Brewing with an icon: your guide to percolator coffee
There was a time when almost every home owned a percolator. From its invention in the early 20th century up until the 1970s, percolators were the go-to device for homebrewers, providing a more convenient way of making coffee than ever experienced before.
Then the filter machine arrived on the scene and not only was the percolator steadily replaced but percolated coffee suddenly found itself considered the marmite of the coffee world. While some people love percolating coffee - advocating strong, rich flavours, beautiful aromas and a nostalgic brewing process, others argue strongly against it, pointing to problems such as its reputation of producing burnt and over-extracted serves.
Today, percolator coffee may not be everyone’s number one choice and due to its decline in popularity, it's unlikely you'll find this brewing technique used in a coffee shop. However, there’s no denying the percolator is still a much-loved brewing method and when care and precaution are taken, a good cup of coffee can certainly be made using this iconic gadget.
In our below guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to make perfect brew at home - from the optimum grind for percolators to the best roasts to use for this legendary brewing technique.
The java jargon decoder
- Extraction - The process of brewing (aka extracting flavour from the grounds).
- Over-extracted - When you extract too many soluble particles in the coffee, leaving you with a bitter-tasting brew.
- Grind size - The size of particles once you’ve ground your coffee. The scale ranges from extra coarse to super fine.
- Ratio - The amount of grounds used vs the amount of water used.
A little bit of history...
Legend has it, percolator coffee came into existence thanks to one man’s disdain for alcohol and tea. That man was Sir Benjamin Thompson, an English physicist, who is widely credited for developing the first percolator prototype between 1810 and 1814.
However, as the physicist’s patent didn’t include the tube needed for continuous circulation of coffee, a Parisian tinsmith, Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens (with his 1819 contraption) and James Nason from the United States (who patented his design in 1865) often battle it out for the title of the inventor of the percolator. Both these hob-based designs, however, acted more as pressure cookers and it was only in 1889 when American farmer Hanson Goodrich patented his design (featuring an up-flowing central tube, broad base and mesh basket), that the modern stove-top percolator was truly born.
The percolator was a big deal at the time. For caffeine lovers, its invention was comparable to when black and white tv shows transformed to full technicolour tv shows. Or, in the world of video games, it equated to when home consoles brought video games from arcades to living rooms. Percolators essentially forever changed how people brewed coffee. Particularly in the US, making percolation brewed java at home became an integral part of everyday life as up until then, coffee was mostly made using decoction. This century-old process involved simply mixing grounds with boiling water but was limited to small batches and produced a very bitter coffee taste, full of left-over grind.
From around the 1920s, a major development occurred: electric versions of the stove-top model arrived on the market. The electric coffee percolator revolutionised this brewing method, boasting significant advantages over traditional machines and receiving fewer complaints of taste loss or spoiled coffee.
Percolators became so integral to American culture that the term “to percolate” made its way into everyday vocabulary. Usually used in a business setting, the term reflects the brewing method and refers to working your way up to the top and delivering the best results.
What is percolator coffee?
Percolator coffee is made through percolation, a process most easily understood through describing the percolators' very simple design and understanding how to use this brewing device.
Percolators consist of a coffee pot, a tube that runs from the bottom chamber of the pot (which is close to a heat source) to the top chamber of the pot, a filter basket with a perforated bottom and a spreader plate just under the top of the percolator lid.
Powered by steam pressure, water in the pot boils (either from stove heat or an electric source) and when hot enough, quickly bubbles upwards through the tube, hitting the spreader plate at the top of the coffee chamber. Water then flows down through coffee grounds held in the basket. The water and coffee mix seeps down through the perforation holes in the basket into the chamber of water below.
This process continues over and over again in a circular motion, with the coffee getting stronger and more full flavoured with every cycle, producing strong, room-filling aromas.
How to use percolators: avoiding burnt brews
With no separation between the freshwater and your brewed coffee, you have to be very careful not to leave the percolator brewing for too long. As you’re essentially running brewed liquid through ground beans, again and again, this can lead to an over-extracted brew. As water temperatures will rise, you also run the high risk of burning your drink.
The key to avoiding ruining your brew is to limit your brewing time or invest in an electric coffee machine. These devices have built-in features that counteract some common troubles. For example, they tend to heat water in an isolated area so that the tube is the only part of the machine that gets hot, reducing the chance of burning your drink. Thermometers also switch the device to warming mode when temperatures get too high, stopping the continuous flow of brewed liquid but keeping it at perfect drinking temperature.
What grind is best for coffee percolators?
Unlike drip or filter coffee which requires superfine grinds, percolator grounds should be a coarse consistency and contain some visible flakes and chunks. Keeping your grind coarse helps to stop grounds slipping through the basket into the brewing liquid. If you use fine or superfine percolator grind, coffee will simply fall through into the mixture, leaving you with a gritty cup of coffee and a layer of sediment at the bottom of your homebrew.
When it comes to grinding your beans, we recommend using an electric or manual Burr grinder. Using a dual disc system, these models are able to produce a much more consistent grind compared to whirly blade grinders. The latter, although popular and inexpensive, works by smashing particles against a metal blade. This action creates an undesirable mix of very small and very large grounds and pretty much guarantees an uneven brew.
How to make good percolator coffee: your step by step brewing guide
- Percolator coffee ratio: 30g/500ml (please use this as a guide and check your machine specifications).
- Grind: Coarse.
- Equipment: Percolator, water, coffee, grinder (unless you’ve opted for pre-ground beans).
Instructions (how to use steps may vary depending on your machine):
- Add fresh water to your pot's water chamber. If you live in a soft to moderately hard water area, use filtered water and if you live in a hard water area, use bottled mineral water.
- Make sure there is enough space between the top level of water and the filter basket. You want to avoid contact with the bed of coffee grounds.
- Grind your beans as specified in the previous section. Alternatively, get your pre-ground coffee ready. Coffee Direct has over 100 different types of pre-ground coffee, all freshly roasted to order and dispatched on the same day when ordered before 12:00 pm.
- Pay careful attention to your quantities/ratios, measuring out your grounds on a scale.
- Once your coffee is ground, pop it in the basket, position in the percolator and close the lid.
- Power up your percolator or place on top of a stove/heat source.
- Keep an ear out for that infamous bubbling sound. For stove-top percolators, remove the appliance from the heat source before it starts to boil over and over-extract. Electricity powered coffee machines will automatically switch off when the optimum temperature is reached.
- And serve… carefully using the handle to slowly pour from the spout. Add cream, milk or sugar if you wish.
The best coffee for percolator brews
If you're wondering what kind of coffee to use in a percolator, we offer over 100 different roasts, all perfect for making percolator coffee at home. Simply pick the ‘Percolator’ option when asked to “Choose a grind” on the roast you’d like to order (if you're planning to do a monthly caffeine haul, remember you get free delivery for UK orders over £20).
If you’re completely new to this brewing method, one of our top recommendations is starting out with a medium roast. If you haven’t yet mastered percolator brewing, light roasts can quickly lose their flavour during the process of continuous circulation. Darker roasts are also more prone to producing bitter, over-extracted coffee when brewed with a percolator.
To help you choose your next blend, here are some of our best-selling medium roasts that have received five-star reviews, our top customer rating.
Taking seeds from the iconic Blue Mountains in Jamaica and growing them in rich and acidic Kenyan soils, our Kenya Blue Mountain is a truly unique blend. With all the natural sweetness of Blue Mountain Jamaica and the intensity of Kenyan coffee, this mild strength brew is full-bodied, with good acidity and hints of nut and citrus. It also has the signature caramel aftertaste typical of Blue Mountain Jamaica.
“This was something my mum drank when we visited her. I just could never get my coffee to taste like hers, to smell like hers and then she bought us some beans. It was life-changing - now we drink nothing else - this really is about the best coffee on the market at a reasonable price and we love it.”
Chris P. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
With its subtle flavours, this sweet, mellow blend is ideal for when you have guests or gatherings and need a roast that will appeal to everyone’s tastes. Without much bitterness or acidity, it has a distinctively smooth flavour that makes it an easy, enjoyable coffee experience for all.
“Smooth mellow, medium-bodied, easy-drinking coffee with a touch of sweetness on the palate. Would strongly recommend.”
Roger S. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Our Skybury Coffee beans are grown in the excellent conditions of Australia’s oldest producing plantation. Mild winters and warm summers create an optimum maturing process, which when combined with Skybury plantations advanced harvesting methods create beans that are bursting with flavour. A great pick for a morning coffee, expect a beautifully smooth cup that gives you notes of pistachio nuts with sweet, caramelised tones.
“This is my absolute favourite coffee from bean to cup! It's got a good bold taste without being bitter, leaves a pleasant aftertaste and holds its own as an espresso. It's also worth knowing it packs enough body to stand up as a cappuccino or latte. I'll be drinking this coffee for a long time before I get bored.”
Anthony R. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Dark Decaffeinated Colombian is a high-quality decaf that doesn’t sacrifice strong aroma and intense flavours for its caffeine content. Perfect if you don’t want a late-night buzz or you’re going caffeine-free, this roast fills your home with deeply aromatic scents and treats you to rich and luxurious flavours.
“I was looking for a dark roast decaf coffee and this did not disappoint. I ordered a large amount so it was risky if I didn't like it but it was perfect in flavour and strength and I look forward to my cup of coffee.”
Melanie M. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Where can I buy an electric coffee percolator?
A good homeware department store, online kitchenware site or Amazon should have a wide selection of appliances for you to choose from. Some in-demand home models include the Elite Platinum Maxi-Matic 12 Cup Percolator EC-120, the Presto 12-cup Percolator 02811 and the Farberware 12-Cup Percolator FCP412. Small electric pots more suitable for camping or the outdoors are also readily available through a quick online search.
Electronic models are pricier than manual devices, however, some brands offer payment methods that make your purchase more viable.
Where can I buy a coffee percolator that is more like traditional models?
Traditional stovetop or 'hobs' percolators are quite hard to come by these days, particularly as online searches tend to throw Moka pots into the mix. We’ve found some of the best traditional coffee makers, whether beautiful glass items or vintage aluminium portables (perfect for campers), on websites such as Etsy or eBay. These sites also accept alternative payment methods such as PayPal which is more convenient for some customers.
Coffee percolator vs Moka pot: what’s the difference?
Moka pots use a small amount of pressurised water that flows up through the grounds to make espresso-based coffee. Percolators, however, use a different brewing process and tend to produce less concentrated brews.
Can you use regular coffee in percolators?
No. Remember that the grind for percolators must be coarse. Fine coffee will fall through the perforated basket, leaving you with an undesirable layer of gritty sediment in your brew.
What is the best coffee grind for electric percolators?
Your grind should be the same as traditional stove-top products, which is always coarse.
What type of coffee do you use in a percolator?
We recommend going for a medium roast, however, you can use both light and darker roasts in a percolator. Experimenting with different coffee strengths is one of the great pleasures of brewing at home. You can check out one of our product detail pages specifically for medium roasts.
Do you need a coffee filter for a percolator?
You don’t need a filter for a percolator but if you're determined to master how to keep all coffee grounds out of electric percolator, you can definitely run the brewed liquid through a filter for a smoother drink. This will help sift out the sludge or sediment that will inevitably make its way into your percolator brew. If you visit one of our product detail pages titled 'Brewing Equipment', you'll find a couple of paper filters we recommend.
How much coffee do you put in a percolator?
We recommend starting with a ratio of 30g/500ml. However, your machine should specify the precise quantity required in your function guide/manual.
Do I need to change my brewing method if I’m making a coffee in a large percolator?
Although there are models on the market catering for up to a 100 cup capacity, the percolator brewing method we’ve outlined should remain the same (although amounts of grounds and water will, of course, need to change). This said, we always advise checking your machine’s manual or contacting the supplier's business services. These digital business services offered by manufacturers such as chatbots or contact forms are easy ways to find out the precise information you need. Alternatively, many companies have their own handy YouTube tutorials that address “How to make coffee in a large percolator”, giving you a step-by-step guide to making the best cups of java with your chosen device.