Percolator vs French Press: Which is Better for You?
If you’re looking for a simple way to make coffee, you can’t get much more back to basics than the percolator or the French press. You don’t need any special equipment, and the brewers themselves are cheaper than most. Each method has its fans and detractors, but which one is better for you?
We’ve lined up some facts and features to help you compare these two old-fashioned favourites.
There’s something about the coffee percolator that conjures up images of campfires and old log cabins. And it’s indeed an old-fashioned way of coffee making. First invented in the late 1800s, it was a huge improvement on previous methods, essentially boiling grounds in water.
The design of today’s models remains essentially the same. At the base, you have a water chamber, which also holds the brewed coffee. The ground coffee is held in a metal basket that has been perforated to allow the water to flow through. As the water in the bottom is heated, the pressure formed pushes the water up a pipe in the brewer’s centre, well falls over the coffee grounds. This is why you may see this method referred to as gravity percolation (1).
The percolator went electric in the 1920s and remained popular until drip coffee machines captured the nation’s hearts in the 1970s (2). And it’s easy to see why. The difference between percolator and drip coffee makers isn’t just in the ease of use, but also in the taste.
There is often a misconception that manual percolators are the same as Moka pots. However, they are different brewing methods. You brew coffee in a Moka only once, while the percolator sends the water through the ground coffee several times. This is the secret to its strong brew, but the reason it has a reputation for bad-tasting, bitter coffee. If you’re curious about this Italian coffee pot, we’ve also compared the French press with the Moka pot.
- Extra-large capacity models available
- Great for camping
- No extra equipment required
- Stovetop models require monitoring
- Coffee is easily burnt
The French press is debatably as old as the percolator (3), but it never really fell out of fashion in the same way. Its continued popularity isn’t just due to ease of use but also the full-flavored coffee it creates.
Like the percolator, the French press design hasn’t changed much since its creation. It essentially consists of a brew chamber and a plunger with a mesh filter attached. The most famous design has a glass brew chamber, but stainless steel is also popular. You’ll also find that some more expensive models have a double-walled beaker to help retain heat as the coffee sits brewing.
This creates a full immersion brew. The coffee grounds are in constant contact with the hot water for the entire brewing process instead of making coffee with something like a pour-over brewer.
- Produces rich, full-bodied coffee
- Consistent brewing results
- Easy to clean
- Requires a separate kettle
- Coffee can contain sediment
Coffee Percolator vs French Press: The Showdown
If you’re someone who has always looked with horror at a percolator, you might not think there’s much of a competition when it comes to brewing coffee with the French press vs percolator. But bear with us; there are some instances where the humble perk has its uses.
Ease of use
The user-friendliness of a percolator will vary slightly depending on whether you opt for an electric model or one of the classic stovetop versions. The stovetop percolator’s design has changed little since its invention and lacks any modern technology that makes it more user-friendly.
Using a percolator is relatively easy – you just add the coffee and the water and let it brew. But getting the brew temperature and time right can be tricky. You need the water hot enough so that it reaches the pressure required to let the steam rise, but not so hot that you’re burning any modicum of flavour out of your beans. Electric models take the guesswork out of how long the perking cycle should be, as well as removing the need to watch the machine while it’s brewing. Most will switch to a “keep warm” mode once the coffee is ready.
The French press has a simplicity of use that’s hard to match. It requires the least hands-on time of all the manual coffee brewing methods – except perhaps for cold brew. Of course, it does take some attention to detail with variables like the coffee grind, temperature, and timing to get your ideal cup of joe. But getting a coffee out of this brewer is just a matter of adding grounds and hot water and letting it sit.
The only thing that can go wrong here is leaving it to steep too long, which will give you an over-extracted, bitter brew.
Clean-up for both of these brewing techniques, unfortunately, means dealing with a load of wet coffee grounds. For the brewer itself, the French press just requires rinsing the glass chamber and mesh filter. For a percolator, you’ll need to make sure that the perk tube and filter basket are kept free of grounds or residue, which can require a little extra attention.
Winner: Tie. Yes, the French press might be one of the easiest manual brewers to use, but an electric percolator makes the entire process automatic.
Let’s be real, the coffee percolator isn’t known for its subtlety. In fact, what most fans of the brewer love is the face-slapping strength of the coffee it creates. The electric version offers little room for tweaks, beyond the grind and amount of coffee you use. In theory you have complete control over a stovetop version, but in practice, it’s not the case. While you can turn your heat source up or down, there’s no way of measuring this to the point where you could repeat the process accurately. One instance where the percolator does offer some versatility is that it can use it to heat water if you don’t have a separate kettle.
With the French press, you can adjust variables at almost every step of the brewing process, which offers you versatility in the resulting cup of coffee.
It is a full-immersion method of brewing, which means you have complete control of how much contact your coffee has with the water.
The water to coffee ratio, grind size, water temperature, and steeping time are all easily measurable and adjustable. However, you can’t go too fine on the grind size or you’ll end up with a mouthful of muddy coffee.
The brewer itself can be used as a steeping vessel for your cold brew. This method doesn’t require a brewer, but it does require straining – which is where the mesh filter of the French press comes in handy. You can even make an espresso-style coffee if you use a method known as double brewing.
Winner: French press. The cafetiere takes out this round hands-down. Being able to adjust your brew at every step along the way means countless variations in how you make your coffee.
As a brewing technique that’s been around since the late 1800s, the stovetop percolator isn’t reliant on electricity. These brewers were created to be used with any available heat source and sturdy enough to survive years of use. A percolator made from aluminium won’t be quite as long-lasting as one made from stainless steel, but it’s light enough to travel with.
Just avoid any brewer made of ceramic or glass for the obvious risks of breakage.
The average French press isn’t large or heavy, but it’s not particularly useful if you want to brew coffee on the go. The main issue is that you will need a kettle or another way to heat water. And while some are available in stainless steel, most French presses come with a glass brewing chamber – not ideal for shoving into your backpack. If you’re determined to take one on the road, we’ve written a guide to the best French presses.
Winner: Percolator. The fact that you can stick this coffee maker directly over a fire makes it an easy pick when it comes to the French press vs percolator for camping.
Time from bean to getting that fresh cup of coffee in your hand will again depend on whether you have a stovetop or electric percolator. For the first brew with stovetop, 10 minutes is often recommended, but once you get a feel for the brewer, you may want to reduce this to 6-8 minutes.
Electric percolators are usually much quicker, with many advertising a brewing cycle of under 5 minutes. It also depends on how much coffee you need, as brewing 20 cups in an urn-style percolator will obviously take longer than a single cup on the stovetop.
Using a French press will take you around 5 minutes from start to finish. Unlike with a percolator, you’ll need time to boil your water first. Once you’ve added the water to the grounds, it should be left to steep for 4 minutes – though this is one of the variables you can play with.
Winner: French press. There’s not much between these two if you opt for the electric percolator, but the stovetop version makes it twice as long.
What you’re probably most interested to know is, do percolators make good coffee? After all, the brewing method has a bad reputation for bitter, flavourless coffee. But fans of perked coffee knowing how a percolator works will help you avoid serious errors.
Bitter notes in coffee are fine if properly balanced.
When done correctly, making coffee with a percolator creates a rich, strong coffee, filling your kitchen with that classic aroma that’s hard to resist.
The French press is also known for producing a full-bodied brew, but not strong in the same way as a percolator. The lack of a paper filter means that the natural oils in the coffee beans come through into the cup, resulting in a full-flavoured brew with a rich mouthfeel.
Winner: French press. Bold can be beautiful, but the more nuanced flavour you get from French press coffee takes the prize.
Based purely on our love of great coffee, we’re going to go with the French press here. Plenty of coffee drinkers out there will raise an objection to this, and to be fair, there are times when the percolator will prove to be more useful. It’s all about what you’re looking for in a coffee maker.
Use a percolator if:
- You need to brew large batches of coffee
- You want a cleaner cup of coffee
- You like a very strong brew
Use a French press if:
- You want full-flavoured coffee
- You need a faster brew time
- You want an easier cleanup
Your percolator could be making weak coffee for several reasons. The first is that the water is not getting hot enough to circulate several times through the grounds. Another reason could be that you’re using the incorrect grind size or too much coffee, both of which also prevent the water from circulating properly (4).
The best beans for French press are medium to dark roast, with a coarse grind. Despite the name, French roast coffee is not specifically designed for this brewer, but it does work well (5). If you need help selecting beans for French Press, we’ve rounded up some of our favourites.
You can use a percolator for tea, though we can’t make any guarantees about the taste. Place your tea bags or bulk tea into the coffee basket, and pour the water in as you normally would. Run the perking cycle as usual, and your tea will be ready.
- Percolator. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://coffee.fandom.com/wiki/Percolator
- The history of Electric Coffee Percolator. (2021, February 08). Retrieved from https://kitchenzap.com/the-history-of-electric-coffee-percolator/
- Kumstova, K. (2018, March 22). The history of french press. Retrieved from https://europeancoffeetrip.com/the-history-of-french-press/
- How to keep percolators rising to the occasion. (1998, December 12). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-dec-12-hm-53098-story.html
- Goodwin, L. (2019, October 03). Is French roast coffee the darkest you can get? Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/french-roast-coffee-765178