Home Blog How Does Percolator Coffee Work? Understanding The Percolator Brewing Method

How Does Percolator Coffee Work? Understanding The Percolator Brewing Method

How Does Percolator Coffee Work? Understanding The Percolator Brewing Method

There are so many coffee machines and devices, and each one does its own magic to create one of the best drinks to exist – coffee! One device that is more of an olden golden product and often overlooked is a percolator. But how does percolator coffee work?  

Percolator coffee works by brewing coffee on a stovetop or electric vessel like a kettle. It heats water, pumps it upwards through a tube, and then releases it onto coffee grounds. The water extracts flavor from the ground beans and drips it to the bottom of the vessel, producing coffee.   

Let’s dive into further detail about coffee percolators, the different types of percolator devices, and how they work.  

What Is A Percolator Coffee Maker?


Before understanding how percolator coffee works, precisely understanding what percolator coffee means will help to navigate through the rest of the details. Percolator coffee, in simple terms, is coffee made in a percolator – a type of brewing device – using a porous filter.  

The porous filter allows the hot water to pass from the coffee grounds through the porous surface and drip downwards – like precipitation – creating the coffee drink.  

Percolator coffee is made in a specific device or appliance called a percolator, similar to a kettle, and looks like a jug. Unlike a regular kettle, the percolator does not only boil water but the coffee is brewed in it.  

How Does A Coffee Percolator Work?  

a stove top coffee maker on a white table

To understand how a percolator works, you must first explore how the device is made, the parts it includes, and why they are necessary. Each element of a percolator exists for a purpose, and they all work together to get the final drink you set out to make – a brewed cup of coffee.  

Here is what you can find in a percolator:  

The Vessel  

This is the kettle or the jug, also called the base of the percolator. It is the main vessel where the entire coffee brewing process occurs. Some are used on a stovetop, and some are electric and have a cord (more on later).  

The Pumping Tube  

This is also called the ‘perc’ tube. It is the thin vertical pump part through which the liquid passes through. The water is pumped upwards through this stem when heated. As more brews take place, the coffee also passes through the pump.  

The Basket  

This is where you place the coffee grounds. It is also a porous surface. The heated water releases from the top of the vertical pump, into this basket, onto the grounds, and the through the grounds. This is where the main percolation occurs, and the name percolated coffee comes from.  

It is because percolation simply means to pass through a porous surface or substance, like the coffee grounds and the tiny holes of the basket.  

This portion includes the basket cover, also known as the spreader plate. There are two functions for this:  

  • Ensuring the grounds stay within the basket and do not pop, splash, or release out. If the grounds do release, they will fall into the coffee.
  • To allow the water to fall more evenly onto the grounds for even and equal extraction to create the coffee.

The Lid

This is the top of the vessel or the lid of the jug. It is the cover and contains everything inside, including the heat. The lid is necessary to ensure water does not boil over or splash out. It also includes a little nozzle or knob at the top, which helps with the pressure of the boiling water.  

The nozzle also indicates that the water is in the process of pumping. You can’t always see this unless your percolator lid has a translucent material, like glass. Stovetop percolators usually have glass knobs.  

The Coffee Percolator Brewing Process

percolator on stove

Now that we have been through all the nitty gritty about the design of coffee percolators, their functions, the types, etc., it is time to understand precisely how to use them. While stovetop and electric percolators are used almost the same way, slight adjustments exist.  

We will get into the details of both. So, it doesn’t matter which coffee percolator you choose; you will know the ins and outs of each one.  

How To Use A Percolator: Step By Step  

  1. Ensure it is clean. Whether your coffee percolator is new or you have had it for a while, always rinse it and wash the inside parts like the vertical pump tube. You can use a straw cleaner to remove stuck gunk and coffee grinds.
  2. Place the stem back into the vessel, and secure it in place. Some pump tubes will require the coffee grounds basket to be placed to help it remain secure.
  3. Add the amount of water you require into the vessel. The jug typically has measurement points – like a kettle – marked inside and sometimes also on the outside.
  4. If the basket is not yet in place, attach it. It is best to secure the basket in the vessel before adding the coffee grounds to prevent them from falling into the water during placement.
  5. Grind your coffee beans. Freshly ground is always better, but if you can do what you prefer. A coffee percolator works best with coarsely ground coffee. This helps prevent the grounds from getting into your final coffee drink.
  6. Add the spreader plate or basket cover and do a quick wiggle check to ensure everything is in place. If everything is secure, close the vessel with the lid and press it down to seal it. Your percolator is now ready to brew some coffee.

There are slight differences in the brewing process between stovetop and electric percolators, which we will discuss below.  

Brewing In A Stovetop Coffee Percolator  

When using a stovetop percolator to brew your coffee, you can use an electric or gas stove. Once you have set up your vessel and are ready to make the coffee, let it boil on medium heat until 198-205 degrees Fahrenheit before reducing the stove plate to low heat to keep it simmering or warm.  

If you use high heat or leave it to boil on medium heat, the coffee will burn as it will continue to brew repeatedly until removed from the heat. The best way to get coffee that doesn’t taste or smell burnt is to reduce the heat or remove the device from the stove after the first brew.  

You can percolate coffee on the stovetop for 6-8 minutes of boiling/pumping time, depending on the strength of the coffee. If you don’t like strong coffee, reduce the time further, but keep the heat even during the brewing process. Once brewing is complete, reduce or remove.  

Brewing In An Electric Coffee Percolator  

An electric percolator has its own built-in system. Once you set up your electric percolator, plug the cord into the socket and turn the switch on. Then plug the end of the cable that goes into the device in place, and the brewing will start immediately.  

Once the brewing is completed, the percolator will stop heating and change to a warming mode, keeping your coffee hot enough to drink as needed without burning it from overcooking. 

Tips For Making The Best Percolator Coffee

While it seems pretty easy to use a percolator, many appliances, especially coffee makers, can accept some skill. There are specific tips and tricks you can pay attention to when using a percolator to get the best cuppa for your satisfaction. 

Choosing Coffee Beans And Grind Size 

Any type of coffee works in a percolator, whether you enjoy dark or light roast, caffeinated or decaf. You can also use flavored beans, but stick to medium or coarse grinds, as finely ground beans will likely fall into your drink. 

Accurate Measurements

Add the precise amount of water per cup of coffee you want. You can add a quarter cup more to allow for some evaporation, especially if you allow a lengthy boil time. For each cup of coffee, add one tablespoon of coffee grounds. This will provide you with the most flavorful cups of percolated coffee.

Adjust Brewing Time

This is not required with electric percolators. But with stovetop percolators, you could set a timer for 6-8 minutes to ensure you don’t over-boil the coffee. You also want to stick to medium heat to prevent burning and remove the device from the heat once the coffee is brewed.

Types Of Percolators (Stovetop vs. Electric)  

percolator on stove
percolator on stove

You get two types of percolators. When planning to invest in a percolator or researching what coffee percolator you should purchase, you will come across these two kinds. But what is the difference between them? Let’s find out below.  


Heated on a stovetop Uses an electric cord (plugged-in appliance) 
Boils the coffee repeatedly  Has a brewing time limit 
Coffee is very strong (sometimes burnt)  Coffee is robust but milder than stovetop  
Upside-down funnel to help pump water up Recess to heat water
No warming mode – continues to boil The thermostat switches to warming mode
No indicator of when coffee is brewed A light indicator shows coffee is brewed


Pros And Cons Of Percolator Coffee

As with any device, tool, or appliance, there are also negatives and positives to percolators. While percolator coffee can be delicious, it is not for everyone. Below are the pros and cons of percolator coffee in more detail:

Pros of Percolator Coffee

Strong Flavor: The direct interaction of water with the coffee grounds, along with the high heat and continuous boiling, extracts most of the flavor from the beans and produces delicious, robust coffee.

Nostalgic Appeal: There is a nostalgic appeal to using a percolator, especially for the older generation who may have used it historically. It provides an authentic method and feeling of making a cup of coffee.

Durability: percolators are long-lasting and don’t have a bunch of fragile bits and pieces that easily break or need replacing.

Cons of Percolator Coffee

Over Extraction: Due to the recycled boiling, specifically in stovetop percolators, the coffee repeats the brewing process over and over, extracting every ounce of flavor, sometimes leading to burnt and bitter coffee.

Inconsistency: Your coffee is often inconsistent, with no precise and consistent boiling time and heating temperature. You rarely get the same flavor or strength of coffee twice in a row.

Percolators Vs. Drip Coffee Makers

The only difference between a percolator and a drip coffee maker is that water runs through the coffee ground only once in a drip coffee machine. A percolator brews the coffee continually in a recycling method until the heat is reduced (stovetop) or reaches maximum (electric).  

If you wonder which is better, that answer depends on how you like your coffee. While percolated coffee is also drip coffee, the coffee made in a regular drip machine is much stronger. If you aren’t a fan of a strong, robust flavor, drip coffee makers are best.  

Percolator Vs. French Press Coffee    

A French press brews coffee by steeping the coffee grounds in a beaker with hot water for 4-6 minutes. A mesh tool is then pushed down, taking the coffee grounds to the bottom to separate it from the water, and your coffee drink remains on the top to pour out.  

It may seem like the same concept since the water and coffee grounds directly interact with each other with both devices. But percolator coffee has the water heating and pumping continually, whereas the French press allows gentle steeping. This results in different flavor extractions.

Coffee Percolator FAQs   

Can You Use A Percolator To Make Tea?

Make tea in a percolator by adding tea leaves, bags, or loose tea to the basket. It is best to use a filter for tea leaves and lose tea unless you don’t mind using a strainer when pouring the tea. You also want to avoid overboiling the water as it can make the tea bitter.

Can You Use A Percolator To Make Hot Chocolate?

Yes. Mix the cocoa with hot water and milk in another cup or saucepan first. Add it to the percolator to heat up and boil (if you like) and remove it once it is ready to drink. In this case, there is no need for the tube or the basket, or you will end up with an unwanted mess.

How Do You Clean A Percolator Coffee Maker?

Add 3 cups of water with 1 cup of white vinegar and boil for three cycles. Then pour the liquid out, rinse with clean water, and your percolator will be ready for coffee again. Alternatively, add half a cup of baking soda with a cup of vinegar and let it sit for 15 minutes before washing it with clean water.

Can You Use A Percolator On A Camping Trip?

You can use a stovetop percolator over the fire on a camping trip (best to do it once the fire has died down). It also works on portable gas stoves or if you have a portable electric source for electric coffee percolators.


The percolator brewing method is similar to drip coffee but much more robust and slightly burnt. Now that you have all the details about coffee percolators, you can start your journey if you think it might be something you enjoy.


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