I am lucky enough to live in a town where the local hardware store carries replacement electrical cords for old fashioned percolators.  The fact that mine crackles when I plug it in means it’s time to get to that store. And it reminded me of this post from nearly two years ago.  My love of perked coffee has not faltered, nor has my fierce desire to rid the world of the ridiculous automatic drip coffee maker, a sham perpetrated on an unthinking, convenience minded public.

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

When my beloved General Electric 9-Cup Percolator, filched from my father’s house, gave out after 40 years of vigorous life, I got what I’m sure was a gift from heaven: another one (above).  Discovered on E-Bay, this one, manufactured in 1950, was all but unused.  When this one went kerplooey, I got an even better gift on ebay: three of them, for $13.

I cherish the General Electric percolator (apparently no longer in production), but when I tell people that it makes the best coffee, by far superior to the ubiquitous automatic drip machines, they look at me like I’ve just confessed my belief in creationism.

It astonishes me that I have to defend this sleek, 9-cup wonder.  I serve generic decaf to guests and they’re begging to know what kind of coffee I buy.  Swear to God.  I haul out the big green can to prove it.  Coffee snobs will say percolated coffee is “over-extracted.”   I call it very strong, rich coffee that’s piping hot and stays hot without burning.  That its biggest advantage—percolators keep the coffee HOT, auto-drips burn it.  And yet the GE model with its glass top and elegant drip-free spout has long been retired.  Today’s percolators, what few remain, are awkward vessels with stubby spouts, and the coffee, well, it just isn’t the same.

How did this happen?  Where did the percolator go?  Automatic drip coffee makers for the home, introduced in 1974 by Mr. Coffee (a Cleveland invention, no less! by people I know and like!), are the dominant household coffee machines, selling 20 million a year.  And yet the coffee they make is at best OK.  The flavor can be good IF it’s good quality to begin with and it’s served immediately upon being brewed.  (But better to use a French press in this case.)   Auto-drip coffee though almost never hot, especially if you put anything in it.  If it sits for a half hour, it’s tepid, and soon burnt.  It’s usually not much faster, nor appreciably easier to make.  The machine is not better to look at, while the GE percolator is one of the great home-appliance industrial designs.  And instead of the aromatic, enticing rush of gurgly percolation—one of the daily pleasures of this device—you get instead the sound of someone tinkling.

America lost something when it stowed the percolator in the back of the cupboard.  It gave up a superior machine to a marketing strategy, fashionable gimmick and the promise of “convenience.”  I want the percolator back.  I want people to wake up.

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75 Wonderful responses to “Percolator re-Love”

  • alkali

    I suspect that there have proven to be product liability issues with percolators, which are tipsy things full of scalding hot coffee. A friend of mine was very badly burned as a small child when he tugged on a percolator cord.

    [I will say preemptively here that although product liability can be taken too far, I think it serves a purpose, and it may well be the case that percolators are too dangerous to be sold for household use.]

    • Jeffrey Quick

      Ever break a glass carafe over your leg? I did, in college. It wasn’t pretty.

    • Jen

      Percolators are still being sold, new! I have one. It’s my favorite Christmas present ever given to me by my husband. I suspect he saw this very post on my laptop 2 years ago and, knowing I’m a coffee fiend, decided to find one. It’s a 4-cup percolator made by Farberware and it’s one of my favorite small appliances. Cute, too.

  • gothhippy

    It’d be nice to see a revival of these in the fashion of the nice electric kettles that are available now.

  • mydogischelsea

    Hear, hear! The Italian side of my family uses percolators exclusively. My aunt always traveled with hers, because she wouldn’t accept anything less. I don’t have room in my tiny kitchen for another appliance, so I use my little French press for my morning cup. Anything to avoid the horrific taste of drip coffee (and the ugly, ugly eyesore that is an automatic drip machine).

  • Brian

    Sounds like a business opportunity. You can bring it back with a good design, and the right marketing strategy. If it really is the better mousetrap that you say it is.

    • leslie kleinman

      that was my thought too. I loved them. Lord knows when I gave mine up. I always think the coffee from the big, cheap, 20 or 30 cup machines are the best: same principle. Wouldnt it be fun to produce a retro in Mr Coffee”s home town. Who is in?

  • Tim H

    My grandmother kept coffee going all day long in a percolator. She would only drink it scalding hot, and the moment it cooled she would pour herself a new cup. To me her coffee always seemed too strong, but I tend to like a mild brew. I have to admit I like the new single k-cup brewers. They’re easy and the just coffee is just fine.

  • Chuck

    The drip coffee makers that come with a thermos-type carafe (and no electric heating element below the carafe) keep the coffee hot without burning it. I gave in and went that direction a few years ago and have been happy with it (after being a french press devotee for years).

    Did not occur to me to try a percolator at the time. Maybe I will when my current dripper gives out.

    • Todd

      I could not disagree more, Chuck. I just bought a Cuisinart carafe auto drip, and am ready to give it away to the next solicitor that knocks on the door. You have exactly 5 minutes to drink your coffee before it becomes completely tepid.

      • AS

        Quick tip: run hot water through the pot before you make the coffee to warm it up, lest your hot coffee be the thing trying to warm the cold pot.

  • Rich

    My family has always used a stove top percolator. You can find them pretty easily. Once you learn the timing, the results are just as good as the electric. Fortunately, hardware stores also generally stock the glass top piece which will inevitably break.

  • lux

    Boiling coffee is what they do for Turkish coffee as well and nobody is yelling about that (except if the grounds aren’t properly filtered out). So in theory there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a percolator.

    I prefer Italian-style coffee myself (go go Bialetti espresso maker!)

  • Tim Boyer

    Michael -

    Just be careful. I did the same thing to my wife’s beloved percolator last month – put in a replacement cord.

    And then replaced the counter a few days later, when the new cord caught fire…

  • Jeff in CO

    Substitute ‘Bialetti’ for GE Percolator and I will believe we were separated at birth. This from the man who helped me find homemade bacon, an anti-drip coffee rant! Go Ruhlman, go! Testify!

  • Linda

    My beloved Uncle Perk got his lifelong moniker from this very machine. Apparently, he would mimic the percolator sounds as a baby in his high chair, so instead of “Charles, or Chuck” (his given name), he was always known to us as Perk.

  • Lyndsay

    I have a love affair going with my 6 and 9 cup corningware perks. They sit on the stove top and bubble and brew and make the best coffee.

  • clbtx

    My mother has the exact same model, which she probably acquired some 20+ years ago. Everyone always compliments her on how great her coffee is. Hmmm… I wonder if she’d notice if it suddenly went missing. ;-)

  • Susan

    I am so glad to see this posted..and on your site especially! I am so partial to brewing coffee in a perculator that it borders on neurosis! I have an old electric Corning pot with a clear glass caraff. I like this one particularly because I can see the action and tell when it’s to my liking. (I also have a stove top Revere Ware pot we use camping!) I use round paper disk filters in the bottom of the coffee basket to minimize the residue in the liquid. I can tell when it’s done perking because the perking action changes just before the convenience light comes on. I decant the coffee immediately into a thermal caraff so it doesn’t get that burnt coffee flavor. It holds good and hot with the same fresh taste for at least an hour and a half..if it lasts that long! You are right, perked coffee tastes so much richer, more full bodied. I’m wondering if it has something to do with the oils from the grounds infiltrating the extraction longer that gives it a more velvety mouth feel. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee is to a coffee drinker what cinnamon is to a baker; it has a seductive, slightly spicy aroma that is unlike any other! Great post, keep preaching this method!

  • Natalie Sztern

    There is nothing like waking up Sunday morning to the smell of coffee in the percolator. Memories that remain with me from childhood is this smell – the feeling of comfort.

  • MessyONE

    I found a website that might be interesting for some of you, it’s coffeemaster.auctivacommerce.com . They’re expensive, though. I’ve seen many almost-new percolators in vintage stores for a LOT less money, and they can be found online all over the place. I suspect that many people got these things as gifts and never used them. That’s how we got our 1938 Oster blender. It was still in its original box, and Oster still makes the correct glass carafe for it.

    Here’s a photo of mine – it’s not only a percolator, it’s a vacuum percolator. Amazing. We found it at the Randolph Street Antique Market in Chicago a couple of years ago.

    http://coffeemaster.auctivacommerce.com/Sunbeam-C20a-Vacuum-CoffeePot-CoffeeMaster-P1506934.aspx

  • Luanne

    We gave up the auto drip for a Breville Espresso machine earlier this year, and although I sometimes crave a regular cup of coffee, I’ll never go back. I’ve never tried a percolator (that I know of) but you make it tempting to scour the thrift stores for one.

  • Steve

    Most automatic drip coffee makers routinely brew coffee at temperatures below the 195-205 degree F range recommended by the SCAA, very reliably under extracting your coffee. In contrast most percolators very reliably over extract coffee because temperatures exceed that relatively narrow recommended temperature range. http://www.brewmethods.com (no affiliation) offers a variety of different parameters for a variety of different brew methods that have consistently yielded tasty results for me. Also, Technivorm makes a automatic drip coffee maker for home use called the Moccamaster which has been designed to ensure proper temperature and offers a lovely cup without too much effort. In the end if you buy freshly roasted beans (look for a roasted on date) and grind coffee right before you brew, your cup quality will improve dramatically more that simply switching methods.

  • Mantonat

    I was a barista in college and have consumed alot of coffee brewed in alot of different ways. Right now, I have a Mr. Coffee auto-drip and I think it actually makes a great cup of coffee. I grind enough whole beans for one pot and the pot never lasts long enough to burn the coffee. I buy whole beans from Sunflower Market (a regional discount “natural” food chain) for $7/lb, about half the price of Starbucks, which always tastes burned regardless of the brewing method used. My Mr. Coffee is not as pretty as your GE, but I am genuinely pleased with the results – and I’m pretty picky when it comes to coffee.

  • Allen

    That is one sleek sexy pot, I would gain more counter space if I had one like that.
    My favorite is an old Krups pump espresso machine from the 80′s, it can be seen in the background in Barbara Streisand’s kitchen in the movie “Prince Of Tides”, makes great Cuban coffee too. I had a Cuban coffee once when I was in Miami and loved it, found out why it made me feel like crazy hyper kid on a big sugar high, if you go to Miami just try one…don’t bother researching how to make it, just enjoy, (it’s best not to know that they’re 50% sugar!)

  • Andrew

    I second Steves’s comments. If you really want the best coffee, freshly roasted beans are the way to go. Best way to do that is to roast your own beans. It’s not hard. Check out Sweet Marias (no affiliation) — http://www.sweetmarias.com. I don’t use a percolator (or automatic drip machines, which are awful as you know) because I brew in the 195-205 degree range like Steve. But using freshly roasted beans ground just before brewing… I can’t order coffee at restaurants anymore. Just tastes stale.

  • Lee

    Simply the worst way to brew coffee, you are continuously taking already brewed coffee and re-brewing it over and over and over the grounds. I know it has a place in your heart but there are better ways to brew a nice cup of coffee. I’ve been experimenting with the pour- over, although slow and tedious, it brews a fantastic cup thats hard to beat.

  • Vince from Scordo.com

    Andrew is correct. Making great coffee is about utilizing the correct methods and buying great ingredients. For me, and thanks mostly to Andrew’s knowledge, good coffee starts with roasting your own beans, getting the correct grind and water temperature, and using a French Press.

    Vince

  • Nicholas L. Hall

    Gotta go with Lee on this one, Ruhlman. It’s not about overextraction, it’s about re-extraction. Get a Chemex and be pleased. Cold brew extra strong, kind of like making a cofee base, then add hot water to the base (you can keep it in the fridge) whenever you want a cup. Robust but smooth, no bitterness, full flavor extraction. Percs like yours are pretty, but make terrible coffee. Chemex is great coffee and great design. Of course, if you like your coffee that way, that’s absolutely the way you should make it.

  • Marie

    Excellent! You have inspired me. My old cord gave out and I never did find another.

    I drink stovetop espresso and agree that drip coffee is one of the most vile things invented. I cannot be persuaded otherwise.

  • E-beth

    I used a faberware coffee urn percolator for catering for decades…people used to go nuts for the tasty strong hot coffee…I would perc decaf French roast…amazon.com has a wide variety of percolators–electric, stovetop, glass stovetop, even enamel and battery operated…enter Farberware Stainless-Steel Electric Percolator under kitchen…

  • Melissa

    my father has always insisted his percolater coffee is superior (he also uses an obsolete pot) , I guess he has a valid point!

  • bob

    Call me a Luddite, but I think the best coffee is made in the German manner with boiled water through fresh grounds filtered through paper or other fine mesh. If you want to reheat, just put your cup in the microwave. Also makes a great alternative cappucino!

  • Kevin Locke

    Michael this post brings two things to mind with regards to eating and drinking. When I got out of college 27 years ago I went to work at Inglenook Winery in the Napa Valley. The chemist there told me something wonderful during those days – “Good wine is what you like to drink – it has nothing to do with cost, age, or what someone tells you is a good wine”. The other thing was best visualized in the movie Ratatoulli where Ego Anton is transported back to his childhood with a single bite of a simple peasant dish. From the land rich in coffee snobbery, Seattle, enjoy your cup. Cheers!

  • luis

    I bought a similar machine from Cuisinart and it rusted and shorted in a few weeks. From there I moved to a campfire style percolator that works on the stove top. Then onto a real fine French Press coffeemaker and now days I am back to the regular mr coffee style machine. They are cheap and I simply don’t let them run much past the second cup. After that I reheat the coffee in the microwave and it’s just fine.
    Coffee is like beer…after the first or second cup….your taste buds are not running the show.
    However my biggest challenge is the water I use. I mean day’s when I can smell the chlorine in tap water….. are bad coffee days unless I have some bottle water on hand to use. I always use Colombian beans like 8′oclock brand and always grind them before using them.

  • funder

    French press. Burr grinder. Boiling water, at 5000′ elevation. Decant into a big stainless thermal mug. Enjoy easy heaven!

    I think a percolator would work just as well up here. We went French press because drip coffeemakers SUCK in the mountains.

  • Lara

    Donna’s photo of your GE Percolator just brought back so many wonderful memories of my favorite aunt who owned the same model for as long as I knew her. She was the sweetest woman I have ever known and she truly lived for her coffee. Thanks for the lovely reminder.

  • ChimChim

    While amusingly Luddite, percolators make the worst coffee ever, and I’ve forgiven my grandmother for the decades that she used one. Move on up to science, and lose the feeling of being left out by the cool kids. And on another note, why on earth would you bother serving deliberately weakened coffee, i.e., decaf? Offer them the real thing, and recommend they drink a little less if they can’t handle it.

  • jeff

    reading the comments, it makes me wonder why nobody talks about the bialetti devices. i do not drink coffee, and know nothing about it, but got one for my parents (who love coffee). i mean, with as much hubbub about $400+ espresso machines, my understanding is these things come very close for as low as $20. they do not seem that hard to setup or clean. why so much attention on a french press (which seems so much more involved) than these???

    • lux

      I’m a Bialetti owner & fan, but they do have some drawbacks – namely, they’re smaller (so less yield ber batch). And since they get very hot while brewing you need to let them cool down enough to handle without getting burned before you can make another batch.

  • JimD

    Every year I do a camping trip with a bunch of guys in the mountains of east Tennessee. A few years ago my brother bought a percolator from Dick’s sporting goods. The coffee made in that percolator over a live fire on a cool morning in the mountains is the best coffee I drink all year.

    • luis

      Jimmy….you do realize that heat is heat and you can use your campfire perk on your stove top?????
      What’s the diff…. ?? Mine works just fine on the stove top. Jim the difference is in the water. THE WATER Jim. Clean moutain water vs whatever comes out of the tap…. this is what most folks don’t realize.

  • Erin

    I had the Cuisinart percolator which did make great coffee but the design failed. If they could get that connection between the pot and the electric plate thing reworked to last, it’d be even better than the GE – silly cord tethers.

  • mpw280

    While I am not picky about my coffee, barring burned smelling, I always loved watching my mom’s pyrex stove top clear 8 cup percolator. Something about the watching it work is just great, I guess I will have to go to mom’s house and lose it for her as she hasn’t used it in at least a decade.

    • Ed

      I have three old pyrex coffee pots. I am not a coffee drinker, but the smell of coffee, and the sounds of a the glass lid rattling, the water gurgling, and the slight “plopping” sound as the pot just starts to work bring me right back to my childhood. Suddenly I am 5 again, sitting on the kitchen stairs, watching my grandmother put the magic glass pot together, fry bacon, make toast and scramble eggs all while wearing a ridiculously huge dressing gown.

      A few times they come in handy, we have lost power and the rest of the house wants coffee – presto, one pyrex pot and one gas burner!

  • GinMT

    I too remember my mom and dad’s pyrex percolator. I woke up every morning as a child with the wonderful scent of coffee emanating through the house. I remember the wire that sat on the electric burner so the glass would not crack. I also remember going with dad occasionally over the years to the hardware store to find a replacement stem/basket. Hmm, might have to go in search of one of these!

  • Kanani

    We have one by Rival that we still use. When I was a kid, my parents had a giant one by Corning. There’s nothing like the sound of a percolator in the morning. And I never did find the coffee coming through one of those drip things any better. Also –percolators are small enough that you can stow them away. I have a small kitchen with very little counter space, and when I had a drip coffeemaker it just sat there, in the way. Also, they’re such a production with the paper filters and what not. Hence, I now have a percolator and a french press. Either one is fine.

  • rek

    After my beloved french press’s carafe exploded while my wife was making coffee one morning (spewing molten coffee grounds into every crevasse in the kitchen), I switched to an aeropress. If you’re the only coffee drinker in the house and you want one good, strong, cup on the way out the door in the morning, nothing beats it. I also have a behemoth Capresso CoffeeTEAM TS, which is the only marginally acceptable drip maker I’ve encountered.

    I agree with several other posters though–so much of taste is individual and the best coffee for you is what you like. I used to have percolated coffee a lot in England and it’s not for me, but I loved this post because it’s a good reminder of how the simplest culinary tools can bring so much joy. (Don’t even get me started on the Foley fork!)

  • Jennifer

    I used my beloved Farberware percolator all through college and for years and years afterward until I “grew up” and got the Grind & Brew with the carafe. A few years ago I got a large West Bend percolator urn for parties and it makes fantastic coffee. I mistakenly left it plugged in overnight one year and while I expected hot, bitter mud the next morning the coffee was still delicious.

  • craigkite

    It seems pretty obvious, and you can ask any junkie, it is the RITUAL that everyone is most passionate about. Camp stove-perks, french -press, chemex, percolated, espressoed. So much of our appreciation of the consumption is wrapped in the preparation of the finished product. Mr. Ruhlman, you admitted to being somewhat of a barbarian when it comes to coffee and cigars on your Halloween entry. This entry had a whole lot of your Dad wrapped in it, and for that, it is great prose. Whether it is cleaning a dime-bag, brewing a cup or roasting a chicken, a lot of our passion for the ritual is reflected in the joy of consumption. Keep giving us these great things to ponder and respond to.

  • John

    There’s nothing like a good percolator. Target sells a model for about $40 which is OK, though the original GE model was better. For the last 10+ years, I have enjoyed Fench Market coffee made in a percolator. Nice and hot all day, and no bitterness, other than the desired chicory taste.

    Waiter, waiter, percolator…

  • Allen

    My little Krups espresso machine was 2 for $99.00 -no tax, I purchased in Portland, Oregon in the late 80′s, they both still work great, and Cuban coffee is on the menu this Sunday morning, hell yeah!!! Booooyakasha!

  • Ron

    I love my percolator. We used to do drip, then french press, but for the past couple of years it has been all perk all the time. We even take it on trips with us so that we can have perked coffee every morning.

  • Robert

    Since there are so many comments here I guess I can add mine without fear of reprisal. I havn’t drank peculator coffee in quite some time, but I am partial to my French press which I have used daily for some 10 years. I have broken several, (my own fault) But I keep replacing them. Some of the best coffee ever, well, a moka pot delivers a fine cup of joe as well and is one of my favorites.

  • Elana

    Hi Michael,

    I met you (well, maybe passed you) at Blogher Food with my 10 year old son just after your amazing bacon demo, which he and I enjoyed tremendously.

    I love my little percolator. I asked my mom for her 50 year old percolator last year and she declined to give it to me, so like you, I found one online.

    Thanks for another great post!

    Elana

  • Adriane

    I used to tease my parents because they continued to perc their coffee…then I bought an electric one for myself. And I bought one for the stove. I also have a drip maker that’s decent (Michael Graves for Target made by Hamilton Beach – with the flavor plus button). And I have two cappuccino makers (stove and electric). Plus a french press. There’s no such thing as bad coffee at my house. And you don’t need to spend a fortune on a snobby coffee maker or ridiculously expensive coffee. Drink it hot, black, and slowly. MMMMMMMM. Going to try cold brew next and see how that tastes.

  • Charlotte

    We have a beat up old aluminum one we use when camping. First one up ducks out, lights the camping stove (preset the night before) and soon, there’s the delicious smell of coffee. And a view. Couldn’t be better. (Oh, and we’re big fans of the Maxwell House French Roast — 10 bucks for 2 pounds.)

  • Dane

    I have a percolator. I got married this year and put on our list. It was one of the first gifts we opened. The minute I tasted my first cup of coffee out of it both my bialetti and my drip coffee pot were put into a closet never again to see the light of day. Percolated coffee rocks.

  • Dave

    I didn’t read all of the comments, so this might have been said already – why use anything but a french press? Five minutes to heat the water and grind the beans and another five to let it steep. Want more after the cup or two you’ve made? Repeat as necessary. Maybe your percolator makes great coffee; but, I have difficulty believing it’s better than a cup from freshly ground good beans in a press.

  • 4376ab

    Has anyone tried the Sowden SoftBrew? We just got one and the coffee is good, although the last bit in the pot can be muddy. We have a ski hat that we put over the pot to keep the coffee warm.

    MR – can you elaborate why the Faberware perk pot was less than satisfactory?

  • Andrew Asaff

    Get into pourover! For my Spannocchia internship I’m thinking of packing a compact chemex set and little bodum hand grinder to fuel my caffeine addiction.

    If you’re ever in Austin, TX hit up Frank. It’s a hot dog joint downtown that does interesting dogs, but truly incredible coffee. They carry Intelligentsia beans out of Chicago which are excellent, but they are also purveyors of some of the more arcane brewing methods such as pourover and siphon, both of which look super neat as well as producing a complex and magnificent cup of coffee.

  • Anna Johnston

    Get outa town!!! I remember percolators, one in particular a strange corningware job…, used to sit on the back of my grans slow combustion stove. Can’t say I’ve ever drunk coffee from one…, certainly not from one that looks as sleek as yours. Thank god for ebay huh.

  • Mattm

    This brings back memories! I can still hear my parents’ percolator as I gradually woke up each morning and munched on cheerios at the kitchen table. By the time I was dirnking coffee it went kaput and a drip one was bought. I think I might be nostalgic this Christmas for a gift to myself. :)