Deciding Between Percolators and French Presses

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Allow me to begin this article by pointing out something very obvious – I have not included drip coffee makers in this discussion. Mostly this is because it is very easy to understand how drip coffee makers work – water drips through the grounds and creates coffee-flavored water.

Percolators and French presses, on the other hand, can be a little confusing to people who have never had any experience with them. Once you add the unfamiliar environment of camping to the mix with these unfamiliar devices, many people become intimidated and unsure of how to proceed.

This article has three major focuses: explaining how both types of coffee makers work (in the atmosphere of camping); explaining how to use them; and assisting you in coming to a conclusion about which type is best for you.

Deciding Between Percolators and French Presses

How a French Press Works

Essentially, French presses work by allowing coffee grounds and hot water to mix, or steep, for a certain amount of time to infuse the water with the flavor of the grounds. Whereas drip coffee makers and percolators simply have water pass through the grounds, a French press bathes the grounds in water and then squeezes every possibly bit of flavor from them.

Here is a quick overview of how you create coffee using a French press. Pour the grounds into the bottom of the press then add the appropriate amount of hot water. Insert the plunger, but do not push down.

Secure the lid. Let the press sit for about 3 to 5 minutes so that the water can become infused with the flavor of the coffee and the grounds can soak up as much water as possible. The longer you allow the press to sit, the richer and bolder your coffee will taste.

Once you feel satisfied with the amount of time you’ve allowed your coffee to sit (or steep) you will begin to press it. Two very different forms of presses are popular on today’s market, and I would like to take a quick moment to address them both, since they each work differently.

Traditional presses will require that you press the plunger down to move all coffee grounds to the bottom of the pot, allowing the water (which has now turned into coffee) to rise to the top. The plunger will hold the grounds at the bottom of the pot while you pour coffee from a spout at the top.

A new design of French presses has you to push the water through the grounds and a filter at the bottom of the press. This design allows you to squeeze every last bit of flavor from the grounds, but is usually only available in a single serve size, since it can be difficult to switch from one cup to another in the middle of this process.

Tips for Using A French Press

  • Tip #1 – Do not pour boiling water into your French press. To get the right flavor and avoid a bitter, burnt aftertaste, aim for a water temperature of about 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Tip #2 – Do not reheat coffee while it is in your French press. Although some French presses may be made from fire-friendly and stove-friendly materials, you do not want to place them over heat, because the grounds in the bottom of the press will burn and ruin the flavor of your beverage.
  • Tip #3 – Purchase a double-walled or insulated French press to keep the temperature warm while coffee steeps.

How a Percolator Works

Percolators work much differently than French presses. A percolator is actually more closely related to a drip coffee maker than it is to a French press. If you have ever seen a coffee percolator, you should know that it is a metal jug which features a few key pieces – a basket, a stem, a clear knob. I will explain what each of these pieces is for and how the percolator creates what I believe is the tastiest cup of coffee.

First, you fill your percolator with water. Be sure to take note of the fill lines painted or stamped onto your percolator, because overfilling it can cause it to bubble over as the water begins to boil. Insert the stem so that the flared end is at the bottom of the jug.

A percolator’s basket sits atop a small rim on the inside of the jug or a ridge built into the stem. If you have filters, place a filter in the basket. Add your coffee grounds to the basket. Place the lid on top of the jug and begin to heat it.

As the water in the bottom of the jug heats up, it begins to bubble. Once it begins to bubble, reduce the heat slightly so that you will maintain a bubbling interior without burning the bottom of the percolator. If you are using your percolator over a fire, simply dampen the fire or lift the percolator farther away from the flame.

The force from the bubbling action causes water to rise up the stem. When it reaches the top of the stem, it will fill the knob and fall down onto the coffee grounds in the basket. The grounds will get wetter and wetter until they begin to drip flavored water back into the bottom of the pot.

This process will continue until brown water begins to make its way up to the knob. When you see the water color start changing as it bubbles up into the knob you know that the water is turning into coffee. The darker the liquid becomes, the richer your coffee will taste.

Like a drip coffee maker, a percolator flavors water by having it pass through the grounds. Unlike a drip coffee maker, the water will pass through more than once, allowing you to create a richer flavor.

Tips for Using Your Percolator

  • Tip #1 – Use filters. Unless you are fortunate enough to find a percolator with an extremely fine mesh basket, you will want to invest in disc-shaped coffee filters to prevent grounds from making their way into your coffee.
  • Tip #2 – Find a percolator with a loose knob. You may think loose parts would be a bad thing, but a loose knob is actually a good thing when it comes to a percolator. Glass and plastic knobs expand when they get warm. Tight-fitting knobs can crack or shatter as they expand. A loose-fitting knob allows for the extra space needed for expansion.
  • Tip #3 – As soon as the water begins to boil and bubble up into the knob, lower the heat of the stove or burner. If the water is at a constant high boil it will burn some of the grounds and lead to a bitter flavor. Smooth, rich coffee is the result of slow percolation.
  • Tip #4 – Remove the basket and stem to use your percolator as a boiler. Boil water in your empty percolator jug to rehydrate food or brew tea.