It’s easy to think that the future of coffee lies in machines, what with the coffee pods, fancy brewing systems, and endless gadgets taking the market by storm. In the face of all of this, two traditional brewing methods from the good old days are experiencing a renaissance: the french press and the coffee percolator. While both these methods have been around for over a century, they’re powerful yet simple enough to compete with modern brewing systems.
Despite their many similarities, there are a few key differences between the French press and the percolator, mainly in how the coffee is prepared and what kind of brew you can expect. There’s a long-standing debate about which classic way of making coffee produces a better brew.
We’re going to break down each method, talk about their pros and cons, and compare them side-by-side. Is one better than the other? Read on to find out.
The French press, also known as a cafetier or coffee plunger, is known across the world for its ability to brew strong, aromatic, and flavorful coffee. It works by steeping the coffee grounds in hot water (like you would with tea), then using pressure to enhance the extraction process. The infusion method is incredibly simple and takes just a few minutes before your coffee is ready to serve.
Since the French press itself is rather small (most are under 60oz, or 6-10 cups), it’s best for single servings of coffee. While making big batches is not impossible, it’s a bit difficult and time-consuming.
- Accentuates coffee’s flavor profiles.
- Very easy brewing process.
- Can experiment with preparation method.
- Not good for brewing multiple servings.
- Coffee is prone to overstepping.
- Risk of sediment in the coffee.
Invented in the early 19th century, percolating was perhaps the most popular coffee making method in American households until the 1970s when they were replaced with drip machines. Percolation is a very unique method of extracting flavor from coffee grounds, but it does require a lot of effort and attention to get it right.
The French press uses the immersion method, pour overs and modern coffee machines use the drip method, but percolators are an entirely different beast. It uses steam and condensation to brew coffee, producing bold and full-bodied flavors with an extra kick of caffeine. There are stovetop percolators (which require manual heating) and electric percolators (which heat up to the exact temperature needed on its own).
- Can brew big batches of coffee in a small amount of time.
- Extremely strong, robust coffee.
- Inexpensive, simple equipment.
- Needs to be monitored.
- Easy to “burn” the coffee.
- Risk of sediment in the coffee.
French presses have a very simple and straightforward method of brewing. You place coffee grounds in the container and pour a little hot water into it. After letting it steep for 30 seconds, fill the container with hot water. Let the coffee sit and allow it to extract flavor for 3 to 3 ½ minutes, then place the lid and press down on the movable plunger until all the grounds are at the bottom of the glass. Serve the coffee fresh and hot.
You can experiment with different variables such as the type of roast, how coarse the grind is, and how long you allow it to steep. The longer you steep it, the stronger the coffee; however, steeping it for too long can result in too-intense, bitter coffee.
Percolators follow a very distinct process to create your morning cup of coffee. A percolating coffee maker usually has three levels: the bottom, where the water is placed; the middle, where you put the coffee grounds; and the top tank, where the coffee collects.
After placing the coffee grounds in the percolator and filling the bottom tank with cold water, you have to heat it up on a stovetop. As the water heats up, steam rises through the coffee grounds and condenses into coffee at the topmost level. This process repeats over and over until it’s removed from heat, creating an incredibly strong brew that is best served hot.
The biggest mistake people make when preparing coffee in a percolator is bringing it to a boil – this oversteps the coffee and makes it much too bitter to drink.
Both methods have their pros and cons when it comes to preparation, but they’re basically very similar processes with the same process steps and even the same drawbacks. It’s pretty much a tie between the French press and percolators for now.
With both the french press and the coffee percolator, the prep work actually takes much more time than the brewing itself. If the coffee is already ground, then it saves even more time.
For the french press, you just need to pre-boil the water. With an electric kettle, this will take less than a minute or so. Steeping the coffee takes around 3-4 minutes before it’s ready to serve. It’s super fast and easy unless you’re trying to brew multiple batches of coffee.
Coffee percolators, on the other hand, take around 5-10 minutes depending on many factors, like whether you’re using a stovetop percolator or an electric one. The great news is you can brew very large batches (100-cup percolators are not a rare thing) in a relatively quick span of time, so it’s perfect for gatherings or large families.
We can’t declare an easy winner here. The French press takes very little time to brew single-serve coffees compared to percolators, but percolators have the edge when it comes to brewing large batches.
If you’re a fan of full-strength, classic coffee, then the french press is definitely worth a try. Distinct coffees with a chocolate or nutty profile are brought out by the French press’ infusion method. While this method produces more delicate and refined coffee compared to percolators, it’s not particularly adept at displaying light or floral roasts.
Because the oils and sediments from the coffee are still present in the brew, french press coffees tend to be much thicker and more flavorful than regular coffee. French press coffees mix well with milk, cream, honey, or butter without tasting weak or diluted.
You can expect to brew strong, robust, rustic coffees with a coffee percolator. Because of the unique process, which requires steeping and steeping multiple times, you’d be hard-pressed to find a method that produces a more intense flavor. However, unlike French presses, the nuances of the coffee don’t seem to come out as distinctly – instead, you just get very bold, full-bodied coffee.
Although we can’t account for personal tastes and preferences, most people agree that presses create better, more complex coffees.
With either brewing method, you can use any kind of roast of your choosing, but a dark roast is a much better choice than something delicate or flowery. However, whether you’re using a french press or a percolator, you need a coarse and even grind, otherwise, you’ll get coffee that’s too strong. Fine powders will make it difficult to press down on a French press and will increase the chances of sediments in your pressed or perked coffee.
It’s easy to adapt and tweak your coffees with both the French press and a percolator. Play with the number of grounds, how fine or coarse the grind, and how long you steep – it’ll be like drinking a completely different cup of coffee each time.
You can use any kind of coarsely-grinded roast with both methods, so it’s a draw.
Ease of Use
If we’re talking simplicity and convenience, it doesn’t get any easier than a french press. No other method (except perhaps modern brewing systems) require this little involvement. Just place the coffee grounds in the french press, add water, then press when you’re ready to serve. While you do need to time the steeping to make sure you’re not overdoing it, it doesn’t require constant monitoring like percolators do.
You need to keep a close eye on your percolator kettle to make sure it’s not overboiling and burning the coffee. It’s not a terribly complicated process, but you can’t just leave it like you can with a french press. You need to be by the stovetop to adjust the temperature when needed.
While both brewing methods aren’t overly-complicated, the French press does have a much easier learning curve. Plus, it doesn’t require you to watch the whole process.
Percolators are a time-tested method for brewing strong coffee consistently. If brewing large batches is your main concern, then percolation is for you. Otherwise, the French press produces a much better, tastier coffee that you’re sure to enjoy.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.