Ruhlman Defends the Percolator

percolater_coffee_ge.jpg

Food writer Michael Ruhlman swears up and down that his ancient GE percolator makes better coffee than any drip machine—and from generic Folgers grounds, too.

I cherish the General Electric percolator (apparently no longer in production), but when I tell people that it makes the best coffee, by far superior to the ubiquitous automatic drip machines, they look at me like I’ve just confessed my belief in creationism.

It astonishes me that I have to defend this sleek, 9-cup wonder.  I serve generic decaf to guests and they’re begging to know what kind of coffee I buy.

Auto-drip coffee though almost never hot, especially if you put anything in it.  If it sits for a half hour, it’s tepid, and soon burnt.  It’s usually not much faster, nor appreciably easier to make.

He’s bought three of his preferred model on eBay for $13. If he sways you, you better start sniping those bids now before there is a burgeoning desire for retro percolators.

Percolator Love [Ruhlman.com]

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33 Responses to Ruhlman Defends the Percolator

  1. gothevole says:

    Melitta makes a nice easy to clean, stainless steel, retro looking percolator which makes a great cup of coffee -regular or decaf.
    http://www.melitta.com/itemdy00.asp?T1=66+330

    I too have a collection of coffee makers. I enjoy the simplicity of the Melitta percolator—plus it looks so elegant when pouring a cup—so wonderfully mid century…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Warming plates and burnt coffee from most drip systems are indeed horrid, as is the alternative of letting your drip coffee get cold within 15 minutes.

    However there is another option. Get a drip coffeemaker that uses a thermal carafe. Your coffee will stay hot longer and it won’t be burned.

  3. Scott Johnson says:

    Percolator is definitely better than drip. Here’s how the coffee world works, whether you like it or not:

    1. french press
    2. percolator
    3. (I’m sure you can think of something better than drip to put here….it’s not hard)
    4. drip

  4. thornae says:

    @5 – I’ve recently bought an Aeropress, and while it does make good coffee, you’re right about the amount of beans/grounds it goes through. I’d probably use it more often if it weren’t for that.

    My usual way of making coffee is pretty basic – I put a couple of heaped teaspoons of grounds into a mug along with a couple of spoons of sugar, and add hot water. Stir, leave for a bit, stir again and let settle, then drink.
    This doesn’t make the best coffee – it’s probably an acquired taste – but it’s convenient.
    It’s also not the cleanest looking brew – my other half has dubbed it the “grunge-acino”.

  5. mujadaddy says:

    It sounds great. I’m about out of patience with my $10 GE-Walmart special.

  6. krylon says:

    I can believe Ruhlman. Crappy decaf tends to be flavorless and percolators are known for destroying decent coffee in a wash of bitterness. Put the two together and you probably have something that comes close to pleasant. My brother does the same thing with my grandfather’s percolator and it makes something drinkable, but by no means great. I recall putting coffee I ground at the supermarket into my old percolator though and despising the results.

    I still far prefer my french press. Mmm good.

  7. absolutetrust says:

    I used many of the glass Chemex drip cones in my coffee drinking past (many because they break with the slightest of bumps). I liked the making process and the coffee was clean in the mouth but rich tasting. They use Chemex brand filters which are thicker, chemistry lab grade filters.

    I also liked them as a beautiful kitchen design object.

    http://www.chemexcoffeemaker.com/

  8. Achalemoipas says:

    I created an account just to reply to this thread.

    Percolators are the best coffee makers.

    They have no cleaning issues. They always stay clean and are incredibly easy to clean (dishwasher safe for stove top percolators, which are the best).

    You can control the strength and taste of your coffee better than any other device.

    They make the hottest cup of coffee.

    The complaints you guys posted about the percolators aren’t about percolators, they’re about your inhability to use one properly.

    A percolator isn’t a machine. YOU make coffee. Percolators are just boilers with a coffee holder.

    It’s like cooking. If you can’t do it right, it will taste bad, even if the ingredients are the best and you have the best tools to cook.

    If you don’t want the coffee to become bitter, here’s the genius behind it: you take it off the heat source. Won’t be filtered over and over.

    If you want it to keep warm but not be filtered over and over again, more genius: you take out the top part that contains the coffee.

    Other pro tip: you don’t actually have to make the water boil. Just make the water hot enough for it to go up the tube. When it’s starts splashing, it’s done. If you like stronger coffee, let it splash some more. Migh take a few tries to get it right, I put my stove top at number 8 instead of “high”.

    The electric ones don’t give you so much control, that is why they are inferior to the stove tops.

    Use medium to coarse grind. Grind only depends on the method used. The fact that you have tiny bits of X instead of big bits of X doesn’t remove X. Let splash longer for coarse grind.

  9. Darby says:

    I have to agree with the percolator fans.

    My Cona vacuum (alcohol lamp) is the best brewer.

    A Corning pyrex percolator is next best.

    French presses, expresso, drip makers are OK but they don’t rank with the vac pots or percs.

    Fewer minutes perking (five is enough or even less), quick removal of basket, quick transfer of coffee out of pot into thermos keeps out all nasty taste. Cleaning it all in hot suds right after it’s cool enough to touch keeps pyrex looking new. 1 part vinegar to two parts water cleans a cloudy pyrex pot (just like the original Corning instructions said).

    Both a vac pot and a pyrex percolator put on a great audio/visual show. Especially the vacuum maker because its right on the dining table over a small wicked alcohol lamp (a tiny butane lamp is much quicker but nontraditional). The vac pot is also noisier than the percolator (watch a Cona or Yama on YouTube). For alcohol fuel I go to a boat (marine) store and ask for ‘boat stove fuel’ which is alcohol made to not smoke up the galley. About $8 per year’s supply (gallon).

  10. sonny p fontaine says:

    he’s right you know.i think it has to do with the recirculation. you don’t have to stop your search with ebay. most thrift stores in the “retiring” states have these things by the binfull. new glass “domes” aren’t too hard to come by either. and stove top models are available in the camping section of your favorite sporting goods or dept. store. i also prefer old “automatic” waffle irons to the newer non-stick versions, mainly because they’re easier to clean. my ’73 waring “solid state” 12 speed blender was a champ at chrushing ice, and it had a glass pitcher.

  11. jacob says:

    cold brew system is the best for me, it’s also less acidic.

  12. aLearnerRather says:

    #6 CoffeeGeek:

    Michael Ruhlman may be crazy when it comes to coffee (a percolator! come ON), but when it comes to other food writing, he’s among the best. His book “The Soul of a Chef” is beautifully written and a great read. His new one, “The Elements of Cooking,” looks quite good as well. Someone just needs to send him a French press is all.

  13. vjinterkosmos says:

    #21: agreed – although being lazy I often drip single cups like Isaac (#12).

    However, drip machines have infiltrated every office, workshop, garage etc. so we’ll just have to live with them (… until the revolution comes and All Shall Have Beverages To Their Needs anyway).

    Indispensable drip machine survival tip (from old folks): Drip 1/2 l of vinegar (the strong kind, not salad-dressing balsamico!) every two weeks, followed by several tankfuls of clean water. Gone be mildew and calcium deposits.

  14. gobo says:

    Percolators are great, but I’m with Mark — the Aeropress is the best coffeemaker on the market.

  15. Phart says:

    A thermos is the key to the drip coffee maker warming-plate problem. Also, keeps your coffee warm all day with no add’l energy use.

    Personally, I prefer espresso from a pump machine in the winter and cold brew coffee in the summer.

  16. jbang says:

    Stove tops are the only way to go. Easy.

    Drip systems, and their warming-plate = coffee genocide. Just not worth the bother, may as well crack out the Nescrape 43.

    If you don’t have a stove top boiler (which is a perculator, although it only drips-through once – I know some models keep recirculating) then a plunger is the way.

    Espresso / coffee machines are alright, but you can only be sure with an industrial number and a decent barrista. The at-home numbers (even the four figure machines) aren’t necessarily going to be worth it.

  17. kingofnyct says:

    Wow! What a discussion! I’d just like to weigh in my comments everyone. I am a self-proclaimed coffee expert. I am a hard-core coffee drinker. When I say hardcore I mean that I can blind taste test any type of coffee, and tell you what country that coffee came from. I can drink blended coffee, and tell you what coffees were used in that blend. I have had people blindfold me and give me a blend and I can tell you it came from a mix of sumatra, guat, and costa rican and I’m never wrong. With that said I feel I am qualified to comment.. I have tried all types of coffee machines over the past 10 years. This article sums up what I have been saying for YEARS. I have a GE percolater (among others) from 20 years ago and I will attest that Ruhlman is 110% correct. I have been attesting to the greatness of my old percolators for YEARS. I have never in my life had any drip maker or french press come close to my percolator. Anyone who knocks a percolator truly has no clue about coffee.. Let me explain why. I think the best coffee makers are in this order: Extraction > Percolator > Drip > French Press. Now I want you to understand that I am comparing only the best of the best here. The best press can be better than the worst drip, etc. Also do not count modern Percolators as they are no longer made the same (heated elements, shape, etc) and most percolators nowadays are just not good, unless you buy the most expensive one you can find. I think the decline of percolator quality is why they are starting to get a bad rep. Most drips under $100 are better than the worst percolator. But a percolate made right, is better than any drip, including Bunn.
    Period. End. French Press is easily the worst tasting coffee that can ever be made. The reason starbucks sells so many of these FP units is because usually people who like burned garbage coffee like Starbucks, enjoy french pressed coffee. The reason for this, is that French Press will taste different depending on the grind. All French Press must use coarse ground coffee. Coarse ground coffee is atrocious and in a French Press, coffee is in contact with hot water for WAY too long and will burn the hell out of your bean. Also coarse grinds just have a rotten incomplete flavor. The ultimate goal to a good cup of coffee is to make the grinds very fine with a high surface area and have the hot water cook the coffee for the shortest period of time at a temperature that DOES NOT BURN IT (Just like Tea). It is for this reason that the vacuum machines, like a CORA Vac will produce such outstanding coffee. You can use fine coffee in a Cora, and it will only cook for a while, and the temperature is not too hot for too long.
    You might think, well a Percolator will cook it, but the key to good percolator coffee is to drink the coffee right after it’s made. If you allow the coffee to sit in that percolator, forget about it. You must drink it as soon as its done. It does not scald the coffee the same way a french press will, and you will not end up with a nasty coarse grind flavor. Drips are good , but only if you spend a ton of money. If you want good drip coffee, get a commercial unit. Do not use any Cuisinarts, especially the Grind N’ Brew units, they are the absolute worst. Be warned though: percolators are a bit less forgiving on Jamaican and Kona beans, these beans are delicate and I would only use a Cona or a very expensive drip machine. You should never buy any Jamaican or Kona coffee unless it is hand picked off a plantation, roasted, and shipped overnight the day you order it. And remember any coffee that leaves any aftertaste whatsoever should be flushed down the toilet.

  18. kingofnyct says:

    btw: its true too that those GE percs make an amazing decaf. most people try it and will not believe me when I tell them it’s decaf.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Anyone who drinks decaf shouldn’t be giving advice on how to brew coffee.
    Shame on Thee.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like this 1961 film by the Coffee Brewing Institute:

    ‘This is Coffee’
    http://www.archive.org/details/ThisisCo1961

  21. w000t says:

    Percolators are underrated, but not by much. I’ve had one of nearly everything at one time or another: a Bialetti stove-top espresso machine, an automatic espresso machine, several automatic drip machines, a Bodum electric vacuum press, a percolator, and some I’m probably forgetting.

    Here are my humble rankings (from worst to first):

    worst – automatic drip machines of any type – nearly impossible to keep clean, all but designed to encourage mildew and mineral deposits. They’re evidence of the triumph of convenience over quality.

    not good – most household counter-top espresso machines – for many of the same reasons, but more mostly because they’re not worth the time, trouble, and counter space unless espresso is all you want (I drink all coffee beverages black, anyway).

    good – percolators – I have to agree with the Ruhlman: percs make cheap, generic coffee taste good. But they tend to make expensive, great coffee taste (merely) good, too. They tend to keep coffee warm by cooking it until it reduces to a thick syrup, though.

    also good – electric vacuum press – actually one of the simplest systems, fairly easy to keep clean, and consistently good. The heating element stopped working on mine or I’d probably still use it.

    good, but almost too different from normal coffee – A Toddy “cold brew” system – A bit inefficient and it takes about 18 hours, but the result is really good and very convenient. You end up with a sort of coffee concentrate in the fridge that I really like for iced coffee. It changes the character of the bean so much that I just use Chock Full O’ Nuts for this and save the good stuff for other methods.

    my favorite – I think Joel and I have the same insulated steel french press – a Bodum Columbia (but mine’s a “12 cup” model, which means 6 cups outside of coffee world). Paired with a basic electric kettle, I’ve got a system that makes consistently superior coffee and doubles as a teapot and carafe.

    PS – I’ve never tried the Aeropress, but will probably pick one up sometime. They just seem so inefficient, as if a pound of grounds would make 30 cups of coffee.

  22. captain pete says:

    Sadly, it is Mark Prince who is wrong. More sad is the fact that so many peope actually believe that Mark knows what he’s talking about. I’ve participated in the coffeegeek forums, and I can personally attest to the fact that most of these people, Mark foremost among them, won’t give a fair shake to anything that doesn’t fit within their latte sucking euro wannabe mindset.

    The electric percolators I am familiar with don’t even boil the water; they heat it to 200 degrees, the temperature that ‘coffee experts’ agree is within the optimum range for brewing. The water then showers down over the ground coffee, repeatedly, until it has completed the brew cycle.
    Many people believe that this washes all the flavor out of the coffee, and causes all the bitter oils to end up in the brew. Well, then why is letting the grinds steep right in the water for 4 minutes, as they do in a French press, any better?

    I, too, know something about coffee, though I will not tout myself as an ‘expert’. But, I’ve had coffee brewed in every manner possible, and in many parts of the world. I have used some of the most expensive coffee brewing equipment available to the consumer, and that which is the highest rated by such self proclaimed experts as those at coffeegeek.com. And you know what? I think that the only brewing method that produces better coffee than my percolator is a french press. Once I found the right grind to use, the percolator is even producing coffee on par with my Chemex brewer.

    So, Ruhlman is right; Prince is wrong. And I know plenty of knowlegable coffee drinkers that will argue Ruhlman’s position over Prince’s. I myself had been convinced that percolators were inferior. However, I was willing to actually try it for myself, and find (and admit) that I had been wrong these many years. I even went so far as to email Ruhlman and tell him so.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I have an 8-cup General Electric percolator which is no longer in production unfortunately. I think it beats any auto drip coffemaker. It has a button that allows you to choose between strong or mild coffee. That percolator makes the strongest coffee I have ever tasted.

  24. Transistorized says:

    I have an 8-cup GE percolator which unfortunately is no longer in production. I think it beats any auto drip coffeemaker. It has a button that lets you choose between strong or mild coffee. That percolator makes the strongest coffee I have ever tasted.

  25. HP says:

    Assuming this thread is dying, but not yet dead, I’ll charge right in here, and hope someone reads it.

    W000T in #6 mentions the Toddy system — I had a Toddy, and really enjoy the flavor and convenience of cold-brewed coffee, but I didn’t care for the hardware: underdesigned, overpriced, and requires proprietary filters. After trying several different methods, I came up with the optimal way to make cold-brewed coffee.

    You will need:

    A two-liter diet soft drink bottle, well-rinsed (no detergent). Naturally sweetened soda is harder to clean out.

    11 oz coffee — cheap coffee is good; I like Stewart’s Red Eye. If you go varietal, the winy African or Asian varieties are better than the robust Columbian-types. Forget dark roasts.

    Cheese cloth — about 4 inches square.

    6 – 7 cups cold, filtered water

    1. Pour 2 cups of water in the bottom of the bottle.

    2. Using a funnel, add the coffee.

    3. Add 2 more cups of water.

    4. Put the cap back on the bottle, and gently shake it back and forth until you have a nice suspension — the coffee-water mixture will be the consistency of quicksand.

    Don’t overshake it, or you’ll get a layer of “foam” on top that will inhibit draining out the extract the next day.

    5. Add 2-3 more cups of water, until the bottle is full to the top.

    6. Wait 12 – 18 hours. 12 hours is plenty, but 18 won’t hurt. In warm weather, put it in the fridge.

    7. The next day, replace with the bottle cap with a small square of cheesecloth. Secure it below the lip on the bottle with a twist tie or rubber band.

    8. Upend the whole thing over a carafe or large jar.

    9. Take a sharp knife or icepick and poke a hole in the bottom of the bottle.

    It may take up to an hour or more to drain the extract completely. You’ll get about 4 cups of extract, which is enough to make about a gallon of coffee. Just mix 1:4 extract to water. Boiling water for hot coffee, cold water and ice for iced coffee. If you like sweet coffee, you can presweeten the extract.

    There is no clean-up; just dispose of the bottle. You may not be recycling, but you’re re-using, and that’s pretty good, too.

  26. isaac says:

    you know, recently i’ve been very impressed by a simple drip cone set up, as long as you follow a few guidelines:

    1. boil twice as much water as you plan on using
    2. after the water is boiling, pour out the first half into a measuring cup to cool it slightly (and to make sure about the volume), and then pour it through the paper filter in the cone and into your cup. this removes any papery taste from the filter and preheats your cup. dump out the water.
    3. i like to use about 3-4 tablespoons of beans, ground at around medium, per 8 oz of water. i find that this ratio really brings out the more complex flavors, but is, some would say, a lot of coffee for one cup.
    4. as you pour the second half of the hot water into the filter cone on top of the grounds, allow it to bloom up and, with the stick-end of a wooden or plastic spoon, start stirring. keep doing so until there is no more liquid left.
    5. enjoy!

    this works very well for me with many coffees, creating a slightly heavier profile than what you’d get with a french press. though, it must be said, the method of preparation really depends on the bean. experiment, its fun and you get to drink all the coffee you want/can afford.

  27. Pekar says:

    I like crush beans with rock, soak in tepid water puddle in full sun for a day, drink next morning.
    AAAAGHHHH IS GOOD!

  28. CoffeeGeek says:

    After reading Michael Ruhlman’s article, I’m pretty convinced he’s a charlatan when it comes to food writing; or at least in the sensory skills department.

    Regardless of the comments here, there’s some pretty basic facts about percolators and coffee that are almost universally accepted by coffee experts – and have been that way for over 30 years now, and longer:

    - the chemical makeup of the roasted coffee bean is a delicate, temperature sensitive thing

    - caffeine, one of nature’s most bitter substances, is very resistant to evaporation or dillution; so while other things are burning off during the boil / reboil cycle of a percolator, caffeine remains, bittering up the beverage. Use a heavy robusta blend like Folgers, and more bitters make it into the sensory cup.

    - other undesirable elements are extracted from coffee when it is continuously boiled and reboiled. Anyone who is worth their salt in the coffee biz has tried this experiment and “savoured” the results.

    - boiling and reboiling coffee completely obliterates the delicate, subtle flavours that any quality, specialty arabica coffee offers up.

    This article would be the equivalent of Robert Parker talking up the virtues of Mad Dog 20/20, if Ruhlman was anywhere near Parker’s stature. It’s garbage.

    Mark Prince
    CoffeeGeek.com

  29. agraham999 says:

    While I have fond memories as a child…waking up on the farm with the soft sounds of the percolator, I don’t care for the coffee from it. Personally I don’t like my coffee boiling over and over…

    First I’ll come to the defense of the drip machine…but not just any drip machine. My own machine is the Bosch Porsche…pricey at (originally) over $300…for one thing it brews at a proper and consistent temperature…hitting 200 degrees. It brews into a glass lined thermal carafe…and the ergonomics of the machine are outstanding:

    http://www.wholelattelove.com/articles/bosch_porsche_coffee_maker.cfm

    But it is tricky to beat a french press…however I also use another method which is the Evo Solo CafeSolo.

    http://www.evasolo.dk/products-cafesolo.html

    You can even get matching sugar and milk containers.

    http://www.evasolo.dk/products-sugar.html

    I tend to change my brewing daily depending on my mood and the coffee I choose.

  30. klimegreen says:

    Being a coffee snob, I would say this: there is no such thing as good brewed coffee. Pressed only.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I love the taste of coffee from my percolator – it is rich and dark (not burnt).

  32. bts says:

    A stovetop percolator on a gas stove also works wonderfully. It may boil out all the wonderful aromatics—but that just puts them in the air for everyone to enjoy.

    I find a Percolator and Chock full o’Nuts make an excellent complement to freshly roasted and ground beans and a certified CoffeeSnob french press or espresso machine. A few minutes after it’s on, I can shut my eyes and step into the kitchen of my grandmother: same model percolator on a gas stove, and the same smell throughout the apartment.

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