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How Does a Coffee Percolator Work?

Have you brewed coffee with a percolator? Curious about this retro design that’s still popular after all these years?

If you love strong and hot coffee, you might be a percolator coffee fan. In this article, we’ll explain what it is and how it works. I bet by the end, you’ll be tempted to give it a try!

What is a percolator?

A coffee percolator is an old school way of making coffee that was most popular before the invention of drip coffee machines. But it continues to have some avid fans. It’s a coffee brewing device that looks like a kettle. Inside, water that is near its boiling point is continually cycled through the coffee grounds, yielding a stronger brew the longer the cycling continues.

There are two types of percolator: stovetop and electric. They work essentially the same way, just using different heat sources. An electric coffee percolator has an electric heating element in the base and needs to be plugged into a socket. In contrast, a stovetop percolator requires an external heat source, like a burner or flame.

Electric percolators can be more expensive, but they have the advantage of shutting off automatically and often offer a keep-warm function.

On the other hand, stovetop percolators are less expensive and are popular with campers as one of the easiest ways to brew a large amount of coffee with only a campfire. The downside to the stovetop method is that it requires your full attention.

How does a percolator work?
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Percolator or Moka Pot?

Percolators are often confused with Moka pots, but they are very different brewing methods. The confusion arises because both are stovetop methods that start with a basket of coffees over a water chamber. But the similarities end there; they use very different brewing principles.

The percolator uses gravity to continually cycle the water through the coffee grounds as it brews. In contrast, the Moka pot uses steam pressure to force the water through the coffee just once. Because the Moka pot extraction is much faster, you use a much finer grind of coffee.

The resulting cup of coffee is different as well. Moka pot coffee is very strong, almost like a shot of espresso. Percolator coffee can be strong as well but has a body more like drip coffee.

How a percolator Coffee Maker works

A percolator is a coffee pot with a chamber at the bottom. A vertical tube runs from the chamber to the top of the vessel, and a perforated basket sits near the tube’s top. There’s a heat source at the bottom, either internal or external.

To brew percolator coffee, fill the bottom chamber with water and the upper basket with coarse ground coffee, and turn on the heat. For a detailed step-by-step guide, check out our how to make coffee in a percolator article.

When heated, the steam creates a vacuum that sucks water up the central tube. It then showers down over the ground coffee back to the chamber below. This process is repeated until the coffee is the strength you want.

To watch a percolator coffee maker in action, here’s a video:

During brewing, you want a temperature that maintains a gentle bubbling in the chamber. This is called “perking.” Most coffee percolators have a glass knob or lid so you can watch the action.

Why use a percolator?

For fans of percolator coffee, there is really no other brewer that yields the same style of coffee. It makes a hot and strong cup of coffee.

Because it uses hotter water than most brewing methods, over-extraction is a concern, leading to bitter flavours (1).

For one thing, the high heat needed to create the steam pressure that encouraged the vacuum is hot enough to bring out astringent, almost metallic flavours in the coffee.

But fans claim this is easily avoided by carefully controlling the temperature during brewing.

If you’re looking to perk up your coffee routine, try a coffee percolator. Who knows? This retro brewer might be your next big thing!

FAQs

In an electric coffee percolator, the recirculated water gets hotter as time passes. When it reaches a set temperature, the percolator is programmed to turn off or switch to keep warm.

The difference between a French Press and percolator is that the French Press is an immersion brewing method. The ground coffee is extracted by steeping in hot water before the coffee grounds are filtered out. It yields a full-bodied brew.

The difference between a coffee percolator vs drip coffee is that in a drip coffee maker, the hot water runs through the coffee grounds just once, rather than being cycled. You are also more likely to use a paper filter when brewing drip coffee.

  1. Meister, E. (2018, August 9). Coffee History: The Percolator. Retrieved from https://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/03/coffee-history-the-percolator-how-it-works-history.html

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I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.

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