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How To Make Stovetop Percolator Coffee: The Ultimate Guide

Table Of Contents

About This Guide

The first device that ever brought me the comforting smell of fresh coffee in the morning was a stovetop percolator. It was this simple and old-fashioned method my mother used and it is this method that locked me into life as a devotee of coffee.

Now we have systems for brewing coffee that have computers built in to measure, grind, heat, and brew. Practically everything can be automated and controlled by different technologies – these advances are great, but they aren’t always worthy substitutions for the old ways. Some of these old methods for brewing coffee have stood the test of time, and the stovetop percolator is one of those methods.

The goal of this guide is to show you how the stovetop percolator is still one of the finest methods for brewing quality coffee. You may well become attached to percolator-style coffee, leaving that “smart” drip brewer to collect dust on your kitchen counter!

Things To Consider

The coffee is going to be strong. If you are used to an automatic drip coffee maker, the coffee you end making in stovetop percolator will taste much stronger than what you are used to. That is just the nature of this brewing method.

It will be hotter. Because the coffee is made at just under boiling point, your final brew is going to be really hot. This is what some folks like about the percolator. On a cold morning, a steaming cup of coffee is ideal.

The coffee can appear cloudy. This is normal. Because the coffee is circulated through the filter basket and the boiling water continues to flow through brewing, the final brew can be cloudy. All you need to do is take the pot off the heat and let it settle for a minute or two.

You will have sediment in your cup. There is no filter, and therefore some fine grounds will remain in the coffee. This will leave a small amount of sediment in your cup. This too is normal.

What Is A Percolator?

The basics of a percolator consist of little more than a kettle and a system that draws the hot water up and allows it to trickle through the grounds until the coffee is brewed. Percolate means to filter gradually through a porous surface or substance, in this case ground coffee beans.

The entire mechanism consists of a pot with a small chamber at the bottom connected to a tube or central chamber which runs to the top of the pot. At the top is a chamber containing ground coffee. All of this is placed inside a kettle. Pour in the water, heat it to temperature and the water runs through the bottom chamber, up the tube, and filters through the upper chamber. That’s it. If you really want to, you can get the complete physics on this process. (In fact, the percolator was invented by a physicist between 1810 and 1814. Count Rumford apparently thought alcohol was immoral and tea was disgusting).

The stovetop percolator and its electric cousin were enormously popular and were once the preferred method for brewing coffee until the automatic drip machines supplanted them.

The percolator has some disadvantages. Grounds can escape the filter chamber and percolators are prone to recirculating already brewed coffee through the brewing process. This smells nice, but it makes for bitter coffee. However, there are ways around this, and like anything that takes some adjusting, the results are well worth the effort.

Advantages Of Using A Stovetop Percolator

The most obvious advantage is the simplicity of these systems. There is little to them (three pieces at most), so there is nothing complicated about learning to brew this way.

They are durable. The old-fashioned stovetop percolator is generally made out of stainless steel or aluminum (although aluminum tends to react with coffee. Avoid these if you are able). You can throw this thing in the sink without worrying about it.

You can brew small amounts. It is easy to brew a single cup of coffee with this type of brewing method. There is no need to invest in an expensive Keurig to make a simple and delicious cup of coffee. The stovetop percolator is capable of brewing in small batches.

They clean up easy. There are no intricate pieces or complicated assemblies. The stovetop percolator does not need to be de-scaled from hard water. It is just a pot with a filter basket and a central chamber. That is it.

Types Of Percolators

There are two types of percolators. The gravity percolator and the pressure percolator.

The gravity percolator is the most common. The name really describes what it is. The water bubbles up the central tube and falls through the grinds using gravity.

The pressure percolator is actually not a percolator at all. It is a moka pot. These work with the same basic mechanism as the gravity percolator, a central chamber which takes water up and through the ground coffee, but the pressure percolator uses steam and water pressure to force the water through the grounds in the manner of an espresso machine.

Of the two, we are primarily concerned with the gravity percolator in this guide.

Like anything else, the stovetop percolator is something you can spend as much or as little money as you want.

There are some slick and decorative brands which make for beautiful coffee pots at a table. Most of these, however, are electric and not stovetop type percolators. Presto makes a model constructed of fine stainless steel. It is a great piece of equipment, but keep in mind that it is electric and will not offer the resilience and portability as the true stovetop models.

At the more humble and durable end of things there is the Faberware stainless steel stovetop percolator. Honestly, once upon a time you could find these in thrift stores for a dollar. It still might be worth a hunting trip to your thrift store. These things are simple, reliable, they clean up easy, and you can take them anywhere.

For camping or outdoor brewing Coleman makes a double-coated enamel percolator that is flame resistant and tough. Another bonus for this one is that has a 14 cup capacity.

Medelco manufactures a glass percolator. The advantage of this one is that it is beautiful, and the glass is extremely tough. It will stand up to some punishment. If used following the guidelines, it is just as safe on the stove as the steel varieties.

If you are set on using the stovetop pressure percolator, Bialetti is the hands-down recommended favorite.

Brewing Stovetop Coffee With A Percolator

There are two factors which require attention in order to make great coffee in your stovetop percolator:

The Grind

Grind to a medium-sized grind. This is important because if the grind is too fine it can become washed into your brewed coffee. If it is too coarse you waste great tasting coffee. Use a burr grinder since these offer greater control of how you grind.

Water Temperature

The second, and trickiest part of percolator brewing is controlling water temperature. The main reason stovetop percolators end up making bitter coffee is that excessive heat causes the brewed coffee to re-circulate in the brewing process. This results in over-brewing and bitter, acrid coffee.

The easiest way to prevent over-brewing is to monitor the percolator as it begins to heat up and start “perking.” As soon as you see that the coffee is percolating through the filter basket, turn the heat down. This will allow for a more gentle brewing process and you will end up with a delicious rich pot of coffee.

Both the grind and water temperature require a little experimentation. Really, it is just a matter of eye-balling the grind and making adjustments until you get the taste you prefer. Controlling water temperature depends on your stove.

Getting Started

You will need about 1 tablespoon of ground coffee for every 8 ounces of water. You can also measure out your coffee more precisely using a coffee scale.

Fill the percolator kettle to the desired level. (All of them are graduated on the inside. Measuring the water is simple).

Place your ground coffee in the filter basket at the top of the tube. (Percolators do not require filters. This is another advantage to the stovetop percolator).

Insert the brewing mechanism and place the lid on the stop.

Now the tricky part…

Begin heating the percolator. There is a small globe in the lid of the pot. Heat the water slowly, and as soon as you see coffee begin to “perk” in the globe, reduce the heat. A good rule of thumb is you want about one “perk” every two or three seconds. If you see coffee filling up inside the globe, it is too hot. Cut the heat back.

Brewing time will vary. That is just how it is with a simple device like a stovetop percolator. However, about five minutes from the time you see the first “perk” seems to be an average brewing time for a good cup of coffee.

Make sure to remove the filter basket and interior chamber once your coffee is finished. This will prevent grounds from falling into your coffee, and it will be easier to use the percolator kettle as a coffee pot.

This is all there is to it. Again, the simplicity of the stovetop percolator is the blessing and the curse. There is little to this method and making great coffee is super easy. AND, there is little to this method and making bitter coffee is super easy. Some trial and error, a little experimentation, and you will have possibly the best pot of coffee you have ever made.

Cleaning Up

Again, there is not much to this part of the process, and this is another great advantage of the stovetop percolator.

Just empty the grounds into a compost bin. Any remaining grounds can be rinsed down the drain.

The central tube or chamber usually just pops right off from the filter basket. Rinse with hot water.

Most of these pots are dishwasher safe if you want to give them a thorough cleaning every once and awhile. Check the manufacturer specs.

Final Thoughts

Yes, the stovetop percolator is old-fashioned. Just remember that the old ways are not necessarily the bad ways. Some things go out of fashion for no good reason.

The stovetop percolator was once the primary way of making coffee for most people in the United States. These things were ubiquitous prior to the automatic drip coffee maker.

As we have become more interested in making great coffee at home, older methods for brewing coffee have come back in favor and many people have found that these older and time-honored methods are often the best. The stovetop percolator is one more piece of equipment to add to your arsenal for making fantastic coffee.