Do You Know What A Coffee Percolator Is?

Today, when someone asks “What is a coffee percolator?”, they are usually met with a confused expression. The person they are talking with either doesn’t know or remember what a percolator is.  Occasionally, they do know what a coffee percolator is.  However, they can’t understand why this appliance, that enjoyed its heyday in the mid-20th century, would be relevant in any conversation today. Yet, the humble and nostalgic percolator still has its fans. People who love this retro style of coffee claim that percolators deliver a strong and extremely hot cup of coffee. Additionally, they claim that percolated coffee has it’s own distinct taste that they can’t get any other way. With such enthusiastic fans, maybe the coffee percolator is worth having another look.

What is a Coffee Percolator?

A coffee percolator is a coffee pot that works by good old-fashioned convection and gravity. There are a few parts to assemble each time you brew a pot:

  • a water chamber/coffee pot
  • a metal filter basket
  • a hollow metal perk tube that runs through the filter basket to the water
  • a spreading plate that allows the water to evenly saturate the coffee grounds
  • and a lid with a clear dome or knob on top

How Does A Coffee Percolator Work?How A Coffee Percolator Works

Water is heated in the chamber, either by electricity or over an external heat source like a stove-top or campfire.

Once the water boils, it rises through the perk tube and then spills over the spreading plate. Next, then water runs into the filter basket containing ground coffee. The water drips through and the process repeats itself until the heat source is removed or the water has evaporated.

Using the clear dome, which shows the water bubbling or “percolating”, you can monitor the brewing process. The longer the cycle continues, the darker, and stronger, your coffee will be. Finally, the end result is a distinct tasting, strong, and very hot cup of coffee.

What Makes A Percolator Different?

By comparison, drip coffee machines that most households use today, work by heating cold water from a reservoir tank to a less than boiling 200-ish degrees. The hot water then slowly filters through the coffee grounds into a holding pitcher.

Moka pots are similar to stove-top percolators, but uses steam pressure to force hot water up through a perk tube.  Then the water flows down through the coffee grounds to produce a cup of coffee similar to espresso.

Different brewing methods produce decidedly different results.  However, the best method is a matter of preference, ability, and environment. To learn more about brewing,  check out our article on Brewing the best tasting coffee.

Benefits and Disadvantages

While there are many reasons why so many people are still in love with their coffee percolator, the are a few key strengths and disadvantages.

Stovetop=No Electricity

A major benefit of coffee percolators, is that stove-top versions, such as this Farberware Percolator 47053, do not need electricity to work. They are made from lightweight materials and only require a campfire or external heat source. For this reasons campers, hikers, backpackers, hunters, and those who are environmentally conscious love their coffee percolators.

Consistent Large Batches

If you’ve ever been to a wedding reception or where a lot of coffee was served, chances are it was made in a large capacity electric coffee percolator. Unlike other coffee brewing methods, which needs a more hands-on approach, coffee percolators are great machines for serving large crowds.  With a percolator, it’s just as easy to make coffee for 5 people as it is for 100. Additionally, they have the added benefit of not requiring a lot of attention to make a consistent pot of coffee. You just fill it up with water, add your coffee grounds, and then you can walk away to socialize with guests as it merrily percolates away.


Because percolators brew coffee with boiling, recirculated water, the smell of percolated coffee is very aromatic with a taste is quite strong and flavorful. Some claim that it is over-extracted, outdated, and bitter while others describe its flavor as bold, rich, and unique. While many coffee snobs in recent decades have turned their backs on percolators in favor of more refined methods, they have been experiencing somewhat of a comeback lately.  With consumers who prefer their portability, environmentally friendly aspects, and even their funky nostalgia over other machines, coffee percolators have been experiencing a bit of a revival.

Learning Curve

Most electric coffee percolators are very simple and have little to no guesswork involved in their operation.  However, stove-top percolators might require a little bit of practice to get the hang of it.

For one, the holes of the filter basket are a little larger than what most of us with automatic drip coffee makers are used to. For this reason, a course coffee grind is needed, and even then it is likely that some sediment will end up in your coffee cup. If this doesn’t bother you, then it’s not a problem.  Then again, if you are someone who gets annoyed with even a tiny amount of grit in your cup, you’re going to want to set aside a Saturday morning to experiment with the grind size.  You may even what to consider purchasing percolator coffee filters so you can make it the way you like it.

Secondly, you’ll need to discover your optimal brewing time. In general, coffee percolators take about a minute per cup to brew.  Even so, the amount of time you keep the coffee cycling will be up to your taste preference.  It all depends on how strong you like your coffee.  Having said that, stove-top percolators aren’t very difficult to master and they can even be fun to operate once you’ve figured them out.

Who Will Love A Coffee Percolators?

If you’re curious about this vintage style of coffee pot reminiscent of the Mad Men crowd, they aren’t very expensive. You can probably find one for less than $10 at a second hand store, if you’d like to experiment with one.   However, will you actually like percolated coffee, because isn’t that what this is all about isn’t it?  That will depend on you and your preferences. There are firm opinions on both sides of the percolated coffee debate.  Still, you won’t really know what side you fall on until you try it.

In any case, if you’re an outdoorsy type that can’t be more than a few hours removed from a hot cup of java, you’d probably benefit from adding one of these to you’re backpack inventory. If you live in area that has the occasional power outage, a percolator is a handy thing to have stashed somewhere in your kitchen. Even if your just curious about this coffee brewing technique, a percolator is a small investment. And who knows, you may become converted to the coffee percolator’s old school charm and taste after you give it a try.