If you are someone who starts their day invariably with a freshly-brewed cup of coffee in the morning, you know how important it is to get it just right to set the tone for the day to come. It is what you need to gear up for the day ahead.
When coffee is as crucial to your day’s mood and productivity, it makes sense to put some thought into how you can brew it to best serve the purpose.
You will find several age-old methods of making coffee out there. We bring you a comparison of two such tried-and-tested techniques, the French press vs percolator, that has been used to concoct delicious coffee for more than a couple of centuries.
French Press Vs Percolator: What Are They?
Before moving on to the differences, let’s see what these two methods are, what their apparatus looks like, and how they came to be.
The French press coffee is a little over two centuries old. A classic arrangement to prepare coffee, a French press is also called a cafetière, a french press coffee pot, a press pot, or a coffee plunger. It was first developed and patented by two Frenchmen, Mayer and Delforge, in 1852.
Designated as the “most underrated method of brewing coffee” by James Hoffman in his book the “The World Atlas of Coffee,” the design and use of the French press has undergone multiple changes over the decades.
The basic technique (brewing method), however, has remained the same. The apparatus of the modern French press consists of a cylindrical container, usually of metal or clear glass, a plastic or metal lid, with a plunger fitted firmly in it, along with a mesh filter made of nylon or stainless steel.
One of the oldest, best-known methods of coffee brewing out there, it has remained a staple at the breakfast table in many households and a regular on the shelves of a coffee drinker. It has been especially popular owing to its simplicity of use and the authentic, rich flavor of coffee it produces.
What is interesting is that it can be used to plunge other things, too, besides coffee. Straining broth from shellfish, pressing grated ginger, citrus, tea, your French press can do it all.
If you are someone who likes to throw frequent coffee parties or family reunions, you are probably aware of what a coffee percolator is and why it has such an appeal for people who need to make coffee in batches.
The percolator is a coffee brewing device that goes even farther back in history than the French press. Although its origins are a point of debate, the invention of the prototype coffee percolator is credited to Sir Benjamin Thompson, a British-American physicist.
Some years later, the French tinsmith, Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens invented one that bears a closer resemblance to the model we use today. It was patented by several people in different places with slight variations, although the mechanism stays essentially the same.
True to its name, a coffee percolator prepares coffee by passing the water through the coffee grounds to absorb its essence, a process called percolation. It does this with an apparatus that consists of a chamber for boiling water, a tube, and a suspended coffee chamber with a porous bottom.
Although it briefly fell out of favor in the 1970s in competition with the newly-developed electric drip coffee maker, it didn’t take long for it to bounce back as some preferred its strong-flavored brew to the comparatively mild one of the drip coffee maker models.
French Press Vs Percolator: The Differences
Now that we know what the French press and percolator are, the basics of their working, and how they came to be popular, we can now move on to see how they compare and if one can be declared better than the other.
Taking a look at how they perform on a range of criteria should help you pick the right one for your needs. Read on to find everything you need to know about these two arguably most popular, time-tested methods of coffee making.
While we have already talked about the apparatus of these devices briefly, let’s now understand it in a little detail. Even though both of these tools produce the same thing, they do it by employing distinct principles.
The French press divulges the trick in the name itself. Simply put, it presses the water through the grounded coffee. The coffee grounds are placed at the bottom of the cylindrical beaker, and water is added to it.
This mixture is left for infusion for 4-5 minutes, after which the plunger is gently pressed down upon. This separates the grounds from the brew, leaving the intense, rich textured coffee to be poured into a cup.
The intensity and flavor of the coffee thus prepared can be controlled by varying the quantity of grounded coffee used and the duration it is left doused in the water. When prepared in large amounts, it tends to lose its essence, making it suitable only for small batches.
A percolator, on the other hand, makes use of steam to achieve the effect. It uses heat from a stove or electric heating to boiling water in the bottom chamber. A tube connects this to the coffee chamber near the top.
When heated, steam rises in the tube due to vacuum and is let out above the grounds in the top chamber. Coffee grounds kept in the top chamber remain suspended a little above the water and have a permeable filter bottom.
As the steam cools and passes as moisture through the grounded coffee, it is imbued with a rich taste and drips down into the water below, instilling it with the coffee flavor. This cycle repeats, passing the same water through the coffee chamber repeatedly.
Once brewed, the delicious brew can be emptied out. This way of preparing coffee best serves the purpose of mass production, making more in each batch than the French press. This is one of the reasons it became popular in the 19th century.
The percolator, however, uses temperature levels higher than those employed by other methods and therefore risks over-extraction. This shouldn’t be a problem, though, as long as you are careful with the time. We explore this critical aspect next.
When it comes to brewing coffee, time is as determining a factor as the method and the type of beans you use. To get that perfect cup of coffee, you need to learn the art of getting the timing just right. A little too soon, and you’ll be missing out on the essence; a bit too late, and the bitterness can be overpowering.
Seeing as timing is the key ingredient here, let’s look carefully at exactly how long you need to leave the grounds in when you’re using a French press or a percolator.
When using the French press, the ideal brew time is five minutes, once you’ve boiled the water and ground the coffee. That is enough time for the water to be suffused with the full flavor of the coffee to achieve the right amount of bitterness. You can take or add 30 seconds if you prefer your coffee milder or more bitter, respectively.
If you are brewing for more than one person, you need to brew it for the number of people times five. It is, however, not recommended to use the French press for large batches at once. In such quantities, it fails to reach the desired flavor profile, leaving the coffee tasting watered down and savorless.
This makes it perfect for personal use and small batches but insufficient to cater to the needs of sizeable gatherings and larger lots.
With a percolator, that’s not a cause of concern. Adapted to the needs of larger families and group settings, it is the ideal choice if you want to make more in the same duration. You will even find some percolators producing about a hundred cups of coffee in one go.
What is the typical duration for a percolator? It varies across the size and type of percolator but usually falls between two to ten minutes. This means it takes a little longer than a French press. However, depending on how strong you like your coffee, you can take it sooner, even during the process.
It also depends on the temperature of water you add to the bottom chamber and the grind size of the coffee. Warmer water will be quicker to boil, and coarser coffee will allow the water to trickle down faster.
Thus, while a French press may be faster, the percolator offers the advantage of batch brewing.
Taste, the primary factor people consider when choosing their brewing methods, is altered depending on the device you employ, the time you take to brew, the beans you use, how fresh you use them, and a host of other details. Still, one of the most important determinants of coffee taste is how you brew it.
With a French press, you can be sure of getting the most real, raw, holistic taste of coffee, seeing how the grounds are directly added to the water. It is loved by its users for the intense, strongly flavor-packed brew it delivers. If you are looking for a cup to super-charge you for a long day, look no further.
If you like your coffee with a shot of cream, this is a good choice as the hearty flavors won’t be compromised. A French press-brewed coffee also comes with a richer, thicker texture as the finer grounds and oil are not completely filtered out, giving the coffee a coarser, grittier feel.
The flavor also depends on how long you let the grounds rest before pressing and pouring. If, however, you want a lighter punch of flavor for a delicate taste, a French press isn’t what you should go for.
The percolator, on the other hand, wasn’t designed with the flavor profile in mind. The key consideration for its development was the quantity it could produce in a single batch. It was invented at a time when mass production was the need of the hour.
While it achieves its original purpose wonderfully, this has admittedly involved a little compromise on flavor. It does infuse a strong flavor of coffee to an extent but can prove to miss the mark if you are passionate about the taste.
Though a percolator can achieve a fine, roasty-flavored brew if done right, your best bet is to go for the non-electric ones if you don’t wish to negotiate on the taste.
Ease Of Use
When it comes to the ease of using these devices, neither comes with a disadvantage. Both are equally equipped for daily use.
All you have to do with a percolator is add the coffee grounds, add water, let it rest, press, and pour. A process of under five minutes. It doesn’t get simpler than that. You do need to clean out the filter after use, but that is the case with most coffee maker models, though some newer types separate the used grounds into an attached container.
Even the percolator is simple to operate. Add water in the bottom chamber and coffee in the top, and set it on or light the stove. Then you wait for a few minutes while it does everything by itself and presents you with a hassle-free, freshly-brewed cup of coffee.
However, you need to keep a watch on the percolator to make sure it doesn’t boil over or burn the coffee. In that respect, a French press doesn’t require a constant vigil and can be left to stand for the duration without a worry.
The ability to carry and operate your coffee brewer conveniently while traveling is of crucial import if you are out and about very often.
When it comes to the question of portability, the French press coffee maker has the upper hand as long as you have ways to heat water and ground coffee. Its all-in-one mechanism doesn’t need an outer source of energy to function, making it a smart choice for frequent travelers.
A percolator, on the other hand, needs either a flame, hot plate, or other heat source or an electrical outlet. Since it requires an external energy source and isn’t self-sufficient, you would have to make sure you’ll have access to such amenities while you’re out. Otherwise, you’ll need to look for an alternative.
Maintenance and Cleaning
French presses are simple devices without a lot of complexities. This makes them easy to clean and maintain. After use, you need to empty the grounds, wash the filter with soap and water, and rinse the plunger. All fairly quick and simple.
Cleaning a percolator isn’t all that difficult either. After throwing out the grounds, you need to clean the mesh filter. If it’s an electrical type you are using, you might need to take some extra care. Other than that, they are made for regular use for large numbers, so they are usually found to be durable, provided they get basic maintenance.
Grind size makes a difference to the taste of coffee, regardless of the method you use.
If the grounded coffee is too coarse, it won’t be able to release its full flavor and aroma. It would thus remain under-extracted.
On the other end, if the grind size is too minute, it will produce an excessively bitter taste because of over-extraction. In such a case, very finely-ground coffee might even make its way past the filter and into your cup, totally changing the experience for you.
Thus, medium grind size is the way to go for both methods. For the percolator, it may be a bit on the finer side for the water to effectively extract some flavor before dripping down. For the French press coffee brewing process, the grind size could be medium coarse so that when you sieve the grounds, they are not too fine to pass through it.
Which is better – Percolator or French press? – Wrap Up
By now, you probably have a good idea of the pros and cons of the French press coffee maker and percolator coffee machine. Even after measuring them up against all these criteria, there is no clear answer to the question – which is better.
Choosing between these classics, age-old methods of brewing coffee ultimately boils down to your personal needs and preferences. While one packs a punch in flavor, the other can cater to the needs of your coffee parties and family brunches.
Both have their strengths and shortfalls that can be navigated once you know what you prefer. Though both are individually great methods being used for ages, one can fit your needs better than the other, depending on your priorities.