What Is a Coffee Percolator?

Coffee Percolator

If you’ve ever heard a cheerful “gurgling” sound coming from a coffeemaker – probably at a community event of some sort – then you’re a least a little bit familiar with the machine known as a percolator (or “perk,” to those who still adore it).

Although the coffee percolator may seem a 20th-century appliance, it was invented roughly between 1810-1814 by American-born British physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson. His stint as a solider in the Bavarian Army inspired his version of a percolating coffee pot that could easily be used in camps. As someone who couldn’t stand tea, he turned to coffee as a stimulant for himself and his fellow soldiers. In case you thought that the only thing a love of coffee is good for is keeping you awake? Well, this invention got Thompson some recognition, and resulted in him being named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. Not bad for combining coffee grounds and water.

A few years later, a Parisian tinsmith named Laurens modified Thompson’s design and made it capable of being heated on a kitchen stove. The first actual U.S. patent for a coffee percolator came years later in 1865 to James Nason of Massachusetts; his modifications weren’t all that extreme (but when it comes to getting a patent, it’s all about who gets there first). Then in 1889, Illinois farmer Hanson Goodrich patented the modern U.S. stove-top percolator that we know in modern times, and very few modifications have been made to it since.

So to backtrack a bit, what a coffee percolator does is simple enough: Using gravity, it brews coffee by continually cycling boiling (or nearly boiling) brew through the grounds until the desired strength is reached.

To break that down into its various components, most percolators work this way:

  1. Ground coffee is contained on a perforated filter plate within the pot, which is suspended and kept dry above water.
  1. The water and the coffee grounds are connected by a narrow tube that runs from above the inside base of the pot to above the layer of coffee grounds.
  1. The water is heated and creates a steam-powered vacuum. This sucks the water up through the tube and sprays it over the grounds. Then it’s filtered through the perforation in the metal filter and back into the bottom chamber.
  1. The water continuously cycles through the grounds until it’s taken away from the heat source; the finished brew then drains down into the bottom holding tank and is ready to serve.

The downside to using a percolator is that, in the manual version, removing it from the heat source too late will result in overcooked, bitter coffee. The electric versions include a heating element to remove the necessity of making coffee on the stove; many of these automatically reduce the heat at the end of the brewing phase, keeping the coffee hot enough to drink without overcooking it.

Coffee Camping

Once hugely popular, the 1970s found Americans discovering the automatic drip coffee maker, which refined the process and removed the potential for over-extraction. However, campers still love the stovetop version because it can be used anywhere – just like inventor Benjamin Thompson intended. And those who grew up with the percolator bubbling merrily in the kitchen or cooking away on the stove each morning still have a soft spot for the machine – claiming that it just needs a bit of attention in order to create an amazing pot of coffee. It also fills the house with a truly wonderful smell, which can instantly turn a bad night’s sleep into a day full of possibilities.

So fear not, nostalgia-seekers: the percolator is still available to purchase from multiple retailers. The cost is generally more than an automatic drip coffee maker, but who can put a price on re-creating memories? And if you want the coffee but not the hassle, there’s probably a Bingo session going on at a nearby church, its 40-cup percolator just waiting to make you happy.

Vintage Coffee