppa. The process for percolating tea is pretty much the same as making coffee — fill the upper basket with loose leaf or bagged tea, pour water into the reservoir, and let it perk until the tea is your preferred strength.
Just Like Your Great-Grandma Used to Make
Yeah, we know, the percolator coffee maker is a pretty old-fashioned way to brew, and you probably won’t see one of these used at any of the coffee shops you frequent. But there’s nothing wrong with throwing it back a few decades, right? Pull out a percolator the next time you want to give your friends a quick lesson in coffee history or just want to take a break from your standard drip coffee brewer and slow things down a bit.
Just remember: practice makes perfect when it comes to the percolator process, and for the love of coffee, don’t let the water boil! You’ll end up with a rather unpleasant bitter taste in your mouth.