How Long Do You Percolate Coffee?

how long do you percolate coffeeMany factors influence the outcome of your morning brew.

Among them is time. The elusive aspect of coffee creation that simply makes or breaks your beverage.

Since there’s so much talk of proper water, brewing techniques, and everything down to the coffee beans themselves we think it’s time to discuss the component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, and quantify them in relationship to your cup of joe.

That’s Stephen Hawking-speak for finding the optimum time your coffee should be percolating.

What is a Coffee Percolator?

This isn’t a trick question. Many growing up in the world of Keurig and the now popular Chemex rarely encounter such an artifact. However, the coffee percolator can be quite useful. So for those out of the loop here’s the breakdown:

how does a percolator workThe percolator itself consists of a pot with a chamber at the bottom, closest to the source of heat. A tube leads from this chamber straight up to the top of the percolator. Just below the upper end of this tube is a perforated chamber. The grounds go in the top chamber, water in the bottom. When the water boils, it travels up the tube, over the grounds, cooling the water, then back down to the bottom chamber to cycle again.

To get the final caffeinated end product all one needs is coffee, water, a heat source, and the apparatus itself.

Many people (coffee snobs) don’t consider the percolator to be the best way to make coffee. That opinion isn’t all wrong however with the proper technique and a little know-how, percolated coffee can beat out even a conventional drip machine. Percolators are ideal for camping or other situations where only a simple heating element such as a stove or hot plate is available.

Although many people bring a large moka pot to the campsite you may be able to make even better coffee over a fire with a percolator if you want to.

Using a Percolator for Making Coffee

There are several factors that will affect your brew when making coffee with a percolator, namely: coffee/water ratio, grind particle size, contact time, coffee bed depth, amount of turbulence and water temperature. Understanding how each of these factors is interrelated to the final product can help troubleshoot and fine-tune the brewing process.

Of course I am also assuming you are using good inputs – filtered water and freshly ground beans make for good coffee no matter how you make it. Use a good electric burr coffee grinder daily or every few days and store excess grind in an airtight container for your next batch of coffee.

 pot of percolator coffeeLet’s start with the process of preparing a pot of percolator coffee. Measure enough coffee out and enough water for the number of cups of coffee you’re going to prepare.

Place coffee grounds in the basket and set aside, keep in mind that one tablespoon of grounds per cup of water is recommended. Heat the water to boiling.

One may want to consider lowering the heat near the end of the process as it will lessen the chance of boiling over. The boiling water will be forced up through the coffee grounds and the brewed coffee will accumulate in the chamber which holds the water.

Once water gets to boiling you’ll add the basket containing the grounds, and there’s a very specific reason for this too.

The Perfect Brewing Time

Percolator coffee brewing timeCoffee that’s bitter is often owed to an overly vigorous brew and improper brewing duration. When percolating coffee one has to be careful of overexposing the coffee. This is what plays a major factor in the coffee flavor succumbing to bitterness.

As the boiling process begins within the chamber it’s the saturation of moisture from the boil that contributes to the poor taste of coffee and the off-flavors of bitterness that many find unsatisfactory in percolator coffee.

Thus, the question is less about how long you should percolate your coffee and more about the conditions of the brewing process altogether. Percolators often expose the grounds to higher temperatures than other brewing methods and may recirculate already brewed coffee through the beans if one isn’t careful.

Size of Coffee Grounds

Percolator coffee grounds size

The percolator uses a coarse grind. The water will be very hot and in a lot of contact with the grounds. Very coarse particles, like kosher salt, are preferred to optimize taste and also prevent grounds from falling through the basket and into the final product.

Grinding this way for a percolator is preferred, however, if your coffee tastes weak you may want to try grinding it a little finer.

Timer as a Regulator

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. That’s a particularly interesting aspect of making coffee, and very important if you want to make stronger coffee.

Depending on the heat being applied, ten minutes should probably be the maximum exposure time. This will give the taste of old-fashioned stovetop percolator coffee, or cowboy coffee as some refer to it. Now that you’re understanding the process, one can 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.

You’ll be able to see the coffee bubble up through the glass dome to see the bold or still unemboldened color of the brew. With each flash of liquid into the dome, you’ll notice the coffee darkening. Brewing should take about 5 minutes for a stove top percolator and about 7-10 minutes for an electrical percolator. Here’s another extra step that the novice will forget, make sure to remove the filter basket with the used grounds first before you pour.

By doing this you’re removing the likelihood of extra coffee grounds ending up in the final product. No one really likes grounds in their coffee cup, no matter what they say.

The finer the grind, the more chance you’ll have for grounds to filter through the holes in the basket. Obviously, you would not want to use an Espresso grind, however, if one is preparing coffee while camping and has limited options, we’ve been there too.

percolator coffee brewing

Here’s another tip for those that are trying to make a perfect cup of percolator coffee. Instead of removing the basket containing the ground altogether simply raise the temperature of the water slowly and then reduce the heat once the pot starts to percolate. Due to the fact that percolated coffee takes longer than the typical drip brewer, it’s going to be an exercise in patience.

Still, it is extraordinarily simple to use… and most percolators are also plastic free so it’s worth the wait!

The Effects of Pre-Infusion and Percolation

There are many fundamentals lessons of coffee brewing. Among them is the matter of pre-infusion. It is important to realize how pre-infusion affects the final product in brewing. Pre-infusion is what lends to factors like clarity and proper extraction of the coffee brewing process.

Since the coffee needs to be saturated before extraction begins, the percolator as a closed system, this is relatively easy to do. Once all of the coffee has been saturated with each grind particle then we will be able to extract at the same rate, creating a more consistent and even brew extraction. The issue in the percolator is the trapping of moisture while the water in the lower chamber is heating, as well as the issues of heating.

Due to the fact that it takes only roughly 30 seconds to one minute to pre-infuse coffee, then one should add the grounds to the percolator just around one minute before the boil begins.

Percolation (from Lat. percōlāre, to filter or trickle through) concerns the movement and filtering of fluids through porous materials. In our case, the materials are bold and tasteful coffee.

Since brewing coffee is the process of extracting the soluble and some insoluble components of ground coffee into an aqueous solution, brewed coffee is the result of strength and efficiency of extraction. Brewed coffee is typically around 98.8% water combined with 1.5% coffee flavor particles.

Properly brewing coffee frees up the vast majority of not only flavors but also the components that make us feel better after a cup of coffee.

Simplicity on Demand

It’s easy to see why many would prefer this method of brewing. The simplicity is certainly worthwhile. Aside from our critique of the brewing process and intense scrutiny for the perfect cup of coffee, this is a very simple brewer.

Many percolators are composed entirely of steel, with no fancy tubing or touchscreen interface to hold you up, and nothing to go wrong or break. The lid has a small glass globe in which you can see the water and coffee as it is pushed up through the stem. If you’re concerned about the presence of plastic parts, then it’s easy to find a percolator that fits the bill. Additionally, the water and coffee come into contact only with stainless steel and the glass globe.

Of course, the percolator can be comprised of quality parts and made to look like a space station or one can go to the thrift store and choose the vintage model. The preference is yours.

Percolating coffee is a slightly longer process than making water for tea on your stove top would be. However, you’re likely to get a good strong cup of coffee and spend no more than fifteen minutes prepping and brewing, finishing the entire process with ease. If you’re camping or simply want to try something different for your morning cup of coffee, then please look into this tried and true method of brewing.

Also feel free to peruse the coffee gear that we prescribe here, for some quality percolators and more.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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