When it comes to making coffee, the French press and the percolator are two of the oldest devices invented, and their ease of use and convenience has kept them around to this day. While the French press and percolator look very similar, the method of brewing is actually drastically different and leads to very different final products.
If you’re deciding between the two methods, there are a few things you need to know about how these coffee brewing devices work and, more importantly, how the coffee you can make with each one tastes! We’re stacking these methods up against one another and discussing the pros and cons of each below.
French Press Overview
The French press is considered an “immersion” method of brewing, which involves immersing coffee grounds in water. A French press consists of a cylindrical carafe to which you add boiling or near-boiling water and coarse coffee grounds. It also includes a plunger with a fine metal mesh on the bottom to push grounds out of your coffee when it’s done brewing. Using a French press is simple, and the result is a bold, flavorful cup of coffee.
What It’s Good for/When to Choose
A French press is perfect for when you want to make a full-flavor cup of coffee. This method, along with other immersion brewing methods, leads to a bold and robust cup that typically highlights darker roast profiles beautifully. If you want to make coffee that is delicious and has some complexity, a French press will serve you better than a percolator.
French presses vary in size and thus in the quantity of coffee they can make at once, but even the largest French press will only make about three or four cups of coffee. They’re great for making your daily morning coffee or for making batches if you have a friend or two over for coffee, but that’s about it.
French presses are very affordable, and they are quite possibly the cheapest coffee brewing device you can buy, even though you’ll also need a kettle or pot for boiling water. They are simple and easy to clean, and they require no maintenance beyond regular washing.
Lastly, depending on the recipe you choose, a French press will require you to time the brew, pay attention while brewing, and make sure that the coffee doesn’t become over-extracted.
A percolator is another straightforward device that gets used directly on your stovetop. Coffee grounds are added to a basket that sits inside of the percolator above the waterline. As water is heated, it’s converted to steam and travels up the device and out of a hole above the basket of grounds. The water splashes out over the bed of coffee grounds and falls back down to be reheated along with the rest of the remaining water. The brew can be timed, but many percolators have a small window where the boiled water exits so you can keep an eye on the color of your coffee as it brews.
What It’s Good for/When to Choose
Percolators offer a less refined brewing process, and while the brew can be timed, it results in reasonably inconsistent results. Percolators are not suitable for making coffee that is full of flavor and highlights roast characteristics, which isn’t surprising seeing as the device was invented as a way of making caffeinated coffee quickly and in large volumes.
Like French presses, percolators vary in size, but most will be able to make between six and eight cups of coffee at a time. Some larger models can make even more, so percolators are ideal for making large quantities of coffee quickly. They are particularly useful when you have groups of family or friends over.
Percolators are also rather cheap, but most are a bit more expensive than the most affordable French presses. They’re nearly as easy to clean, but you will want to focus more on the thin tube that the steam travels up, as this can catch residue on the walls over time. No maintenance is needed for percolators beyond cleaning after each use.
Percolators require you to pay attention and remove from heat once the coffee reaches its desired strength, but they won’t need you to stir or press at certain times throughout the brew as the French press does. While percolators don’t offer abundantly rich coffee or nuanced flavor profiles, they are a bit more forgiving if you forget to take them off of the heat on time.
What Are You Looking for in Your Coffee?
The first thing to consider when choosing between a French press and a percolator is what you’re looking to get out of your coffee experience. These machines look similar, but they produce wildly different final products!
A French press is great for producing very flavorful coffee. It’s especially good at highlighting some flavors associated with darker roasts, like chocolate, nutty, and caramel notes. The French press method can be very consistent, so if you’re looking to dial in your brewing method and coffee experience as far as taste and flavor go, a French press will suit you better.
A percolator is useful for making coffee quickly and efficiently, and it excels at making higher volumes. If you don’t mind compromising on flavor nuances and plan to drink coffee more for the caffeine than anything else, a percolator will serve you better.
How Much Coffee Do You Need?
The next thing to consider when deciding between a French press and a percolator is how much coffee you’ll be looking to brew.
The French press method may deliver highly flavorful coffee, but even the largest French presses will make a maximum of about four cups of coffee. This volume may be perfect if you make coffee for yourself each morning or for you and your spouse, but larger groups of people will require multiple batches, which can be very time-consuming. Each batch will take about five to 10 minutes, and this can quickly add up if you’re looking to serve more than three or four people at a time.
On the other hand, a percolator is one of the best methods for quickly brewing large volumes. The quality of the final product will be lower than it will with a French press, but the quality is no different whether you make two cups or twelve cups. Percolators are perfect for parties, events, and larger gatherings where you want to serve everyone coffee at once.
Which is More Convenient?
A French press is effortless to clean, and will only involve unscrewing the mesh from the plunger and cleaning each piece with soapy water. These devices require no maintenance other than regular cleaning, and they are also highly portable. Many are made of glass, so you will need to be careful not to break them, but they’re great for small batches of coffee on the go while camping or on vacation.
A percolator is also relatively easy to clean and will only require regular cleaning as far as maintenance goes. However, the thin tube that the steam travels up to reach the coffee grounds needs to be cleaned out as well. Cleaning this hard-to-reach area can be somewhat of a pain, and it may require you to get a reusable pipe cleaner or bottle scrubber. Percolators travel just as easily, but they’re not as small or convenient for vacations or travel where you’re likely planning on making smaller quantities of coffee.
Which is Right for You?
Neither method is better than the other, so the answer to which suits you and your coffee needs better is based solely on personal preference!
French presses make more flavorful, nuanced coffee, and they’re very consistent, which makes them great for those looking to get the most enjoyment out of their coffee in terms of taste. They only make small quantities, though, so they’re not ideal for making coffee for more than one or two people at a time. Percolators offer less flavor and consistency, but they can produce large batches of coffee for parties or when you have multiple people over. They’re ideal for brewing big batches of coffee at once.
By now, you should have a good understanding of these two coffee brewing methods. Hopefully, our list of pros and cons for each have helped you decide which suits your personal coffee needs better.
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Featured Image: Left: French Press (Source: Pxfuel), Right: Percolator (Source: Pxfuel)