French Press vs Percolator: Which is Better for Brewing Coffee?
There are so many different ways of making coffee and sometimes it can all become a little confusing.
All we want is a steaming brew to help us out the door in the morning, right?
It doesn’t really matter how it’s brewed, as long as there’s plenty of caffeine in it.
Maybe for some. But if you really care about coffee – like we do – you might be interested in experimenting with different brewing techniques.
Here we’re going to compare two very old methods, French press vs. percolator, to weigh up the relative merits of each one.
What is a French press?
The French press – also known as a cafetière, plunger coffee and others – is an appliance for making coffee using the infusion method. This means the ground coffee is mixed into hot water and left to steep for a certain amount of time. The infusion method is the oldest way of preparing coffee.
A French press consists of a container, usually a glass jar, a plunger and a fine mesh, usually of metal. The ground coffee is placed in the bottom of the jar and the hot water is stirred in. After leaving to steep for the allotted time, the plunger is pressed down, and the coffee is served directly.
The flavor and strength of the beverage are controlled by varying the grind of the coffee and the length of time it is left to steep; more on this later.
Check out this video if you want to see how to use one.
What is a percolator?
The percolator was invented in the early 19th century as a way of brewing coffee by the percolation method rather than the widespread infusion method.
We will talk more about the terminology later, but in essence, percolation involves passing water through ground coffee to extract the flavors rather than seeping it, as in the infusion method.
A percolator consists of several separate parts, the pot, the funnel, a basket or filter and the lid. Watch this rather amusing video to see what happens if you forget the lid – but if you are offended by colorful language, it might be better if you don’t…
First, you pour the water into the pot. Then you place the basket on the top of the funnel and fill the basket with ground coffee. At this point, make sure you remember to place the lid on top. The percolator is then heated either by placing on the stove or by electricity, depending on the model.
The water is heated and turns to steam. The pressure of the steam forces the water up through the funnel into the basket of coffee where it “percolates” back down into the pot.
The water will keep rising up the funnel, passing through the grounds and returning to the pot until you remove it from the heat source, meaning the coffee is constantly being recycled through the ground becoming stronger – and more bitter.
Coffee percolators were extremely popular in the United States for many years and were the predominant form of coffee maker until about the 1970s when there were supplanted by the Mr. Coffee electric drip coffee maker. They are much less common now.
What isn’t a percolator?
There is now some confusion over the terminology since “percolator” refers to a specific type of coffee-making device while “percolation” refers to the method of brewing coffee, as opposed to methods that use infusion.
This means that all percolators use the percolation method but not all coffee makers that use percolation are correctly called percolators.
“Percolation” means the coffee is produced by passing the water through the coffee rather than steeping it in water. Siphon coffee makers, drip coffee makers, and Moka pots all use the percolation method but that does not make them “percolators”.
Check out this video to see what we mean – the guy constantly refers to his coffee maker as a percolator, but what he is actually using is a Moka pot.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a French press?
One of the main advantages of the French press is that it is quick and easy. You just need to grind the coffee (or use pre-ground if you prefer), heat the water, pour it in and leave it to steep. Then you only need to wait around three minutes or so before the coffee is ready to drink.
A basic French press is cheap, so you don’t need to spend a lot of money to buy one. The infusion method is the oldest way of making coffee, and the beauty of the French press is in its simplicity.
A further advantage is that it is very easy to adapt the beverage to your tastes. You can vary the amount of grounds you use, you can change the coarseness of the grind and you can change the steeping time. With experimentation, you will soon be making coffee the way you like it.
French press coffee made correctly is rich and thick yet aromatic and refined, allowing you to appreciate the subtleties of premium coffee.
There are some disadvantages, too, however. French presses require course ground coffee (see below), and if you use coffee that is too fine, the result will be inferior.
Another disadvantage is that you need to pay attention to the steeping time. If you leave the coffee to steep too long, you will end up with a bitter and unpleasant brew. This may happen even if you leave it for 30 seconds to a minute too long.
Similarly, if you leave it in the pot for any amount of time after you press the plunger, it will continue to brew and again, will also end become overly bitter.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a percolator?
Although percolating is not as old as infusion as a method for preparing coffee, it has still been around for over a hundred years. It is a tried and tested method that works. The percolator itself is an inexpensive piece of equipment and it is very simple to use.
Using a percolator doesn’t take much longer than a French press. As with a French press, you simply need to add the water and add freshly ground or pre-ground coffee to the pot. After that, you simply place it on the stove (or switch it on in the case of an electric model) and let it do its thing.
The main disadvantage with a percolator is that it needs to be monitored carefully. Since the water is constantly recycled through the ground coffee, if you leave it too long, it will over-extract and your coffee will be bitter. It is very easy to over-extract using a percolator.
Perhaps this is one reason why percolators went out of fashion when Mr. Coffee machines came along. People were probably less aware of how to make a good-tasting brew and simply left the percolators on the stove to recycle over and over, resulting in bitter coffee.
As with French presses, there is a risk of sediment making it from the percolator into your final drink, but this can be minimized by using a paper filter in the basket.
French press vs percolator
We can summarize by saying that French press coffee is easier to control and gives a more delicate and refined drink. Percolators, through the mechanism of recycling the water through the grounds, tend to make a stronger, more bitter, rustic drink.
This can be mitigated by monitoring carefully, but it can be hard to judge when to remove the percolator from the heat.
Tips for making a perfect French press coffee
There are a couple of points to bear in mind when making French press coffee that can hugely improve the taste of the final beverage.
First, use the correct grind of coffee. Since the time the water is in contact with the coffee is relatively long with this method, you should use coarse-ground coffee. If you use fine-ground coffee, your coffee will be over-extracted and will turn out very bitter.
Make sure you use the right doses and stick to the correct ratio of coffee to water: it should be about 1:10. You can play with this according to your taste, but as a general rule, this is a good place to start.
Don’t over-steep. Around three to three and a half minutes is recommended. Again, if you leave it longer, it will over-extract. Finally, once you push the plunger, serve immediately. If you leave it in the pot, it will continue to extract and will become too bitter.
Tips for making perfect coffee with a percolator
Some of the same points apply here. Use coarse-ground coffee since the contact time is long. The secret to good percolator coffee is not to let it recycle too many times. To avoid over-extraction, monitor carefully and remove it from the heat before it starts to become too bitter.
Unlike French press coffee, percolator coffee can be left in the jug for a while before you serve it since it doesn’t continue to extract – but you should still serve it as quickly as possible since all coffee is best served fresh and steaming.
Here’s a better video of how to make coffee using a percolator.
Variety is the spice of life
We don’t favor one method of making coffee over another – we believe that all methods of preparing a brew are equally valid and the fact that there are so many ways of preparing our favorite drink just means we will never bore of drinking it.
What is your view on French press vs percolator? Which one do you prefer? Maybe you have both or maybe neither. Which one do you want to try? If you have anything to add, please leave a message as we love reading your comments. And if you enjoyed reading, please share with your friends!