Get up. Brew coffee. Drink. Sure, routine can be soothing, but sometimes you just need to shake things up, y’know? Maybe add a little retro flavor to your life? Step out of your comfort zone? We’re betting you could do all three just by giving stovetop percolator coffee a try.
No really, hear us out. You may have heard this is the worst way to make coffee. But we live in a world with endless tastes and preferences. Plus, while your chosen brewing method does have a lot to do with the quality of the coffee you drink, just as much of it depends on whether you’re using the best coffee beans possible. So don’t discount that stovetop percolator until you’ve tried it yourself.
Just What is a Stovetop Percolator?
To percolate is to make a solvent (in this case, steam) pass through a permeable substance (in this case, coffee grounds). Stovetop percolators look a lot like tall kettles, but the unassuming façade hides a reliable, steam-powered, coffee-brewing vacuum.
Unlike pour over coffee, where water is filtered through coffee grounds, vacuum brewing creates an environment where steam saturates your grounds before filtering.
Stovetop percolators aren’t the only coffee makers to do this. Siphons work in a similar way. They’ve been around since the 1820s, with multiple patents for the imaginative glass contraptions filed throughout the nineteenth century.
One of the main reasons stovetop percolators have fallen out of favor is the bitter and dry cups of coffee they’re known to produce. But we’ve grown to appreciate a wider variety of flavors and mouth feels, so we think it’s worth giving them a second chance. After all, you can’t very well call yourself a true coffee connoisseur unless you’re willing to try various methods and types, now can you?
But what makes stovetop percolator coffee so bitter and dry? You need high heat to create the steam pressure to brew the coffee. This high heat can bring out metallic flavors. This is why we recommend you pay attention to your coffee brewing temperature when using other methods.
The nature of this brewing method also plays a role in the coffee’s flavor and texture. As the steam soaks the coffee grounds, the brewed coffee drains back into the water reservoir. The brewed coffee is then reheated and resteeped several times throughout the process, basically supersaturating the coffee.
Like we said, it’s a matter of taste. If you’re all about some bitter brews, we heartily encourage you to give the stovetop percolator a try. If not, maybe stick with brewing methods that produce milder coffee, such as a simple drip coffee maker.
Another reason you may not like to brew with a stovetop percolator is because it’s an active method. You can’t turn it on and walk away like you can with some other makers. You have to keep a close eye on the percolator and your water or risk overboiling your coffee. That goes beyond bitter and into just yucky coffee territory.
But we think it can be a soothing way to get started in the morning. Instead of rushing through your morning routine, a stovetop percolator requires you to remain present in your coffee moment. You can almost treat it like a little morning meditation before you start your hectic day.
How to Make Coffee with a Stovetop Percolator
The hardest part about brewing with this method is getting the water just right. But once you get the hang of it, managing water heat with a stovetop percolator is simple. The trick is to pay attention and trust your gut.
What You Need
Aside from your stove, of course, you don’t need much to brew coffee using this old-fashioned method.
Whole coffee beans of your choice
Spoon for measuring coffee
Your favorite mug
1. Measure Your Coffee
Getting a nice, balanced brew depends in part on your stovetop percolator’s volume. Measure coffee and water accurately to achieve the right flavor, and avoid overboiling. We recommend 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of whole beans for every 500 grams (roughly 17 ounces) of water to start.
Once you get the hang of using a stovetop percolator, you can experiment with your coffee/water ratio. If you’re not used to strong, bitter coffees, you can try reducing the amount of coffee and increasing the water for a milder flavor.
This is the easiest part. We recommend burr coffee grinders for more even, medium-sized grounds, which work best in a stovetop percolator. Too small, and you’ll add even more bitterness to your brew, plus your grounds may simply dissolve and end up back in your coffee. Too big, and you waste delicious coffee flavor.
You may find that some stovetop percolators have slightly too-large holes, funnily enough defeating its original design. That’s okay. If some of the grounds make it into your finished coffee, you can easily strain them out at the end of the brew.
Add cold water to your percolator reservoir based on the amount of coffee you ground. Your goal is to let the water heat slowly, so cold water helps at the start.
4. Assemble Your Stovetop Percolator
Refer to the manufacturer’s manual, at least the first time, to be sure you assemble your stovetop percolator correctly. If you no longer have the manual, you can do a quick internet search for your percolator model.
If the stem and coffee basket disassemble, secure the stem inside the water-filled pot first. Once you’ve done that, tighten the coffee basket on top of the stem. Leave the basket lid aside for now, if your percolator has one.
Fill the coffee basket. Double check your measurement. You really don’t want to overfill the chamber when brewing with this method, not to mention, you don’t want to waste any coffee to spillover. Remember: percolators naturally make strong coffee, so staying on the safer less-coffee side probably won’t hurt.
If your model has a basket lid, replace it before closing the percolator.
6. Turn up the Heat!
Place your percolator on the stove before setting the burner to low or medium heat. The trick to great percolator coffee is a slow the heating process and preventing any boiling.
7. Watch It
They say a watched pot never boils, which is especially true if you’re doing your due diligence while making stovetop percolator coffee. Most models have a clear glass or plastic knob at the top of the kettle. Once your water is hot enough, you will see it bubbling up into the knob.
This means the water is hot enough to steam the coffee, which also means your water is close to boiling. You want maintain this heat, which you do by making sure the bubbles occur a few seconds apart.
If the bubbles are more of a constant stream than an occasional pop, your water is boiling, and you need to turn down the heat. Too-hot water can make your coffee incredibly bitter.
Conversely, your water is too cool if the bubbles aren’t happening often enough. If that happens, simply turn up the heat to hit a bubble-inducing sweet spot.
Also, as brewing progresses goes on, you should see the water shift from clear to coffee-colored. This means it’s working, and you’re not too far away from a delicious cup of coffee.
Once your water is bubbling at regular intervals, set a timer for ten minutes at most. You may see some recommendations for six to eight minutes, but it really depends on your personal taste. Remember, the longer your coffee percolates, the stronger it will be.
We recommend you give it ten minutes on your first try, just so you can get a taste of authentic, old-fashioned stovetop percolator coffee. Then adjust the time on your next few brews until you settle upon your perfect cup.
Remember: This is not a set-it-and-forget-it method. Make sure to keep an eye on your bubbling water, and adjust the temperature as needed.
Once your timer is up, turn off the heat and carefully remove your stovetop percolator from the element. The vessel will be extremely hot, so be sure to use an oven mitt or a kitchen towel to protect your hands and a trivet for your countertop.
10. Remove the Coffee Grounds
Ready to drink that first cup? Not so fast, our coffee-loving friend. Before you pour yourself some freshly percolated coffee, you need to remove those coffee grounds.
Many stovetop percolators don’t have strong seals separating the basket from the reservoir, so if you pour first, you may get a mug filled with more grounds than coffee.
Remove the basket and toss out your used grounds, or add them to your compost. If you notice a few grounds left over in the coffee—especially if the basket let a few slip—that’s perfectly fine. You can leave them in there for an extra shot of bitterness.
If that’s not appealing to you, simply use a fine mesh strainer to filter your coffee when you pour it into your mug.
Replace the lid and pour yourself a hot cup of joe. You’ve earned it!
Just Like Your Great-Grandma Used to Make
Yeah, it’s an old-fashioned way to make coffee. But being old doesn’t make it bad. Using a stovetop percolator to make your morning brew is a wonderful way to take stock in yourself before you start your day.
Just remember: practice makes perfect, and for the love of coffee, don’t let the water boil.