Preparing a traditional italian style coffee with coffee percolator. Making a coffee, how to clean a stainless steel coffee percolator

Here’s How a Coffee Percolator Works

Coffee percolators work a bit differently than your average drip machine. Once the preferred method to brew a cup of joe in the U.S, these devices have fallen out of fashion in the last half-century. But, they can still produce a piping hot cup of coffee quite reliably.

Here’s the quick answer to how a coffee percolator works. 

Coffee percolators work by using the steam collected from boiling water to produce coffee. This steam condenses back into water and drips over the grounds. Once the hot water has moved through the grounds and collected the flavor, they drip back into the reservoir to repeat the process.

What comes out is a coffee that is quite strong and loaded with flavor. The notable difference between other coffee makers and a percolator is the recirculation of the brew. This allows for the coffee to keep soaking up the flavors and aromas through multiple passes. It also means the longer the pot goes, the stronger the flavor. But what are the mechanics behind this device?

How Does a Coffee Percolator Work?

Coffee percolators used to be all the rage in the 1940s through 1960s. In the era of consumer appliances, most homes would have had a percolator to take care of their coffee needs. They were reliable, made a strong cup of coffee, and were reasonably easy to use. 

New coffee maker and cup of fresh drink on wall background, how a coffee percolator works

So, you might look at the percolator and think there is not much going on, but you would be mistaken. Inside the device is a pretty clever design that utilizes the water vapor coming from boiling water. 

Here is how a percolator coffee maker works:

  1. Water is placed in a bottom reservoir where heat is applied.
  2. Once the water has reached a roaring boil, a device captures the bubbles formed and directs them up a tube.
  3. The bubbles contain the water vapor that will then travel up the tube to the device’s top.
  4. Next, the water vapor cools and condenses into hot water again. 
  5. The water collects on the top lid until it drips down onto a plate that helps it drip evenly.
  6. Once the water leaves the plate, it hits the grounds.
  7. It makes its way through the grounds, where it collects all the coffee’s flavors and aroma.
  8. After it has moved through the grounds, it then falls back into the reservoir.
  9. Over time the water will get more and more infused with the flavor of the coffee.
  10. After a certain amount of time, when the desired strength is reached, the coffee is then ready for consumption.

After all is said and done, the water in the reservoir should be a nice coffee brown and full of caffeine and flavor. The amount of time you leave the percolator on the heat, the stronger the coffee will be. Coffee tends to burn, so the longer the pot stays on the heat, the greater chance you have to add bitterness to the coffee.

What Parts Make Up A Coffee Percolator?

Coffee percolators come with a few parts that make the magic happen. Since most percolators are made of solid material, you rarely get to see them work in action. Some percolators, though, are made of glass and can give you some insight into how the whole thing works.

All percolators will usually consist of similar parts. They are:

  • Cover/Knob – This is the top lid of the percolator. It collects the water vapor and usually consists of a translucent glass/plastic knob so you can monitor the brew’s color.
  • Spreader plate – This goes right under the cover and is made up of holes or some kind of structure that will distribute the falling water evenly across the grounds.
  • Basket – This part holds the coffee grounds. It also has small holes on the underside to allow the coffee to flow back into the reservoir.
  • Pump stem – This long tube runs up the length of the percolator in the middle and allows the steam to travel up towards the cover. It also supports the basket.
  • Reservoir – This will hold the water and then the coffee as the percolator operates. 

All these parts work in conjunction to infuse the condensing water into coffee. The most important part is undoubtedly the pump stem. It sits at the bottom of the reservoir and catches the gas that is being produced by the boiling water. Without the pump stem, the steam would not be utilized in a way that would efficiently make a cup of coffee.

Keep in mind that percolators come in all different shapes and sizes. But, regardless of the form, they will all most likely contain these parts. They are essential to the operation of the unit. 

How Long It Takes to Make Coffee With a Percolator 

Coffee percolators are not necessarily known for their speed. This will all depend on the type of percolator you are using, though. There are two main types of percolators:

  • Stovetop
  • Electric

The downside to the stovetop unit is that a roaring boil is required to get things working. Depending on your range, this may take a while. The reason you need a roaring boil is because of the wide pump stem. Since it is wider, it needs more bubbles to form for it to work. From a roaring boil, you will need to wait around five minutes for the percolator to accomplish its task. 

An electric percolator, on the other hand, is much quicker at making a cup of coffee. This is because the pump stem is not as wide at the bottom as a stovetop model. Instead of a wide pump stem covering the entire base, you will get a small one that covers a recessed hole. In this hole, you’ll find a heating element.

Since this heating element is so small, it takes no time to get the water in the area to boil. Once it has started to boil, it can then start making the coffee. Since you don’t have to wait for a whole pot of water to get to the temperature, you can cut out the time waiting on the stovetop. All in all, you can expect to wait around 5-7 minutes for an electric percolator. 

Does a Coffee Percolator Make Better Coffee?

Coffee can be a very picky beverage. Moreover, coffee drinkers can be even more wound-tight. Much like other passions, people can only expect the best and turn their nose up to anything else. That is to say, what makes a good cup of coffee is subjective. 

So when it comes time to enjoy the fruits of the percolators labor, what can you expect? To help us out, it might be easy to compare percolator coffee to drip coffee.

Percolator coffee will be:

  • Stronger than drip coffee
  • Darker, and possibly more bitter
  • More concentrated

One thing to consider when making coffee with a percolator is heat. While a certain amount of heat is good for coffee, it is, after all roasted, too much can cause bitterness. This is one of the common complaints about percolator brewed coffee. Ideally, you want to keep the water dripping off the cover into the grounds to be between 195-205 degrees

Electric Percolators

Using an electric percolator is a much more straightforward process. This is because you can take away the most unpredictable item: the stove. Since the unit relies on a small electrical heater, it can make coffee faster. Also, the addition of temperature sensors means you can set it and forget it.

Electric percolators:

  • Are usually quicker
  • Make a more consistent product
  • Need less attention

Another major upside to an electric percolator is the timed brew sequence. Basically, the sensors in the unit can set a timer once a boiling temp is reached. This usually lasts around five minutes. Once the time has elapsed, the heater will then switch to warm mode.

What this does is help keep the coffee from burning. If you remember from our earlier discussion, coffee tends to get bitter when it is too hot. An electric percolator helps this by turning off the burner when the coffee is brewed. This results in a more consistent strength and flavor from all of your brews.

Downsides of Using a Percolator

As you may have already gathered, it is pretty easy to burn your coffee in a percolator. This is a major downside, especially for the coffee snobs. The problem occurs at multiple stages of the brewing process.

When your coffee might get scorched using a stovetop percolator:

  • When the reservoir is heating to boil, all of that heat is pushed through the grounds. This can burn the coffee before the unit even starts working.
  • If the water is too hot as it moves through the grounds, it can also pick up some off-flavors
  • Finally, if the finished coffee sits on the burner too long, it can get bitter.

Another factor that plays against the percolator is cleaning. Because the device is working with heat, an acidic product, and a lot of coffee grounds, it can get dirty quite quickly. This is why it is recommended to clean your percolator after every use. Moreover, all the small parts in the device easily build up grime to limit the brewing process’s effectiveness.

It is also worth noting that the basket that holds the grounds often leaks. This will result in grounds getting into the finished product. While you can use a filter, finding ones that fit a particular unit can be difficult due to waning popularity.

Is a Moka Pot a Percolator?

You may have seen a Moka pot and thought, “is this a percolator”? Well, based on just a cursory glance, they look almost the same. Also, they both also utilize a stovetop and harness the water vapor coming off boiling water. But, after that, they start to differ.

Young woman making coffee outdoors near a tent, how a coffee percolator works

A Moka pot:

  • Does not recirculate the brew
  • Keeps the finished coffee farther from the heat
  • Often produces a more robust cup of coffee

Moka pots, when compared to percolators, are far more popular. They offer home coffee drinkers the opportunity to get a more concentrated coffee without bitterness. It is said that a Moka pot produces a brew somewhere between a drip system and espresso. 

The significant upside the Moka pot has over the percolator is that it keeps the coffee farther from the heat. It has two reservoirs, one for water and the other for the finished coffee. The latter of which is on the top side of the unit. This results in less of a chance to scorch the product. 

What are the Differences Between a Drip Coffee Maker and a Percolator?

The drip coffee maker is by and large the most common way to make coffee. They took over the top spot held by the percolator in the 1970s. This was when the world was introduced to Mr.Coffee. From there, most homes had a drip maker and not a percolator. But what are the differences between the two?

Here is what is different:

  • Drip machines are usually easier to use and clean.
  • Percolators use a higher temp water and have a higher tendency to burn your coffee.
  • Drip coffee takes a longer time to brew
  • Percolators often make larger batches of coffee than drip machines.

For the reasons listed above, mostly the ease of use, percolators waned in popularity throughout the 1970s. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a family still using one. Drip machines still are popular and have even evolved with the use of Keurig cups. 

But, while percolators have fallen out of fashion for home use, they are still popular for campers. This is because you can use fire as a heat source fairly easily. Percolators, like this one from GSI (on Amazon), are designed for this purpose and work wonders in an outdoor setting.

Do You Need to Use a Special Type of Coffee?

One thing to consider when using a percolator is the grind of your coffee. While type does not affect the unit too much, the coarseness of your grind certainly does. This is because the basket leaves openings for the coffee to drip back down into the reservoir. If you were to look at the unit’s inside, you would see an array of small holes or slits.

Because of this design, you need to get a coarse grind on your coffee. Unfortunately, this coarse grind is not that easy to come by for the average consumer. While you can get away with using a standard electric grinder to get the proper grind, you might need one that lets you adjust the coarseness of the grind for optimum use.

As far as coffee strength, you have some options:

  • A dark roast will result in a significantly more potent brew.
  • Using a light roast might mean that the coffee will need more time to brew, which could risk burning the pot.
  • A medium roast is usually recommended for use in a percolator.

One reason that percolators fell out of favor is the introduction of the drip maker. Since the drip coffee maker needed a finer ground coffee, most coffee manufacturers started to use this as the standard. This meant that you could no longer purchase coarse ground coffee at the store. Consequently, people opted to get a drip maker instead of drinking coffee with grounds. 

Common Misconceptions About Percolators

Percolators have been around for a while, and so have some myths that have followed them. One that often gets out there isn’t just about percolator coffee but about coffee in general. This myth is that the only good cup of coffee is one that is scorching hot. 

As we have learned, the hotter the coffee, the greater chance it will pick up some burnt bitterness. But, people still will judge a cup of coffee by its temperature. While a room temperature cup is not good either, a happy medium between scorching hot and flavorful is recommended.

But that is about coffee in general. When it comes to percolators, two common misconceptions still exist:

  • What percolation is – Most people think that the collection of water vapor is percolation when in fact, it is the filtering of liquid through a porous material, in this case, the grounds.
  • You don’t need to clean a percolator – There is a stubborn theory that the residue on the percolator is good for the flavor. This is not true, and that residue can add some rancid flavors to your finished brew. 

While these misconceptions might lead to a bitter brew, some people like it that way. For some coffee drinkers, the bitter quality is sought after. For others, the nostalgic taste of percolator coffee just can’t be beaten.

Wrapping Up

Coffee percolators were once the most popular way to brew a cup of joe. These units took advantage of the gases produced from boiling water. Once the vapors pushed through the stem and hit the top of the unit, they fell down into the ground, making coffee. While they may not be as prolific, percolators can still make a nice strong cup of coffee.