Making "Great" Coffee in a Percolator ~ Focus on Vintage and Antiques

Photo courtesy of Pixaby

I remember the smell of coffee and the sounds of it being percolated on the stove each day.  Week days around 3:30 am, my dad was fueling up on caffeine as he prepared for his long commute to St. Louis where he worked on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company.  On the weekends, he might make his coffee just a little later in the morning, although he was till an early riser even on his days off.  The smells, sounds and taste of that coffee carried with me into my adult years as they remind me of Daddy's love and care.  My daddy tells me every time he talks to me that he loves me, but when I was a kid, I don't remember him saying it very much at all.  I always knew how much he loved me though, because he showed his love by how hard he worked to take care of his family.  He left his home in the North Georgia Mountains not because he wanted to, but because he had to find a way to support his wife and baby girl.  He continued to stay close enough to commute to "the big city" as his family grew so that he could continue to meet our needs and to provide us with opportunities that he did not have when he was growing up.  Isn't funny how a particular smell, sound or sight can evoke feelings of peace, contentment and love?

When we bought our home in Laurel Fork, I decided I wanted to start percolating my coffee on the stove.  I just did it the way I remembered my daddy doing it and it turned out ok but not as good as it could have been.  Now, here's a disclaimer about my daddy's coffee.  He liked it dark and strong and he wasn't opposed to having grounds in his coffee cup.  In fact, I have seen him make "cowboy coffee" on a regular basis as well.  Cowboy coffee is made without a percolator by just boiling the grounds, let them settle to the bottom of the pot, and then pouring off the liquid into one's cup.  I'm pretty hard core, but not quite as tough as my daddy, so I prefer my coffee dark and robust, but not bitter and not too many grounds, please!

About the time we bought our home in Laurel Fork I also found a booklet printed and distributed by Maxwell House Coffee in 1931 entitled "How to make Good Coffee".  It is actually filled with interesting information and includes instructions on making coffee by various methods including percolated, steeped, dripped and boiled.  With automatic coffee makers, Keurig,  dozens of fast food restaurants that will hand you a fast cup of coffee through the drive through window, as well as specialty coffee shops, we rarely stop to think about the art of making good coffee but it was once an important skill to master.

I don't claim to be an expert, but with the help of my vintage book and some practice, I have learned to make a decent pot of coffee and prefer "perked" coffee over automatic drip.  Perhaps it is more the nostalgia associated with percolating coffee or it could be the fact that it gives me cause to slow down, enjoy the process and relish the cup of coffee I have "created".  The idea for this post has actually been "brewing" since my good friend asked me to explain the process of making coffee in a percolator.

1.  First, you want to start with a clean coffee pot, fresh water, and good coffee beans.

A "dirty" pot will affect the delicate flavor of your finished product.  I am using an enamel coffee pot and one does not want to scratch the enamel, so I look for other ways to clean my pot.  If you are not opposed to using bleach on occasion, one can simply fill the coffee pot up with water, add a little bleach and let soak.  Vinegar and Lemon are natural alternatives to help to remove the stains and old coffee residue.

2.  Fill your coffee pot with fresh water.  Your percolator may have a nicely defined fill line for your convenience.  If it does not, then you may have to experiment with how much water to use in your pot.  One can't fill the pot completely up to the pour spout or when the water gets hot, it will bubble up out of the spout and make a mess.  However, the water must come to just below the spout or it will not percolate properly.  I estimate that I leave about 1/4 to 1/2 inch space between the water level and the hole for the spout.

3.  Measure your coffee and pour into the basket.  One does not typically use a filter with a percolator.  A finely ground coffee will cause more grains to end up in the final product, so I have found that grinding my own coffee (which I prefer anyway) is the best method.  A coarser grind keeps the coffee in the strainer basket and out of the liquid.  A general rule of thumb is 1 Tablespoon of coffee per half pint of water.  (1 pint equals 16 fluid ounces)  This measurement can be adjusted to individual taste.  Like my daddy, I like a strong cup of coffee, no sugar and a lot of real cream. After filling the strainer basket, place the lid on the basket and place basket and lid on the stem.  Put the stem with basket and lid down into your coffee pot filled with water.

Photo Courtesy of Pixaby

4.  The next step is to heat your water.  Contrary to what one might think, you are not boiling your water (unless of course you are making "cowboy coffee" which is a term used for boiled coffee grounds).  Really, the secret to a good cup of percolated coffee is in finding that sweet spot where your percolator perks nice and easy without boiling.  This creates the best tasting coffee.  If you are making coffee over a campfire, you will want to put your percolator to the side of the flame and not directly on it.  If you are using an electric stove you will need to find the setting on your stove that heats the water without bringing it to a rolling boil.  A gas flame is the easiest to control.  Just pay attention, and experiment until you have found the right setting on your stove.  It may require some experimentation to begin with, but finding the proper percolating temperature is critical to a great cup of coffee.

From "How To Make Good Coffee" distributed by Maxwell House in 1931:

"Slow and gentle percolation over a period of about 10 to 15 minutes, gives a beautiful, clear, amber colored coffee of mild flavor and delicate aroma.  Slow percolation may be described as percolation in which the coffee bubbles up through the tube with such gentleness that the rays rarely strike the glass. In rapid percolation the coffee comes up through the tube in fast, vigorous succession of sprays, most of which burst as they strike the glass.  Coffee may be percolated rapidly for a shorter period of time (8 to 10 minutes) but is apt to be slightly cloudy, with less body, and with less pleasing flavor than when percolated slowly.  Rapid, vigorous percolation brings out the bitter qualities of coffee."

The vintage, Maxwell House pamphlet also goes on to explain:

"Do not allow the coffee to boil, as actual boiling develops bitterness and destroys both flavor and aroma.  The volatile oils, which give the coffee its delicate fragrance and flavor, escape as coffee boils, and changes take place which brings out a bitter and sour taste.  The best temperatures at which to make coffee are below boiling.  (185 to 203 degrees F)  Coffee boiled for so short a time as one minute is more bitter than coffee made at 203 degrees F, just nine degrees below boiling.

If you are making more than a quart of coffee, you will have to increase your percolating time.

Here's a tip to keep those grounds out of your cup:  After your coffee has finished percolating, turn the heat back to simmer or off and allow the coffee grounds to settle a few minutes before pouring your first cup of coffee.

Making good coffee in a percolator is somewhat of a lost art, but taking the time to slow down and brew a fresh cup of coffee in my vintage, enamel coffee pot, for me, is the perfect start to any day and I have learned to prefer the taste of percolated coffee better than any other.

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