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I was a coffee lover before it was cool. Back when Starbuck was best known as a character in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick and Peet was the neighbor kid (he spelled it Pete), I was savoring coffee—and I picked up the habit from my mother.
Growing up, my mother always had a percolator full of freshly-brewed coffee at the ready, and she always poured a cup before sitting down to chat: Whether she was catching up with me, my sisters, my dad, a neighbor, or anyone she called on the telephone, she did so over a cup of coffee from her percolator.
Notice I said percolator—not a standard drip coffee maker, or a French press, but a vintage coffee pot that continuously cycles boiling water through coffee grounds to make a smooth, strong pot of coffee. In my mind, it's the only coffee maker that makes a truly tasty brew: it's smoother and fuller-flavored than what comes out of a drip machine or single-cup brewer. Here's how it works—and why you should consider switching.
What is a percolator?
If you’re unfamiliar with a percolator, you’re not alone: its popularity peaked in the '70s and has been eclipsed by drip coffee makers and single cup pod brewers. A percolator looks like an electric tea kettle, but inside, there is a long stem that extends from the bottom carafe where water is kept, to the basket up top where coffee grounds are held. When the water heats in a percolator, it causes steam and water to travel up that hollow stem and move through the coffee grounds.
There are two basic types of coffee percolators: The first is the electric percolator, which operates on a timer and has a keep warm mode. The second is a stovetop percolator, which heats on the stove, just like a tea kettle. In my experience, the stovetop version takes a bit more babysitting, so I prefer an electric one, like my beloved Westbend Classic Electric Percolator.
We reviewed the best electric percolators on the market, which afford more control over the brewing process. Percolators made of stainless steel are best to keep unpleasant flavors and harmful chemicals out of your coffee. Like my mother, we also love models with a transparent lids—more on that later.
How does a percolator work?
Like a standard drip coffee maker, you can brew anywhere from two to 12 cups of coffee in a standard percolator. Just fill the carafe with as much water as you like and scoop in a corresponding amount of coffee into a filter—sounds similar to a drip coffee maker, right?
Wrong. Almost everything about the brewing process is different—and upside down.
Coletti Coffee explains that a percolator works by convection: As the water is heated, it moves from the heat source in the form of bubbles and steam, which push through the hollow stem up to the coffee basket at the top. The process is repeated until the brew is at full strength. Drip coffee makers essentially rely on hot water that drips down through the grounds to make the coffee you drink.
Why I love my percolator above all other coffee makers
The flavor is unbeatable: Coffee made in a percolator has a smooth, creamy taste. That’s because the water gets hotter than in a drip and to more fully extracts the flavor from the beans. Some people argue that makes percolated coffee bitter or over processed, but according to Coletti Coffee, if you use hot water rather than cold for the brewing process, the water will heat more slowly and regulate the temperature.
It's easy to clean: Perhaps the best thing about percolators—besides the taste of the coffee—is that they’re user-friendly. Each day, I just empty leftover grounds from the pot and wash all parts with soap and water. Be sure not to submerge the electrical parts (much as you wouldn’t a slow cooker or electric tea kettle), but otherwise, it's exceedingly simple to clean with a great sponge and warm, soapy water.
It's nostalgic: For me, my percolator is a brief look into the past. Mine has clear knob on the lid—just like my mom often had—so I can watch the color turn from a soft tan to a dark brown, just as I did as a kid. The brewing process is my relaxing (if not gently hypnotic) ritual: the aroma that fills the house, the quick peek of the coffee rising into the clear lid, the steady sound of the perc combine for a soothing morning routine.
Plus, I can always smell freshly perked coffee throughout the house from the steam that escapes from the percolator’s large spout, which is much more fragrant than what escapes from the small spout of a drip coffee maker.
Is a percolator right for you?
If you're simply looking for an efficient caffeine boost, a convenient drip coffee maker is perfect for pouring a quick cup before you race out the door. I'll venture to say that if you're not a coffee-lover, you might not want a percolator: some people will likely never quit the simplicity of their single-cup brewers.
But if you really love the flavor of coffee and savor the taste and the experience, give a percolator a try. Your rewards will include the hypnotic whirring of the brew, the intoxicating scent of ground beans meeting piping hot stream, the soothing swirl of the strengthening brew, and of course, a delicious pot of strong, bold coffee.
That's without mentioning the fun you’ll have as guests watch the simple novelty of this classic coffee maker. Perhaps that’s one reason why my mom fostered so many pleasant conversations when a coffee pot was within arm’s length. That’s certainly the case for me. And don’t forget to relax and chat, too.