French Press vs Percolator: Which Brews Your Perfect Coffee?

French Press vs percolator

In the French Press vs percolator war, I’m a staunch coffee press advocate—like most other coffee aficionados I know. The French Press comes with a legion of devotees who claim it as their coffee brewing device of choice.

And for good reason. It brews fresh coffee quickly, with a level of control and ease that makes it worth using to brew your coffee daily. 

But don’t knock a good ol’ stovetop percolator til you try it. The French Press and percolator are two of the most popular ways to brew your morning cup of coffee.

As a former barista and self-proclaimed French Press expert (who drinks as much coffee out of the press as I do any other method, btw), I’m here to walk you through the critical differences between a coffee percolator vs French Press.

So, you know what to do: Brew the coffee, and let’s compare the French Press and the percolator.

French Press vs Percolator Brewing Mechanics

french press vs percolator

Firstly and most importantly, the mechanics behind each of these coffee makers are unique and markedly different. Unlike the standard drip coffee maker, the French Press and Percolator coffee makers both rely on a version of steeping as a way to make coffee. 

The brewing process used by each coffee maker distinctly influences how your coffee will taste:

  • A percolator works by repeatedly cycling boiling water through coffee grounds using gravity until the desired strength is reached. 
  • A French press works by immersing the coffee grounds in hot water and using a plunger to separate the grounds from the brew. 

Over-Extraction Risks

french press vs percolator
A camping percolator over an open flame for “cowboy coffee”

The percolator’s repetitive boiling can lead to over-extraction and a somewhat bitter taste if not monitored properly.

The French press method allows for full immersion, so the water and coffee would spend a lot of time intermingling. This longer contact time can bring out the full flavor and oils in the coffee, resulting in a rich and robust cup, but it might also result in some grounds or “sludge” in your coffee if the plunger isn’t used properly. 

Grind Size Differences

The grind size of coffee also plays a significant role in determining the final flavor of your coffee. Coarse grounds are generally recommended for the French press coffee pot because they offer the right amount of surface area to extract an optimum level of flavor during the steeping process.

By contrast, finer grounds may result in a cup of coffee that is overly extracted, bitter, or filled with leftover grounds.

A percolator is pretty forgiving and can work well with various grind sizes, but ideally, a medium-coarse grind better prevents the coffee from being over-extracted and too bitter.

A medium grind is usually most practical, too, especially if you buy your coffee pre-ground. It’s small enough to expose a large surface area that will yield a full extraction, but not so fine that it’ll pass through the percolator basket.

French Press vs Percolator Tasting Notes

When we’re talking about pinpointing the better cup of coffee, the debate often whittles down to the taste comparison. I think whether you prefer the percolating or French press method of brewing coffee will hinge on your taste preference.

french press vs percolator

If you appreciate a stronger, darker brew, the percolator may be your tool of choice. Many who prefer consistency over flavor subtleties enjoy the type of coffee that a stovetop or electric percolator brews best.

But as the water boils inside a percolator coffee machine, a tube forces it up where it then spills over the coffee grounds and re-enters the water reservoir to start the process all over again. 

Although some people find that this continuous cycle leads to a more consistent and hotter cup of coffee, tasting notes often reveal that this relentless process extracts too many bitter compounds which may affect the quality and subtlety of taste. This is why some individuals report experiencing a bitter cup of coffee when using a percolator.

french press vs percolator

If you lean towards savoring the rich, complex notes that your coffee grounds can offer, I’d say go with the French press. Remember that considering the appropriate coffee grounds’ grind size for your chosen method is also crucial in achieving delicious coffee. 

The French press method is widely celebrated for the robust, fully rounded, and intensely aromatic brew that it yields. When the plunger is finally pressed down, it separates the grounds from the liquid but allows the essential oils to linger, thereby communicating a distinct depth of flavor and unmatched freshness that most coffee lovers find irresistible.

As always, sourcing good quality, fresh roast coffee beans and paying attention to the grind size can significantly improve the taste, regardless of the brewing method. 

Percolators and French Presses: Usability Comparisons

french press vs percolator

The brewing time and ease of use constitute an integral part when considering which coffee maker to use between a French press and a percolator. Brew time varies between these two coffee makers depending on the brewing techniques applied and the volume of coffee to be brewed.

Brew Time

Brewing coffee using a percolator generally takes approximately five to ten minutes. The process involves continuous boiling till aromas fill the room, indicating the coffee is ready.

On the other hand, using a French press takes merely four minutes to get your coffee done. However, this might take slightly longer, including the time of grinding the coffee beans and boiling the water. It’s worth adding four minutes for the grinding and boiling processes, thus translating to eight minutes.

Winner: French Press

Ease of Use

A French press is broadly considered simpler to use than a percolator, especially for beginners. 

french press vs percolator

To use it, one simply measures the coffee, pours the hot water, stirs, and allows it to brew for four minutes before pushing down the plunger to separate the coffee grounds from the liquid. (A significant advantage of the French press is that it allows you to control the strength of your coffee by altering the brewing time.)

Using a percolator, on the other hand, can be a bit more complex since it involves setting up the coffee pot with a tube and a basket, filling it with water and coffee then turning it on to percolate. This repeated brewing process can lead to over-extraction and strong, bitter coffee if not monitored carefully. 

Winner: French Press

Brew Quantities

The French Press is perfect for one to four cups, making it an excellent choice for individual brewing or smaller groups. It has a plunger made of a fine metal or nylon mesh and a beaker, usually made of glass. 

The basic operation involves filling the beaker with coffee grounds and hot water, and then pushing the plunger down after a few minutes to separate the grounded beans from the brew. This mechanism produces a rich and strong flavored coffee as it allows for full immersion of the coffee grinds.

french press vs percolator

On the other hand, a percolator offers a more ‘traditional’ method of brewing coffee, especially favored when making larger quantities of coffee. This makes the percolator popular for events or gatherings where a lot of coffee is needed. The percolator’s unique advantage comes with its two separate chambers: one for water and another for coffee grounds.

Even though it’s possible to brew larger batches in a French press, it’ll take longer compared to a percolator or you’ll have to keep making batches of coffee. Furthermore, the coffee will start to over-extract once it remains in contact with the grinds leading to bitterness. 

Winner: Percolator

Pros and Cons of French Press vs Percolator Coffee Makers

french press vs percolator

French Press

Pros:

  • Provides full control over the brewing process.
  • Allows adjustment of brew time, water temperature, and coffee-to-water ratio for customization.
  • Preferred by coffee connoisseurs for optimizing flavor extraction.
  • Produces a smooth, well-rounded cup of coffee.

Cons:

  • Requires a careful and attentive brewing process.
  • Not suitable for those in a rush or multitasking in the morning.
  • Cleaning can be a hassle, with coffee grounds often clogging the mesh filter.

Percolator

Pros:

  • Brews large amounts of coffee at a time, suitable for larger households or gatherings.
  • Produces a strong, richly flavorful coffee.
  • The percolation process virtually runs itself, allowing users to attend to other tasks.

Cons:

  • Concerns about the coffee basket – fine grinds may slip through, leading to a gritty texture.
  • May not offer the same level of control as a French press for customization.
  • Less suitable for those who prefer a carefully tailored brewing process.

French Press vs Percolator: TL;DR

The French Press is a simple, yet effective method that steams the coffee by immersing ground coffee beans in hot water. This approach delivers a pure, full-bodied flavor, allowing a rich extraction of the beans’ oils, which are often caught in paper filters in other brewing methods.

On the contrary, the percolator continuously cycles hot water through the coffee grounds using gravity until it reaches the desired strength. This method tends to produce stronger and hotter coffee—but the brewing process is longer and it could result in over-extraction and bitterness if not closely monitored.

Ultimately, whether it’s a French press, percolator or any other coffee brewing method, a great cup of coffee depends on the quality of the beans, the precise grind, and the correct water temperature.

Percolator vs French Press Coffee FAQs

  1. What grind size is best for a percolator and how does it compare to a French press?

    For both the percolator and the French press, a coarse grind is recommended, although medium-coarse is often better for percolators. This is because finer grounds may pass through the filters of these coffee makers and end up in your cup. The grind size of the coffee beans influences the taste of the brewed coffee, with coarser grinds providing a full-bodied brew that many coffee drinkers love.

  2. Are French press coffee makers easier to use than coffee percolators?

    Many people find French press coffee makers to be easier to use. They are straightforward – you simply add the coffee and hot water, let it steep, and then press the plunger. Coffee percolators, especially stovetop ones, require a little more attention to ensure that the coffee doesn't become over-extracted and bitter. However, with both methods, the process of brewing coffee can be mastered with a bit of practice.

  3. Does a coffee percolator or a French press make stronger coffee?

    A French press usually produces a strong, flavorful cup of coffee, as the beans steep directly in the water for several minutes, allowing the oils in the coffee beans to be fully extracted. A percolator can also brew strong coffee, but the flavor might be less complex due to the repeated cycles of boiling water through the coffee grounds, which can lead to over-extraction.

  4. In terms of capacity, how many cups of coffee per batch can an average French press and a percolator make?

    An average French press typically makes around four cups of coffee per batch, although larger models are available. A percolator's capacity can vary greatly, from small stovetop models that make a few cups to larger electric versions that can provide many cups of coffee in one go, making it suitable for serving larger groups of coffee drinkers.

  5. Is coffee brewed with a French press better than drip coffee, or does it just come down to personal preference?

    Many coffee connoisseurs prefer the taste of coffee brewed with a French press as it allows more of the oils in the coffee beans to contribute to the taste of the final brew, creating a full-flavored coffee. However, the “best” coffee brewing method is largely a personal preference and depends on how one tastes their coffee.

  6. What is the main difference between the coffee brewed by a percolator and the French press method?

    The main difference lies in the brewing process. A percolator circulates boiling water through grounds, resulting in a robust and hot coffee. On the other hand, a French press allows coffee grounds to steep in hot water, creating a full-bodied and richly flavored brew. The complexities of the flavors are often more pronounced in coffee brewed with a French press.

  7. Can pre-ground coffee be used with either the percolator or the French press?

    Yes, pre-ground coffee can be used with both a percolator and a French press. But grind size matters – a coarse size is generally recommended for both methods to prevent fine grounds from creating an over-extracted, bitter cup of coffee. If you're using preground coffee, it's best to look for grounds that are specifically labeled for these methods.

  8. Which coffee maker, a French press or a coffee percolator, is more suitable for making coffee on the go?

    Depending on the circumstances, either the percolator or the French press can be suitable for making coffee on the go. If you have access to a heat source and more time, a percolator could be a good choice. However, if you're looking for something more portable and quicker to use, a French press is a compact solution that only requires coffee grounds and near-boiling water.

  9. How does a coffee percolator work, and how does it differ from a French press?

    A percolator circulates the boiling water up through a tube, then lets it pour over the coffee grounds located in a separate chamber. This process can be repeated several times, resulting in a strong brew. A French press, on the other hand, steeps coffee grounds in hot water for several minutes before the plunger is pressed down to separate the grounds. The resulting coffee from a French press is usually more robust and complex in flavor.

  10. Can a percolator make a great cup of coffee, as a French press does?

    Yes, a percolator is capable of making a great cup of coffee. The strong and hot coffee that a percolator creates can be just as satisfying for coffee drinkers. However, it may lack the unique, full-bodied flavor profile often associated with French press coffee. 

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