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For those who love their java, coffee-making is serious business! For decades now, brewing the perfect cup at home meant mastering both the science and art of a kitchen appliance known as the coffee percolator.
Indeed, for generations of coffee drinkers, the sight and sound of a gurgling percolator virtually defined the coffee-consuming experience.
In the 1970s, however, sales of percolators plummeted as automatic drip coffee makers entered the market.
But as interest in gourmet roasted coffee has grown in recent years, coffee enthusiasts have again started investing in percolators, primarily because of the stronger and more complex brews these old-school coffee makers can produce.
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Our culinary expert Francois offers his own advice on coffee percolators in this review.
If you’re in the market for a new coffee percolator, please consider our list of the five best contenders above, as well as the detailed shopping guide below.
Born and raised in Paris, the land of unapologetic butter, Francois has spent the last 20 years shaping the American culinary world behind the scenes. He was a buyer at Williams-Sonoma, built the Food Network online store, managed product assortments for Rachael Ray's site, started two meal delivery businesses and runs a successful baking blog. When he's not baking a cake or eating his way through Europe, Francois enjoys sharing cooking skills with cooks of all levels. Rules he lives by: "Use real butter" and "Nothing beats a sharp knife."
While the general demand for coffee percolators fell significantly after the introduction of automatic drip coffee makers in the early 1970s, many coffee enthusiasts still demonstrated a preference for the strength and flavor complexity of percolated coffee.
Some commercial coffee producers even offered special paper filter rings filled with coffee to fit percolator baskets.
These products may no longer be available on store shelves, but modern drip coffee filters can be modified to accomplish the same goal of a balanced coffee.
Many coffee companies once offered donut-shaped filter packs with pre-measured grounds for percolator baskets.
Ground and roasted coffee beans are full of complex flavor compounds and essential oils. The main purpose of any brewing system is to extract enough of these compounds and oils to create a balanced cup of coffee that is not too bitter, not too acidic, and not too weak. A coffee percolator accomplishes this task much differently than a French press, automatic drip coffee maker, or single-pod system.
A percolator consists of a large carafe, a heat source (external or electric), a vertical drawing tube, a perforated basket for coffee grounds, and a perforated “spreader plate” for even steam distribution. The user places the desired amount of water into the carafe, usually measured in five-ounce “cups.” The percolator assembly (spreader plate, basket, drawing tube) is then inserted into the carafe, and a measured amount of coarsely ground coffee beans is added to the basket suspended above the water.
Once the spreader plate is in position over the basket, the user carefully heats the water over a stove burner eye or activates a heating element in an electric model. The water reaches a near-boiling temperature of 195°F to 200°F, causing bubbles of steam to form. These bubbles travel upwards through the central drawing tube, pulling the heated water with them. This combination of steam and hot water droplets falls on the top of the perforated spreader plate, then trickles into the basket containing the coffee grounds.
As the heated water passes through the grounds, it drips back into the carafe, and the process repeats. Once the water reaches the boiling point (212°F), the percolation cycle ends, and the carafe is removed from the heat source. This is a critical step, since percolators can over-extract coffee grounds and create a very bitter finished product. Many electric percolators have sensors and timers that prevent them from overheating, but manual percolators must be monitored closely during the brewing process.
For peak flavor with minimal bitterness, coffee should not percolate for more than three minutes.
Once you’ve found a coffee percolator you might like to buy, we recommend finding out the answers to these questions before making your final decision.
Percolators excel at producing coffee in bulk. However, casual drinkers may not benefit from having all of that firepower at their disposal. The average capacity of a modern manual or electric coffee percolator is between 8 and 12 cups. This is on a par with most automatic drip coffee makers.
There are smaller six-cup coffee percolators available for occasional coffee drinkers, and there are also manual coffee percolators that can hold 14 cups of coffee or more. Of course, you’ll want to consider your own personal needs before making your selection.
Percolators require a coarse grind for best results. Coffee grounds should be the size of kosher salt crystals.
The best manual coffee percolators are made of sturdy metal that can handle the direct heat of a stovetop burner or the radiant heat of a campfire. Some models use a lighter form of aluminum; others use enameled steel.
The best electric percolator may have glass, chrome, or plastic elements as part of the design. The carafe should feel balanced in the user’s hand, and the handle should be cool to the touch.
A clear glass or plastic cap is useful for monitoring the brewing process, but it’s not essential. The carafe should be large enough in diameter to fit the burner element or other heat source.
Should you buy an electric coffee percolator or a manual coffee percolator? An electric coffee percolator is great for home and office use. But some people are more interested in a manual coffee percolator for use during camping and other outdoor activities.
A coffee percolator has no moving parts, but it requires more maintenance than an automatic drip coffee maker. Since most percolators do not use paper filters, the coffee grounds must be removed from the basket after every use.
Look for an assembly that is easy to dismantle for routine cleaning. This includes the central drawing tube, which can make cleaning the carafe difficult if it cannot be removed.
Some scorching can be expected when using a manual percolator over a heating element. Better manual percolators will be stain- and scorch-resistant and should clean up easily with a mild abrasive.
Consider sticking with an electric model if you want to be able to "set it and forget it.”
The most affordable manual coffee percolators hover at this price point. These models may have a six- to 10-cup capacity with a thinner metal construction designed for stovetop burners.
You’ll find coffee percolators with a more rugged construction and a higher capacity in this price range.
Most electric coffee percolators with solid timing and warming features begin in this price range. Though they cost a bit more, electric coffee percolators of this caliber may be easier to control during the brewing process.
The ideal water temperature for percolation is between 195°F and 200°F. Boiling water creates a very bitter brew.
The spirit of the original coffee percolator lives on with the rising popularity of the French press. Both methods yield a robust and complex product, along with some of the acidic and bitter elements many serious coffee drinker seek. Both the percolator and the French press forego paper filters in favor of a more direct relationship between the grounds and water, resulting in a noticeably stronger result.
There are also some notable differences between a percolator and a French press:
A percolator is capable of producing a large volume of coffee in a short period of time, while many French press carafes have a limited capacity of four cups or less.
The heated water in a percolator can make several passes through the grounds during a brewing cycle, but the water in a French press typically extracts essential oils from the grounds during one pass. The grounds are forced out of the brew by a mesh filter.
For those who are considering a switch from a French press to a new coffee percolator, keep in mind that the proper grind size is critical, and coffee beans with lower natural acidity will help reduce any bitterness created by the brewing process.
The familiar bubbling action of a coffee percolator should stop when the product is ready to be served.
Back in the 1970s, automatic drip coffee makers such as Mr. Coffee addressed many of the negative issues consumers had been having with percolated coffee. For example, consumers could now use a paper filter to remove much of the unpleasant taste associated with bitter essential oils. The drip coffee maker’s advanced timing system appealed to consumers, as did the removable glass carafe.
And yet, many fans of strong coffee still believe that a percolator yields a better cup of java than an automatic drip coffee maker. Yes, the paper filter in a drip machine allows you to use a finer grind, but the trade-off can be a less-potent brew.
Here are some other differences between drip coffee makers and coffee percolators:
The water in an automatic drip machine makes only one pass through the grounds, which means some of the flavor compounds remain unextracted.
An automatic drip machine does maintain the proper near-boiling water temperature required for good extraction, but a percolator will recycle that water several times.
Many drip coffee makers have automatic timing systems that allow you to start a pot of coffee before breakfast. In that same vein, some electric percolator models have a warming element, but manual percolators cannot maintain heat after brewing.
The capacity of an automatic drip coffee maker is roughly the same as that of a percolator, but a percolator does not generally offer a “sneak-a-cup” option.
A transparent cap is not essential to gauge brew strength. Many modern percolators have automatic timers to prevent over-brewing.
The coffee grounds used in single-pod brewing systems are engineered for maximum extraction in a minimal amount of time. This method of coffee-brewing is more along the lines of an instant coffee than it is a traditional roasted coffee blend. Percolators use a coarse grind that yields a much more complex product.
Here are some other differences between coffee percolators and single-pod coffee systems:
People who use single-pod brewers can choose from a wide variety of hot and cold beverages, including gourmet coffees, teas, and hot chocolates. A percolator is not designed to brew loose teas, and there are better ways to produce boiling water for other beverages.
A single-pod coffee brewer can only produce one cup of coffee at a time, whereas a coffee percolator can create a large quantity of product in only a few minutes.
Single-pod coffee tends to cost more per cup than percolated coffee. For those who drink several cups of coffee per day, using a percolator and an affordable bag of coarsely ground beans often makes better economic sense than investing in dozens of single-use pods and an expensive, high-tech brewing system.
Q. I like the convenience of my single-pod coffee maker, but my husband insists that his percolator makes better coffee. Is there really that much of a difference?
A. At one point, percolators dominated the home coffee-making market, and many people still remember the robust and bright coffee they produced. Modern drip and single-pod brewers are definitely more convenient, but the extraction process is limited to one pass through the grounds. Single-pod coffee can be flavorful and strong, but percolated coffee often contains more essential oils, tannins, and other complex flavors than modern “instant blends.”
Q. I’d like to switch to percolated coffee, but I don’t want to buy whole beans and grind them myself. What should I do?
A. If you don’t want to buy your own coffee grinder, many grocery stores still provide coffee-grinding machines for customers who purchase whole beans by the pound. When using a percolator, it is important to select a coarser grind, which may actually be designated as “percolator” on the dial. Specialty coffee shops will also grind whole beans to a coarse consistency, and some coffee manufacturers market a coarser pre-ground coffee blend.
Q. I like my coffee on the strong side, but I’ve heard that percolated coffee can be too bitter to drink. Is this true?
A. Proper coffee preparation of any kind is a balancing act between water temperature, coffee bean quality, and brewing time. A good percolator should maintain a near-boiling water temperature, which will extract most of the coffee’s essential oils and acidic compounds but not create bitterness. Bitterness occurs when coffee is over-extracted, either through boiling the water or extending the brew time. Because percolators can cycle the coffee water several times while brewing, there is always a chance of over-extraction and bitterness. Fortunately, most modern percolators have timers and sensors that automatically stop the process before it reaches this stage.
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