PERCOLATOR: a kind of coffeepot


“Back in the day” they called a sofa a “davenport.”   Jeans were called “dungarees.”   And a coffee pot, for the most part, was called a percolator. We didn’t do anything easily in those days.

A percolator had its own method of brewing coffee.   There were no packets of ground coffee.   Most people didn’t buy coffee beans to grind at home.  And the existence of K cups to be used in a Keurig coffee machine was unheard of.

In a percolator  boiling water in a repeated process is forced up a hollow stem, filters down through ground coffee in a sievelike container, and returns to the pot below.”   There was a glass bubble on top of the pot through which you could see the coffee turn from clear water to the brown, tasty brew you waited several minutes to pour. The process was repeated several times until the coffee was “done.”  There was no “automatic” shut off; “done-ness” depended upon the eye and the glass bubble at the top.   But it was worth the wait…the coffee was good. 

Having worked at the A&P grocery in my hometown, my family drank either Eight O’Clock, Bokar, or Red Circle coffee.  All were branded products of A&P, and each had its own flavor, Eight O’Clock being the favorite, and the one which has existed even to today.  Red Circle was a little less flavorful and Bokar was almost a Starbuck’s strength coffee.   At “our” A&P you chose the bag of beans you wanted, put them into a noisy grinder, placed the empty bag  beneath it, and then ground away, filling the bag with rich, flavorful grounds.   You could select the intensity of the grind to match your brewing process back home.

Percolators were always on the stove, ready to be filled and employed.  There were electric ones, but my family preferred to boil the water over a gas flame.  I think it was the sixties or seventies before an electric showed up in our kitchen.

The term percolator derives from the Latin word percolatus, which means “to seive.”   The sieve portion of brewing coffee is the last before the coffee falls into the pot below.   It is intended to remove an errant grounds which filter through the mesh basin on which the coffee grounds have been placed in the sieve.  In the early days of percolators the sieve basket was open.  Then along came a sieve cover, meaning that the water was dispersed from the elevation tube, and splayed out over the coffee grounds.  The last refinement of the percolator was the addition of a filter paper placed in the bottom of the basket before the grounds were added.  Even that was not totally foolproof, and it was pretty common to find a few grains of coffee grounds in your cup.  No big deal.

Coffee brewed in percolators tended to be strong, so a variation, called a drip percolator was born.  It restricted the flow of hot water to one “wash” through the grounds instead of the bath of water in which the percolator grounds had sat while brewing.  It meant that there was more of a “hint” of flavor to the cup rather than the intense coffee flavoring of the percolator model.

There are other metaphoric uses for the word percolate and percolator.   They have to do with the idea of something “percolating” or bubbling up from the bottom to become visible or audible.   An idea can be said to percolate from a conversation.   And there is a test to determine the depth and quantity of water on someone’s property which is known as a percolation testing.

But the coffee pot image is more colorful.   There are people today who prefer percolated coffee over the more sanitized process we experience in the K cup era.   The smell of coffee percolating on the counter or even on the stove is incomparable.  Bottoms up!


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