How to Make Percolator Coffee

Coffee percolators are one of the most recognized types of coffee makers. The brew method was created by Hanson Goodrich of Illinois in 1889, and became the standard way of brewing coffee for decades. It wasn’t until the automatic drip provided greater convenience that the percolator began to become less common. These days most people aren’t familiar with how to use a percolator.

There are two primary types of percolators that we’ll cover here – electric and stovetop. You will learn how to make percolator coffee in both kinds. We’ll also look at camping percolators. These are a subset of stovetop percolators, but with a few nuances.

A coffee percolator uses drip brewing, similar to an automatic drip. Rather than pouring water once over the grounds, however, it percolates coffee through the grounds multiple times.

The recycling of the already-brewed water through the grounds is what gives percolators their distinctive profile — and what needs to be taken into account when choosing beans, grind, etc. Note that some people use “percolator” to refer to a moka pot, which is a little different. We have a separate guide about making moka pot coffee.

How a Percolator Works

Making coffee in a percolator is a straightforward process, although the physics are fairly creative.

The percolator coffee maker consists of a pitcher, a basket, a tube, and a heating element. The hollow tube sits in the center of the pitcher, and serves as the support for the basket. Water is poured into the pitcher, and grounds go into the basket. As the water is heated, it bubbles up through the tube, is disbursed over the grounds, and drips down into the pitcher. The brewed water is recycled in this manner, until the brewing process is stopped.

How to Make Coffee in an Electric Percolator

Presto Stainless-Steel Electric Coffee Percolator, 12-Cups, Black
  • Please refer to user guide or user manual or user guide (provided below in PDF) before first use
  • 800 Watts

Electric percolators are the easiest model to use. An on/off switch allows you to turn the heat source on and off. The heat source is an electric coil that sits in the pitcher’s base.

Step 1: Prep

Measure out the water and coffee grounds, using around a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water.

You should measure the amount of water that the pitcher holds, and then fill the basket with 1/16 of the amount of coffee grounds.

Fresh ground coffee always tastes best, but is less important with a percolator than with other brewing methods. See Kind of Beans.

Step 2: Setup

Pour the water into the pitcher. Set the tube into the pitcher, and then the basket on the tube. The tube will have a little piece that holds the basket at the top of the tube.

Place the grounds into the basket. Place the top on the pitcher, and plug in the percolator.

Step 3: Start Brewing

Turn on the percolator. The water will begin to heat, until it bubbles up through the tube. You’ll first hear a hissing sound as some steam escapes. You’ll hear a roaring boil by the time the water is bubbling up all the way to the grounds.

Brew time is less crucial with percolators than it is with other brew methods (e.g. pour-overs), but the time shouldn’t be ignored. Aim for ~5 minutes of brewing after you think the water is bubbling up to the grounds.

Extra-large percolators that are used for large group events need much longer brew times.

Step 4: Stop Brewing

Turn off the percolator to stop the brewing process.

The water will cool, and it’ll stop bubbling up through the entire tube. Brewing is fully stopped once water is no longer bubbling up to the grounds, and is no longer dripping down through the grounds.

Because brewing doesn’t immediately stop, you might want to “coast” into the end of brewing. Try turning off the percolator at ~4:30, and it’ll probably carry on brewing until about 5 minutes.

Step 5: Pour

Most percolators are designed so that you can pour them without first removing the boiling-hot metal basket. You don’t have to immediately remove the grounds, since they’re in a basket and no longer in contact with the brewed water.

How To Make Coffee in a Stovetop Percolator

Sale
Farberware Classic Stainless Steel Coffee Percolator, 12 Cup, Silver with Glass Blue Knob, 7.28"D x 8.86"W x 10.83"H
  • Note: 1)Too coarse a grind, too little coffee, or insufficiently tamping the grounds before brewing can all lead to inadequate pressure for a proper brew. 2)It is important to note that the amount of espresso extracted will vary depending on the grind size and amount and reprogramming may be needed when the size and amount are adjusted
  • PERFECTLY POLISHED: Heavy-duty stainless steel percolator makes up to 12-cups of coffee and is finshed with a mirror polish
  • BUBBLE KNOB: A stylish blue glass knob bubbles to let you know when percolating begins and hot beverages are on their way
  • PAPERLESS FILTERING: Stainless steel percolator features a permanent filter basket, eliminating the need for paper coffee filters
  • PERFECT BREW: Non-reactive percolator interior for great tasting coffee. Not an Induction Suitable

Step 1: Prep

Measure out the water and coffee grounds, using around a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. You should measure the amount of water that the pitcher holds, and then fill the basket with 1/16 of the amount of coffee grounds. (Fresh ground coffee always tastes best, but is less important with a percolator than with other brewing methods. See Kind of Beans.)

Step 2: Setup

Pour the water into the pitcher. Set the tube into the pitcher, and then the basket on the tube. The tube will have a little piece that holds the basket at the top of the tube. Place the grounds into the basket. Place the top on the pitcher, and set the percolator on the stove.

Step 3: Brew

Turn on the stovetop burner. The water will begin to heat, until it bubbles up through the tube. You’ll first hear a hissing sound as some steam escapes. You’ll hear a roaring boil by the time the water is bubbling up all the way to the grounds.

Brew time is less crucial with percolators than it is with other brew methods (e.g. pour-overs), but the time shouldn’t be ignored. Aim for ~5 minutes of brewing after you think the water is bubbling up to the grounds. Extra-large percolators that are used for churches need much longer brew times.

Step 4: Stop Brewing

Turn off the heat source to stop the brewing process. The water will cool, and it’ll stop bubbling up through the entire tube. Brewing is fully stopped once water is no longer bubbling up to the grounds, and is no longer dripping down through the grounds.
Because brewing doesn’t immediately stop, you might want to “coast” into the end of brewing. Try turning off the percolator at ~4:30, and it’ll probably carry on brewing until about 5 minutes.

Step 5: Pour

Most percolators are designed so that you can pour them without first removing the boiling-hot metal basket. You don’t have to immediately remove the grounds, since they’re in a basket and no longer in contact with the brewed water.

Gas vs. Electric

If you have a gas stove, you can turn the stove on when you’re ready to begin brewing. It’ll take a few minutes for the water to start boiling, but there won’t be any brewing during the warming phase. Turn the stove off to end brewing. You don’t have to move the percolator, since the heat source is turned off.

If you have an electric stove, you might turn the stove on ahead of time so that it’s hot when you’re ready to begin brewing. This can save some time, but leaves an exposed hot burner — it’s not advisable when kids are present in the kitchen. You alternatively can turn the stove on when you begin brewing. It’ll take longer to heat the water, but is safer.

With an electric stove, be sure to actually move the percolator to a different burner when you’re done brewing. An electric burner will remain hot even after you first turn it off.

How To Use a Camping Coffee Percolator

To use a camping coffee percolator, build a campfire before you begin prepping the coffee. Set up the percolator as the fire gets hot. Place the percolator over the fire to start brewing, and remove it to stop brewing.

The best way to heat the percolator is over the fire, on a grate that you’d also use for cooking. Settling the percolator into red-hot coals will heat the water more quickly, but I’ve seen the extreme heat discolor a coffee percolator’s metal as it was overheated. Any plastic, such as a handle or pull tab on the lid, will also be melted if a percolator becomes too hot.

Most camping percolators have a handle, but the handle is often metal so that it doesn’t melt. The handle thus can become quite hot. Use oven mitts or tongs when handling a percolator. Most camping coffee percolators are small enough to move and pour with tongs, at least after a little practice.

What Kind of Beans Work Best in a Percolator?

Because percolators brew coffee at boiling temperature and recycle the brewed water, this isn’t the best method for noting the finest aromas in a microlot single-origin. Percolators are instead well-suited for older coffee.

Older coffee sometimes tastes flavorless and stale. A percolator can pull out whatever flavor beans still have, as recycling the water through the grounds multiple times fully extracts them.

This isn’t to say that fresh coffee shouldn’t be used with percolators. While there are better brew methods (e.g. automatic drip, pour-over, French press) for fresh coffee, any dark roast could taste good when brewed in a percolator.

What Should the Grind Size Be for Percolators?

Coffee should be ground coarse when made with a coffee percolator. A grind size akin to what you’d use for a French press should work well.

The coarser grind reduces surface area, and thus slows down extraction. This helps when using a high-extraction brew method, which percolators are because they recycle the brewing water multiple times.

What Should the Water/Coffee Ratio Be for Percolators?

The recommended ratio for water to coffee is normally 16 parts water for every 1 part coffee. The ratio is usually written as 1:16 (coffee, then water), but it’s easiest to measure the water first when using a percolator.

This recommendation doesn’t change much between brew methods (except for espresso). It’s a good guideline for percolators. If something’s off with your brew, change another variable before you adjust this one.

Can You Use a Filter in a Percolator?

Yes, you can use an additional paper filter if desired. The metal basket in a percolator already provides some filtration but if you want to remove even more oils it’s possible to use a paper filter as well. There are paper filters specifically designed for percolators you can use. Melitta makes disc shaped filters for this purpose.

What Does Percolator Coffee Taste Like?

Percolator coffee normally has a strong flavor, where the individual aromas and notes get muddled together. This is the result of pouring already-brewed water back over the grounds multiple times. The brew gets stronger, and individual traits are lost.

When some notes are discernable in percolator coffee, expect dark-roast tendencies that have cacao, smoky, tannin, and earthy flavors.

Why is My Percolator Coffee Bitter?

Percolator coffee is easy to over-extract. Pouring brewed water back over grounds increases extraction rates. It’s also difficult to determine precisely when brewing starts and stops, leaving many people prone to let the brewing carry on longer than it should.

Bitterness is a sign of over-extraction. If your percolator coffee is bitter, try a larger grind size and/or shorter brew time. Either will reduce the extraction — and hopefully the bitterness.

How to Clean Your Percolator

At least rinse out your percolator daily. Dump the grounds out of the basket after the basket has cooled off, and rinse the basket and the tube by hand. Pour water into the pitcher to rinse it out, too.

Periodically (e.g. weekly) give your percolator a more thorough cleaning. The basket and tube are usually made of dishwasher-safe stainless steel, so you can wash them with any load of dishes. The pitcher is likely dishwasher safe too, so long as there are no electrical components in it. The pitchers of electric percolators should be washed by hand.

If you notice a white scale build up inside the percolator, run a solution of white vinegar or lemon juice through the coffee maker. A 1:2 solution with water will remove mineral scale.

Enjoy Percolator Coffee

Percolator coffee isn’t the most hip way to make coffee right now, but it’s worth trying if you’re unfamiliar with the brew method. You can get a percolator inexpensively if you don’t already have one. Find some old beans, and see how the brew method does with them.