This article was originally published in Issue 42 of Coffee Lovers Magazine, which is where you should read it because they have things like layout and pictures over there.
Reconsidering the Percolator
in defense of a misunderstood relic
Something’s missing in contemporary conversations about coffee. The one elision in Issue 41’s roundup of preparation methods was mention of the percolator, that much maligned icon of midcentury domesticity. To be fair, it’s easy to forget. Difficult to classify, percolation lies somewhere between immersion and drip methods. For people under the age of 40, “to percolate” is likely more familiar as a metaphorical phrase than a culinary process. To modern sensibilities, the percolator is at best shorthand for 1950’s homemaking; at worst slandered as an inferior method that commits unforgivable crimes against coffee. There is a third way.
In 2003, I faced a minor caffeine crisis. One morning, our drip machine failed me. I don’t remember what was wrong, only that my dad wasn’t there to fix it and my mom did not partake in this particular morning ritual. She did, however, find an alternative. Our family’s tendency to save everything had preserved my grandmother’s electric percolator—a heavy, metal contraption with a thick black cord. To my bratty teenage amazement, it worked. What’s more, it was tasty! I probably evangelized to my friends all week. But once our drip machine was back in action, I packed the percolator back in its cupboard and forgot about it.
So it is with many people’s knowledge of this appliance. With the proliferation of options, who remembers the humble percolator? In cafes chic and retro alike, pour-over, cold-brew, espresso, French press, and now “deconstructed” (shudder) all get their due. At home, we have individual-cup wonders, stove-top espresso, and the ever-popular automatic drip machine. In the frenzied search for the next big thing in coffee, the percolator is skipped over again and again. Why aren’t we casting our gaze to the quotidian pleasures of midcentury modern appliances? Is the percolator not “vintage” enough?
Once a stalwart fixture on Formica counter-tops across the United States, today the electric percolator occupies a less than lauded position in the pantheon of coffee-preparation methods. I’m here to shine an appreciative light on this artifact from our recent domestic past, and make a case for its future.
Adoption & Rejection
Like many material objects, the percolator’s history is tied to the United States’ constantly evolving cultural practices, especially those tied to coffee consumption. When introduced in the early 19th century as an alternative to the infusion method perfected in the Middle East hundreds of years before, percolators brewed a pot of coffee free of grounds.
The basic design has changed little since the percolator’s invention. Consisting of stacked, interlocking components contained within an urn, water in the lower chamber heats and creates steam. The steam rises through a central tube, spurting over coarse grounds held in a perforated metal basket. Water drips through the grounds and back into the lower chamber, the process repeating until the desired strength is reached.
Illinois farmer Hanson Goodrich patented the stovetop model in 1889, a design that music professor Judith Beckman’s family was still using in the late 1930’s:
“Our coffeepot(s) were mainly aluminum pitchers with a metal basket on a stem for the coffee: the boiling water came up through the stem and dripped thru the perforated basket. Depending on how long you left it on the fire, the coffee was weak, strong or undrinkable. If you didn’t watch out, it boiled all over the stove, coffee grounds and all. The same essential method was used in the ensuing electric percolators, with less disastrous results (but not tastier).”
Compared with boiling a pot of grounds & water into a caffeinated sludge, the stovetop percolator’s promise of a grit-free beverage had Americans rushing to adopt it for home use.
An electric version hit the market in the early 20th century, which allowed for better temperature regulation. It also kept the coffee warm without continuing the percolation process, which as Judith mentioned could create quite the mess. But until the cost of electric service became more affordable, Americans continued to use their stovetop percolators.
By the 1940’s, over 80% of U.S. households were wired (thanks, New Deal!) and appliances that had once been luxuries became basic equipment. Even when metal was in short supply during WWII, manufacturers substituted glass to make percolators. Once the growing middle glass had money to burn in the 1950’s, they purchased stainless steel electric percolators in droves. Along with the blender, it became a standard wedding gift.
The electric percolator dominated kitchen counters until the early 1970’s, when the automatic drip coffeemaker burst onto the scene. It claimed to brew coffee that was not bitter, a flavor endemic to aluminum percolator coffee. In the U.S., where the promise of convenience has long outmaneuvered tradition, it was only a matter of time before the electric percolator was relegated to a relic, found in the homes of the elderly, rather than newlyweds.
Besides innovations in appliance technology, there are many reasons the percolator fell out of favor. The increasing popularity of specialty coffee—a focus on single-origin beans, small-batch roasting, and artisanal preparation—has transformed the American coffee palate into one that’s more discerning. Percolated coffee is staunchly Everyman: pragmatic and plain. And its traditional place in the home makes it an illogical addition to the “Third Place” of the modern café.
Its reputation, too, prevents the percolator from rising from the ash heap of domestic history to take its place among other resurrected and reinvented preparation methods. Many bash the percolator for violating the “natural laws” of coffee preparation: it circulates boiling water and it’s over-extracted, losing the subtleties of flavor found in “superior” preparation methods. Though some, including Michael Ruhlman, passionately defend it, you will find few coffee aficionados who would claim that percolator brew holds a candle—much less LED—to the various methods that dominate modern cafes and countertops.
When the percolator merits consideration at all, it dredges up strong, polarizing views. Sometimes, these conflicted feelings are found in the same person, as with Judith’s sentimental remembrance of her parents’ undrinkable brew. More often, ardent defenders and resolute critics face off on internet message boards. Whatever one’s personal feelings, no one can deny the importance of the percolator to America’s domestic history, nor its ability to create a multi-sensory, communal ritual (more on this later). While sales of all coffee-making appliances have increased in the U.S. over the past several years, many who track consumer spending don’t bother to rank the percolator. It is at best a quirky outlier.
…an outlier poised to emerge from the wings and transcend its maligned reputation to reclaim its rightful place at the kitchen table!
Ritual & Community, Nostalgia & Post-Modernity
Though it may seem that Americans consume the majority of their coffee on the go, the opposite is in fact the case. For those constantly looking for “better” ways to prepare a good cup at home, I submit the percolator for consideration. Its current non-status makes it the perfect empty signifier: it can mean anything we want it to. And early re-adopters could very well be on the cutting edge of what I’d like to call “4th wave coffee: back to basics.” (Or maybe it’s 5th wave, now? I lose track.) The point is that waves recycle preexisting material, so why not embrace the past as we charge headlong into coffee culture’s future.
Percolated coffee is a particular manifestation of the home-brew ritual. The multi-sensory experience of sound, smell, and taste combine in anticipatory reverie, bringing people together for breakfast or a mid-afternoon kaffeeklatsch. The host grinds the beans, fills the pot with cool water from the tap, and scoops teaspoons of coarse grounds into the metal basket. Fitting the lid with its glass knob atop the simple machine, they plug it in and delight in its distinctive gurgle. The aroma strengthens as the browning liquid splashes against the transparent lid. The host sets out 6-ounce cups and saucers while guests sit around the table and await the first pour of the steaming conversational lubricant. For decades, the percolator brought families and neighbors together. Piping hot and ready in minutes, the coffee strong as the relationships it helped solidify.
Compared with other kitchen appliances, the percolator’s enduring design makes it an iconic tie to the past. “Nothing recalls living with my grandmother so much as a slice of angel food cake served with percolator coffee,” said Anne Bramley, author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter. Anne captures the mystery that can shroud everyday objects after just two generations of disuse. Percolators are a mini time-machine, connecting us with our domestic roots.
While the electric percolator fell out of favor in the domestic and public spheres, it persevered in the “communal” sphere of religious and community gatherings. Its ability to brew large, consistent batches of coffee is unparalleled. Cultural historian and author Paula Lee associates “percolated coffee with turkey supper fundraisers. As a preacher’s daughter, I grew up running them. Percolated coffee has a distinct aroma unlike any other brewing method, and it’s still the method of choice when you’re feeding the masses.” A percolated coffee defender, Paula enjoys its flavor, smell, and what it represents. “It is all of a piece,” she writes, “from the coffee fellowship all the way to getting up to your elbows, cleaning up the urn.” For many, the percolator remains an important symbol of their ties to community.
Nora Lee, a communications specialist who grew up in the 1970’s, also has fond memories of percolators and the people who used them:
“We had an electric one in our house for everyday use. Bright shiny chrome with the clear glass knob on the top so you could see the color of the coffee. But we also had one that my dad took on camping trips. It was an old beat up aluminum one he used for campfire coffee. Then there were the HUGE ones that were used at church—still are, I’m pretty sure. What I loved were all the pieces. There was the basket with it lid for holding the grounds, then there was the stem that brought the water up from the bottom of the pot…and always, that clear glass knob.”
No matter how affectionate the feelings a percolator may inspire, it’s difficult to make the case for it as an artisanal tool. This may explain its absence in the recent renaissance of preparation methods, even though it’s second to none when you want a simple cup of hot coffee. Just ask writer Abbie Claire, who waxed poetic about her percolator in April. While her enthusiasm is far from mainstream, the percolator’s underdog status and mundane nature makes it ripe for ironic appropriation.
So whither its hipster reinvention? With so few people embracing this relic, it must be next in line for retro-normcore glorification. Fourth, fifth, or sixth wave—you heard it here first. Seize the opportunity to gain mastery over this “ancient” brewing tool before it becomes a trend. Percolated coffee may lack the subtleties that other preparation methods extract, but sometimes you just need a jolt. So don’t overthink: percolate!
A Parting Plea
As the increase in coffee maker sales indicates, Americans are drinking more coffee than ever, and hunting for inspiring gadgets to prepare their home brew. We rediscover culinary methods and imbue them with modern significance all the time; the percolator could be next!
Until then, let’s resist our knee-jerk hatred of this once ubiquitous appliance and admire it as a metonym of our domestic social history. A quality, durable appliance that was outshone by disposable plastic promises of convenience. Rather than deride it as outmoded, let’s instead honor the percolator’s place in our collective memory, and embrace the possibility of its place in our shared future. I don’t know where my grandmother’s electric percolator ended up, but I’m sure it still works. When I find it, I hope you’ll join me around my kitchen table for a hot cuppa.
I’m grateful to David Sprouse of The Other Century for his four-part series, “The Rise & Fall of the Electric Percolator,” which provided valuable historical background for this article.