Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Coffee percolators have been around since the late 1800s and were the dominant brew method for much of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the advent of the automatic drip coffee maker in the 1970s that percolators fell out of fashion. Both percolators and drip brewers use the same principle: As water heats, steam bubbles drive hot water up a tube and out over the coffee grounds. The big difference is in the filter. With a drip coffee brewer, water travels to a sprayhead and then drips through the grounds in the filter and into the pot below. Percolators instead distribute water vertically into the lid and over a metal filter basket, where it drips through the coffee grounds and back into the rest of the brewing water below. It recirculates until the coffee boils—usually leading to coffee that’s weak and almost always bitter.

There are two main types of coffee percolators: Electric models have a built-in heating element in the base of the brewer, while stovetop models need to be set on a heat source (and are often popular for camping). We tested seven electric and stovetop percolators to find out which brewed the best coffee, were easy to use, and cleaned up without hassle. 

The Winner, at a Glance

The Presto produced the best coffee of the bunch. Its longer brew cycle delivered coffee closer in strength to a regular drip brewer with more balanced flavors, and its retro style was charming.

The Tests

Serious Eats / Jesse RaubLight Roast Test: We brewed a batch of coffee in each percolator with a lighter roast using a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. We took note of how long the water took to heat before it started brewing, how long the total brew cycle took, and how the resulting coffee tasted. Dark Roast Test: We repeated the same brew test, only using a darker roasted coffee. Again we used a 1:16 brew ratio, tracked the brew times, and evalauted the flavor of the coffee.Usability and Cleanup Tests: We noted how easy each percolator was to set up, how well the pieces fit together, the comfort of the handle, and the control of the pour spout. We also cleaned each percolator thoroughly and noted how easy it was to clean the filter as well as the pot itself. 

What We Learned

How Coffee Percolators Work (and Why They’re Inherently Flawed)

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

When you look inside most electric and stovetop percolators they have the same design: a donut-shaped metal filter basket sits suspended on a long metal tube that stretches from the base of the percolator up to the lid. Water is poured into the bottom of the pot, coffee is added to the metal filter basket, and a metal lid with holes to disperse the brew water sits on top of that. When the bottom chamber heats, steam bubbles drive hot water up the tube until it splashes against the lid, and falls onto the dispersion plate. It then drips into the coffee and filters itself back to the bottom only to recirculate over and over until the coffee brews stronger. 

But like lower-cost coffee makers with weak heating elements, the water can travel up through the pipe before it hits the desired brew temperature of 195ºF to 205ºF. This means that the brew cycle starts with water that’s too cool, resulting in weak and sour coffee. It also ensures a brew cycle that ends with boiling water, which is too hot and pulls bitterness out of the grounds. On top of that, the coffee is consistently reheated and recirculated through the coffee grounds as it brews—a surefire way to introduce even more bitterness into the cup.

The last problem with percolators has to do with saturation. Because the water slowly drips over the grounds in spurts, it never completely saturates the coffee the way a drip brewer does, leading to weaker brew strengths overall. These design elements essentially make it impossible to brew coffee in a percolator that’s as balanced and sweet as other brew methods. 

Most of the Coffee Was Unpleasant

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

No matter what we tried (adjusting grind size, tweaking ratio, changing coffees), the coffee we made was unpleasant. Electric models like the Faberware Stovetop Percolator, Hamilton Beach Electric Percolator, and Cuisinart 12-cup Percolator all finished brewing too quickly, resulting in very weak coffee that was bitter and harsh and had a lingering sourness. Stovetop percolators like the Eurolux Percolator and GSI Glacier Percolator didn’t fare any better. Because of the aforementioned design flaws of a coffee percolator, there just wasn’t much we could do to brew a good cup. With that in mind, the least unpleasant coffee came from the Presto Electric Percolator. Its brew cycle lasted two minutes longer than its electric competition, and the added brew strength showed a hint of sweetness (even if it accentuated bitterness). It was the only cup in our testing that was close the the brew strength of a drip coffee maker, and in a pinch, we’d be okay drinking it. 

Electric Models Offered Little Control

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

One of the issues with electric percolators is that you don’t have any control over the brewing process. All of the models we tested had an auto-shutoff that kicked in when the brew temperature hit boiling—but with the Farberware, Hamilton Beach, and Cuisinart models, that moment came too quickly. They finished brewing in around six minutes, and the coffee they produced was consistently weak. Without any ability to adjust the brew time, however, there’s no ability to tweak your brew. Finer ground coffee led to more bitterness and grit in the cup, and adding more coffee just led to under-extraction and pronounced sourness. 

Stovetop Models Took Forever to Brew

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Every stovetop model we tested took at least 12 minutes to start brewing—and that was with a gas burner on high. It was also hard to tell when the brewing should stop—most instructions tell the user to listen for a rolling boil, but even after 17 minutes we couldn’t hear any bubbles or burbles. We were initially worried about overextracting the coffee with such long brew cycles but the opposite was true: Stovetop percolators brewed coffee that was even weaker than the quick-brewing electric models, likely due to how slowly the water dripped over the grounds without saturating them fully.

Percolators Were a Pain to Use and Clean 

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Percolators hold the brew basket with a spring on the metal water delivery tube that’s compressed by the lid when closed. If the lid is open, nothing is holding the tube upright, and it tends to flop to one side or the other. That means you have to carefully balance the tube on the floor of the pot and close the lid quickly if you want it to be seated properly. If the tube and basket aren’t aligned perfectly, however, the coffee just won’t brew. That happened to us twice during testing, leaving us with a full pot of hot water that never made its way through the grounds at the end of a brew cycle. 

Coffee percolators are also annoying to clean. Electric models can’t be submerged, so you have to scrub the interior with a sponge or bottle brush before rinsing. The filter assembly is also tricky—once it’s cool enough to remove, the coffee grounds are just loose in the metal basket. It can be messy knocking those into the trash or compost bin, and then you still have to scrub the filter basket, water delivery tube, and dispersion plate by hand to remove any old coffee grounds, requiring more effort than cleaning a drip coffee maker

There Are Other Ways to Brew That Are Better, Faster, and Easier

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

The main advantage of coffee percolators is that they are a relatively inexpensive way to brew a large amount of coffee—some people like to keep one in storage for holiday gatherings. That said, we have some alternative picks for brew methods that we think do a better job for around the same price. Moka pots are often confused for percolators since they both involve heating water that’s driven up through a tube, but moka pots use a pressurized seal and the coffee is brewed as the water travels upwards, creating a stronger, more espresso-like coffee that never recirculates. A lot of campers also swear by their stovetop percolators for campsite coffee, and while we can see their portable appeal, we also think you’d be better off bringing a French press or using instant coffee. Finally, we think an inexpensive drip coffee maker can easily outclass a percolator in ease of use and coffee quality for just a slightly higher price point. 

The Criteria: What to Look for in a Coffee Percolator

Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

A good coffee percolator should brew quickly, but not so quickly that the coffee is under-extracted. It should be easy to use, convenient, and relatively inexpensive, too. 

The Best Coffee Percolator

What we liked: We didn’t love the coffee this percolator brewed, but it was much more drinkable than the competition. Since almost every percolator had the same filter basket design, the main thing that stood out for the Presto was its longer brew times, which resulted in stronger (and sweeter) coffee. Its retro design was also cute and more endearing than other models, and its elongated spout was nice to pour from. It has a simple light that indicates when the percolator switches to “keep warm” mode, so it is easy to see when the coffee is ready, too. If you’re looking for a coffee percolator, this is the best model we tested.

What we didn’t like: The biggest hangup with this percolator was that the coffee it brewed was noticeably lower quality than any other brew method we’ve tested. Because percolators recirculate brewed coffee back through the grounds, they’re always going to pull extra bitterness out of the grounds. 

Price at time of publish: $67.

Key Specs

Materials: Stainless steel, plasticDimensions: 12.37 x 5.2 inchesWeight: 2.9 poundsCapacity: 12 cupsCare instructions: Wash the coffee maker with warm, sudsy water and dry it thoroughly; do not immerse in water

The Best Coffee Percolator Alternatives

What we liked: If you’re looking for a stovetop brewer that makes rich, strong coffee, the Bialetti Moka Express excels. It has a filter basket large enough for proper brew ratios, and its thick, aluminum construction distributes heat evenly for consistent brews. It was by far our favorite moka pot during testing, and we think it’s a great alternative for a stovetop percolator. 

What we didn’t like: The top and bottom chambers were tricky to screw together sometimes, and we wish the threads were a little smoother for easier assembly. 

Price at time of publish: $39.

Key Specs

Materials: Aluminum, plasticWeight: 24.6 ouncesHeight: 8.5 inchesBase width: 4 inchesCapacity: 9 ouncesInduction-friendly: NoCare instructions: Wash with warm water, and allow to air dry before re-assembling; clean with coffee detergent when coffee residue becomes visibleSerious Eats / Jesse Raub

What we liked: With excellent dual-wall insulation, the Clara brews excellent coffee and keeps it hot longer than any other French press we tested. Though it’s pricier than our top recommended percolator, it’s also extremely well-made and will likely last longer since there are no electronics. It’s also easier to store, too, so keeping a fleet of French presses around for large family gatherings takes up less space than a fleet of percolators. 

What we didn’t like: Honestly, the only downside is its price. If you’re looking for a less expensive option, we also liked the Coffee Gator French Press.

Price at time of publish: $99.

Key Specs

Capacity: 24 ouncesDimensions: 4.53 x 6.69 x 7.87 inchesMaterials: Stainless steelInsulation: Double-wall insulatedFilter type: Single screenCare instructions: Hand-washSerious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez

What we liked: For brewing larger capacities on a budget, we really liked Zorijushi’s Dome Coffee Maker. It’s our favorite no-frills inexpensive coffee maker and, during testing, we found its dome-shaped sprayhead saturated coffee evenly. Plus, its boiler reached the ideal 195ºF to 205ºF brew temperature range pretty quickly (though not as fast as our favorite drip coffee makers). It brewed very drinkable coffee, and if you’re looking for a lower-cost way to brew coffee for a crowd, we recommend the Dome over a percolator. 

What we didn’t like: Its coffee quality isn’t quite up to par with the high-end drip coffee makers we normally like, so you’re making a compromise with this brewer. We also wish it had a thermal carafe instead of a hot plate, which can turn brewed coffee bitter over time. 

Price at time of publish: $112.

Key Specs

Materials: Plastic, stainless steel, glassDimensions: 10.75 x 8.13 x 15.25 inchesWeight: 8.8 poundsAverage brew time: 8:15Capacity: 12-cupWattage: 1050 wattsProgrammable: NoSerious Eats / Jesse Raub

The Competition

Faberware 12-cup Percolator: This model brewed weak and bitter coffee, and its stubby spout was tricky to pour from. Cuisinart 12-cup Percolator: Another poor performer, this model had issues brewing if the metal tube and brew basket weren’t aligned just right. When it did brew coffee, it also was weak and bitter. Hamilton Beach Electric Percolator: We had a hard time balancing the brew basket on the metal tube without both falling over with this model, making it hard to get the lid on securely. It also brewed weak and bitter coffee.Faberware Stovetop Percolator: the metal tube on this model had a wide base, which made it easier to align the brew basket, but it took over 12 minutes to brew six cups and the coffee had a burnt aftertaste. Eurolux Percolator: This model took over 15 minutes to brew six cups, and the coffee was weak and bitter. GSI Glacier Percolator: This model struggled to properly move water up the metal tube leading to batches where coffee wasn’t brewed at all. When the tube and brew basket were properly seated, it took over 17 minutes to brew six cups, and the coffee was very weak and excessively bitter.

FAQs

Does a percolator make good coffee?

Coffee brewed in a percolator is recirculated through the grounds over and over until it gets stronger and the coffee starts to boil. This means that brewed coffee is consistently reheated and splashed over the coffee grounds in small spurts, which brews weak and bitter coffee.

Why did people stop using coffee percolators?

Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s with the invention of the automatic drip coffee maker. Drip brewers were faster, brewed better-tasting coffee, and were also much easier to clean. They also use a similar way of using steam bubbles to push hot water through the brewer, making them overall an upgrade of the percolator brewing process.

Which is better, an electric or stovetop percolator?

Electric percolators are much more efficient than stovetop percolators and brew in less than half the time. They also have a built-in shutoff that switches the brewer to a “keep warm” mode once the brew cycle is complete, while stovetop brewers require the user to decide when to end a brew cycle. 

What’s the difference between a moka pot and a percolator

Percolators rely on boiling water to push hot water up through a tube and over the coffee grounds suspended in a basket below. This brewed coffee then recirculates, consistently reheating the brewed coffee which travels back through the grounds, delivering weak and bitter coffee. Moka pots, on the other hand, use steam pressure to force water up through finely-ground coffee that brews a stronger, espresso-like coffee into the top chamber. Coffee brewed in a moka pot is much stronger than coffee from a percolator, and because it doesn’t recirculate, it’s usually sweeter, too. 

Why We’re the Experts

Jesse Raub is Serious Eats’ commerce writer and spent over 15 years working in the specialty coffee industry. He’s our in-house coffee expert and regularly tests coffee gear, including reviews of coffee roasters, coffee scales, and pourover brewers.  For this review, he brewed multiple pots of coffee with each of the seven coffee percolators he tested, evaluating them for ease of use, cleanup, and coffee quality.

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