Once a stalwart in home coffee making, stovetop percolators have largely fallen out of fashion among coffee drinkers due to a reputation for producing bitter, over-extracted coffee. But this retro device still has some fans and for good reason. When done right, it’s an easy and efficient way to get a tasty brew.
Read on to find out how to use a percolator so you can banish the bitterness, and enjoy a rich and delicious cup of coffee.
What You Need
- Whole coffee beans
- Coffee grinder
- Cold water
- Coffee scale (or measuring spoon)
- Stovetop percolator*
* A stovetop percolator is nothing more than a kettle with a system inside to draw hot water from the bottom to the top so that it can trickle back down through the coffee grounds, a process called percolation. In most cases, this is a pot with a small reservoir at the bottom and a central tube that runs to the top. At the top is a filter-basket containing ground coffee.
What is the Difference Between a Percolator and a Moka Pot?
It’s a common misconception that percolators and Moka pots are synonymous, but they have several key differences that lead to very different results. In fact, both have more in common with other coffee brewing methods than each other.
The percolator is among the oldest coffee makers, with the first modern version patented by an Illinois farmer named Hanson Goodrich in 1889. At the time, the percolator was considered a huge advance over the common practice of just boiling coffee grounds in water, known as decoction (1). Goodrich’s patent application, however, was both interesting and ambitious, stating that percolated coffee would be…
a liquid (…) free of all grounds and impurities so that it is not necessary to use any clearing materials.
The Moka pot was invented in Italy in 1933 by Luigi de Ponti, but it was countryman Alfonso Bialetti, an aluminum machinist, who made it a household product. Not only did this usher in a new era for aluminum as a manufacturing product, but it led to the democratization of espresso itself, bringing “stovetop” espresso to the common household (2). So what’s the difference between the two?
The coffee percolator can be thought of as a gravity-based brewer, like a drip coffee machine whereas the Moka Pot is pressure-based.
Water bubbles up from the reservoir through the central tube then drops back down onto the coarse coffee grounds. The brewed coffee continues to circulate through the percolator until you turn the heat off, giving you control over its strength.
In comparison, the Moka pot is a pressure-based coffee maker, like an espresso machine. Upon heating, steam pressure forces water through fine coffee grounds into the upper chamber where the coffee collects. The system is self-limiting. When the water in the lower chamber is gone, the coffee is done. If you want to know how to brew using a Moka Pot, check out our video guide below:
As a result, you get very different coffee from the two systems. Percolator coffee is similar to drip coffee or French press coffee, whereas in a Moka pot the coffee is very concentrated and more similar to a shot of espresso or an Aeropress coffee.
How to Make Coffee in a Percolator
Now, let’s go through some step-by-step instructions for how to make coffee using a Stovetop Percolator.
1. Grind and measure your coffee
We recommend grinding your beans as close to brewing time as possible and using a burr grinder for the best flavor. Just don’t grind too coarsely, or you won’t be able to extract as much flavor.
Because there is no filter in a percolator, a coarse grind is required, similar to a French press.
Decide how many cups of coffee you intend to make, and weigh about 15 g of coffee for every 250 mL of water. As you experiment with the percolating process, you may want to vary this ratio a bit, but it’s a good starting point. If you don’t have a coffee scale and don’t want to buy one of our very affordable coffee scale recommendations, you can use about one tablespoon of ground coffee per cup. But a good scale is always the most reliable way to measure coffee.
2. Prepare the percolator
First, add cold water to the percolator reservoir. You can use filtered water here if you prefer, but it’s not as important with percolator coffee due to the stronger coffee flavors inherent in this brewing method.
Next place the funnel filter on top, add the ground coffee to the basket and press it down gently.
3. Start heating the percolator
The most important aspect of making coffee in a stovetop percolator is to heat the water slowly in order to avoid any burnt or bitter taste. Set it over medium-low heat, and watch it carefully. Most percolators have a glass top or globe for monitoring.
When you see bubbles beginning to form, adjust the heat source to maintain the temperature.
For an ideal brew, you want to see one bubble, or “perk,” every couple of seconds.
If you see a steady stream of bubbles, the water is boiling, and it’s too hot. Similarly, if you don’t see any bubbles, the water is too cool.
Pro tip: Look for a percolator with a glass globe at the top. Plastic globes can impart a foul taste to your coffee at high temperatures.
4. Let the percolation occur
While some advocate percolators as a “set it and forget it” option, we recommend that you stay close during percolation to ensure the water temperature stays just right. Getting distracted and ending up with bitter, burnt tasting coffee is one of the most common coffee brewing mistakes.
Nevertheless, it is worth setting a timer to ensure consistency. Because the brewed coffee is continually recycled through the grounds, the longer it percolates, the stronger it will be. Aim for a brewing time of five to ten minutes, depending on how strong you want your coffee. When the time is up, take the percolator off the heat.
Percolator coffee is known for being exceptionally hot. In fact, it’s why many people favor this device.
Pro tip: Percolators are hot! Make sure you have an oven mitt or kitchen towel handy when you take it off the stove.
5. Discard the grounds
While it’s tempting to pour that delicious coffee straight into your waiting mug, it’s important to discard the grounds first. Otherwise, they can easily end up in your coffee, and then you’ve just undone all Hanson Goodrich’s hard work to improve on coffee decoction.
6. Pour coffee into your favorite mug and enjoy
Now you’re at the good part. Pour the coffee into a mug, add milk, cream, and/or sweetener to your liking. (3)
Percolators are known for creating a deep, rich, robust flavor, as well as spreading a very rich coffee aroma while the coffee is being made.
You’ve now brewed the perfect cup of percolator coffee so all that is left to do is enjoy your robust brew!
Percolator coffee may have garnered a bad reputation over the years, but like many brewing techniques, it’s only bad when done badly. With a bit of practice, and with this handy guide at your fingertips, you’ll be brewing delicious coffee in no time. If you like a strong, rich, and hot cup of coffee, the percolator might just be your new favorite coffee maker.
The best coffee to use in a percolator is a whole bean medium roast. Whole beans are almost always better than pre-ground (4), for both flavor and optimization of grind size. Though you should experiment with your own favorite beans, in general, dark roasts are more likely to end up with a bitter or burnt taste, while light roasts will lose their subtleties and can end up tasting bland or one-note.
No, you don’t need to use paper filters with a percolator. The coffee grounds are held in a metal basket with holes in the bottom, which is why it is so important to use a coarse grind. As when you make French press coffee, this allows more coffee oils into your final cup.
The short answer is that it can. One perk (ha!) of percolating coffee is that you can adjust its brew strength, and its caffeine content, by how long you percolate. Other factors will also play a large role in the caffeine content of your eventual brew, including the type and roast level of the beans and the quantity of coffee grounds.
- Voss, V. (1968, March 21). The Times-Leader, McLeansboro, Illinois p. 9 Retrieved from https://www.carolyar.com/Illinois/Newspaper/Goodrich.htm
- Clayton, L. (2014, February 10). Coffee Maker History: The Moka Pot. Retrieved from https://drinks.seriouseats.com/2014/02/moka-pot-history-coffee-maker-italian-caffetiera.html
- Doyle, M.T. (2016, November 2). The Forbidden Love of Percolators. Retrieved from https://www.chicagocarless.com/2016/11/02/forbidden-love-percolators/
- Marulanda, C. (2018, December 27). Is Pre-Ground Coffee Ever Better Than Freshly Ground? Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/12/is-pre-ground-coffee-ever-better-than-freshly-ground/