What is a Percolator Coffee Maker?

Once a dominant means of brewing coffee, especially in the 19th-century United States, the percolator coffee maker is a classic way to make smooth and bold coffee. This appliance uses a sort of convection process to brew, heating the coffee through a stream of boiling water that surfaces from the bottom of a pot through a rod-like stem and then interacts with the coffee in the top chamber, filtering through small holes of a metal basket that holds the coffee grinds. It’s a magical process that is fun to engage with, pleasant to smell in a kitchen, and makes for a delicious cup of coffee.

Percolator Coffee

In terms of popularity, the percolator ultimately gave way to the drip coffee method, but the two are apples and oranges in the end-result coffee they make. Coffee from a percolator is notoriously stronger and, to some, tastes more bitter. This is largely because there’s a higher likelihood of coffee being over-extracted as water continues to, in its cycle, essentially re-brew itself if left boiling for too long. The process can, therefore, be finicky–but an enjoyable challenge. The percolator is meant to brew coarse-ground, dark roast coffees.

Types of Coffee Percolators

There are essentially three types of percolators to look for: ones suited for the stovetop, camping, and portable electric use. All of these percolator coffee pots will be, in most cases, stainless steel and will ideally have a transparent portion of the lid to watch the coffee brew. Also look for sturdy stay-cool handles, as the device itself will get very hot to handle without oven mitts.

Stove Top Coffee Percolator

A traditional stovetop percolator is stainless steel and ranges in size from 16 ounces to 96 ounces. The average cost is anywhere from $25 to $30. It will boast a flared base meant for stovetop brewing and, more often than not, a glass knob for viewing the brew process as it happens–worth looking for when shopping, as the stove top version of the percolator involves the most guesswork when brewing. This is the most straightforward version of the percolator and an excellent starting point for those new to the brewing method and looking for a stove top coffee pot.

Electric Coffee Percolator

At a glance, the electric coffee percolator will look just like an electric tea kettle, only inside it boasts all the usual components of the percolator. The convenience of this is that it frees up space on the stovetop, has a built-in timer, and typically has a warming feature. It’s also more convenient, as a plug-and-play sort of option for coffee brewing, meaning you could brew it on the kitchen counter or next to you on the sofa while you watch TV. The ultimate allure, however, which might make this the best coffee percolator, is the control added to the brew process by combining the timer with the device. These are usually slightly more expensive than a stovetop or camping percolator, but it’s entirely possible to snag a quality 96-ounce percolator for as little as $40.

Camping Coffee Percolator

These percolators are usually a sizable stainless steel containing about 64 ounces of coffee. Percolators are popular for camping because they’re extraordinarily portable, sturdy, and yield a higher quantity of coffee than, say, an AeroPress. There’s also no need for a filter, meaning it works just fine with coffee, water, and sustains the intensity of a campfire.

How Does a Coffee Percolator Work?

In action, the percolator is a simple process of using boiling water and condensation to brew coffee. In the abstract, it can seem kind of complicated. Let’s break it down.

  • Coarse-ground coffee is placed in the perforated basket that will be placed in the top chamber. It’s important that the coffee not be fine, or it will risk over-extraction of the coffee and a less clean cup, with risk of grinds seeping into the brew. (Note: If your percolator has paper percolator coffee filters, that should be placed in the basket during this step before placing the coffee grounds.)
  • Fill the bottom chamber with the desired amount of water. Preferably, this water has been filtered. It does not matter what the temperature of the water is upon entering the coffee maker. Make sure this is not overfilled to the point it touches the coffee. The device should have a fill line indicating this.
  • Assemble the stem and coffee basket, and set inside the chamber filled with water.
  • Place the lid on top of the percolator.
  • If you have a stovetop, this is when you would begin boiling the water and doing your best guesswork to make sure the coffee is not over-brewed. With an electric percolator, you’ll want to set the temperature of the water–if your device has this feature–or simply try your best to measure when the coffee is done. Once the water has reached a boil, it usually takes approximately seven minutes for the coffee to finish brewing. The water will bubble through the stem and, through that process and the process of condensation, thoroughly brew the coffee in the basket–with the cycle repeating itself. Because this cycle repeats, it’s important to not leave it brewing for too long, or it will continue to re-extract from the coffee until it’s overly bitter.
  • Pour and enjoy!

How to Clean a Coffee Percolator

While soap and water is sufficient for daily use, a deeper clean may be required over time, especially considering there are perforated elements to the coffee maker’s design–and ample opportunity for clogs and stains. Fill the pot with hot water and use a few tablespoons of baking soda to make a sort of paste to scrub targeted areas with. Rinse well. (Do not submerge electric components, if cleaning an electric percolator.)

Another option is to use equal parts water and vinegar to clean the whole device, using the percolator as you normally would when making coffee but letting the solution run through all the components. (This is important for cleaning the stem.) Let sit for 15 minutes. Remember to do this process using just water at the end to clean out the vinegar. Rinse thoroughly.

Percolators are dishwasher safe depending on the brand and material. However, most have coffee baskets that are dishwasher safe if put on the top shelf.

This is a coffee maker that is timeless while also boasting a remarkable convenience factor. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that every cup brewed feels like a satisfying–and tasty–science experiment.