Does a Percolator Make Good Coffee?

I recently had a discussion with a friend.  He asked what I thought about coffee made in a percolator.  Do I think a percolator makes good coffee?  Honestly, the answer to this question really depends on what you’re looking for in a cup of coffee. 

Overall, a percolator can make good coffee if you love a strong, intense-flavored coffee. Some people prefer percolated coffee because of its rich, full-bodied flavor.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few disadvantages to making coffee in a percolator. 

A percolator is an older method of making coffee. You might remember your grandparents using an electric or stovetop percolator.  Most people have replaced the percolator with an automatic drip coffee maker.  However, it’s still an easy way to make coffee and great for camping trips, or making coffee without electricity.  To understand why a percolator isn’t the ideal method for making coffee, it helps to understand how a percolator works.  While a percolator can make good coffee, to get it right, you have to use it correctly.

I love perfecting old-fashioned brewing methods. If you want to make the best-percolated coffee, keep reading. I am going to explain how a percolator works, the drawbacks of using a percolator, and how to make great-tasting coffee with a percolator.

How Does a Percolator Work?

A percolator is basically a kettle with a basket insert that brews coffee using steam and pressure.  The insert is a filtered basket with tubing attached to a base. The base has a hole in it that allows water to boil up through the tubing into the basket. When the water boils inside the percolator, steam forms creating pressure that forces the water through the tubing. As the basket fills up with water, you will see the coffee bubble at the top and drip back down into the water. As the water boils at the bottom, the coffee will continue to percolate until you turn the percolator off or remove it from the heat. 

Essentially, a percolator boils coffee.  I use the word boil because the coffee isn’t brewed like other coffee brewing methods. When you brew coffee with a drip coffee maker, hot water is dripped over the coffee grounds slowly. Even with a French Press, which uses boiling hot water, the coffee isn’t continuously boiled. When you make coffee in a percolator, every time the water rises to the top and falls back down, it is boiled and recirculated through the coffee grounds. This is one of the biggest drawbacks to using a percolator. If the coffee percolates too long, it will become over-extracted and bitter.  If it doesn’t percolate long enough, it will taste watery and weak.

Problems with Percolated Coffee

If you’re looking for a low-tech way to brew coffee, the French Press is easier to get right.  With a percolator, you need to get the brewing temperature and time perfected or your coffee will taste bitter, acidic, too strong, or too weak. 

Percolator Coffee Often Tastes Reheated

Think about what happens when you reheat coffee. It never tastes as good. This is the same problem people have with percolated coffee because you’re reheating the coffee each time the water percolates through the filtered basket.

Percolating at the Right Time and Temperature is Challenging

It might seem like a simple way to make coffee, but getting the brewing time and temperature right is a challenge.  If you percolate your coffee at too high of a temperature or too long, your coffee will end up over-extracted. If it doesn’t percolate long enough or at a high enough temperature, it will taste watery and under-extracted. Getting this down pat takes practice.

Percolator Coffee May Have Grounds in It

One of the other problems with percolated coffee is that grounds tend to make their way into the coffee. This is because the coffee is continuously recycled through the grounds, which means some of them can wind up in your coffee. 

How to Make Good Coffee with a Percolator

Making good coffee with a percolator can be done.  There are a few important principles to remember. You need to use the right grind size, the best roast for percolate coffee, and percolate it using the ideal temperature and time.  

Use a medium roast coffee

 A medium roast coffee works best with a percolator. The process of percolating doesn’t work well for a light roast. To bring out the flavor in a light roast, it would need to be percolated for a longer period and longer percolation tends to degrade the taste.  On the other hand, percolating a dark roast can make it taste stronger, bitter, and more acidic.

Use a medium or coarse grind

To brew a cleaner tasting coffee, use a medium or coarse roast. A coarse grind won’t pass through the metal filter as easily and end up in the coffee.  It also works better with this extraction method because a fine grind can make the coffee taste too strong.

Use a paper filter

Using a paper filter will help keep grinds out of your coffee. Even though a percolator works just fine without a filter, adding a paper filter will make a cleaner cup of coffee.

Use low to medium heat

If you are using a stovetop percolator, start off using a low to medium temperature. Don’t set the percolator on a stovetop using a high temperature. You don’t want the coffee to percolate at a rolling boil. Once you notice it starts to bubble at the top of your percolator turn it down to low.  Then percolate for 4 to 5 minutes. If you like your coffee stronger, you can percolate it for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove it from the heat once it’s finished percolating

One mistake people make is leaving the percolator on low. A percolator will keep your coffee warm. You don’t need to keep it over a burner. If you leave it on the stovetop even at a low temperature, it will continue percolating, and recirculating the coffee through the grounds. Or, it will reheat your coffee, leaving it tasting bitter and over-extracted. The best way to enjoy percolate coffee is to drink it shortly after it’s done percolating.

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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