Here at the Emporium, we drink a lot of coffee. The appropriate way to express the rate at which coffee is consumed here is pots per day. As in, “Have you had any coffee yet today?” “Only one.”
The purists may poo-poo what I’m about to say, claiming that water should only pass through the coffee once, and that it should be exactly at 195 degrees, and that you should only grind the beans just before brewing, that coffee should be made one cup at a time, yada yada yada. The Bicycle Emporium’s modest break room currently houses a French press, an Aeropress (this is great for bike camping and we’ll cover it in a later entry), a Bialetti, a Bodum carafe that’s similar to a Chemex, a small espresso machine, at least 3 cones and, sigh, a Keurig.
All of those methods have their place. Sometimes, though, we need to make a large quantity of coffee. I can’t ignore a patron long enough (though, I’d like that very much) to brew coffee in a French press. Sometimes the wife wants a cup, too. Sometimes the group ride ends at the shop. It needs to be ready to go throughout the day, and it needs to be fast enough to serve more than one person at the same time. There are primarily two ways to accomplish this; an automatic drip maker or an electric percolator. Both plug into a standard wall outlet. Both heat water and pass it through the coffee grounds. Both stop brewing automatically and then keep the coffee at a decent enough temperature. But only one of them doesn’t suck. And it’s not the drip maker.
Drip makers are awful. Especially the plastic ones that invariably make the coffee taste like plastic. The good drip makers that aren’t plastic aren’t very good, either. They’re just less bad. They are the McDonald’s of coffee makers; not really intended to make good coffee, but rather to make coffee that is the least offensive to the greatest number of people. So why did the electric drip become the de facto coffee maker in the American kitchen? Because they were convenient.
Prior to the electric drip maker taking over, bulk coffee was brewed at home in a stove top percolator. Prepared properly, it was heaven in a pot. Quoting from How to Travel with a Salmon by the inimitable Umberto Eco:
“American coffee can be a pale solution served at a temperature of 100 degrees centigrade in plastic thermos cups, usually obligatory in railroad
stations for purposes of genocide, whereas coffee made with an American percolator, such as you find in private houses or in humble luncheonettes,
served with eggs and bacon, is delicious, fragrant, goes down like pure spring water, and afterwards causes severe palpitations, because one cup
contains more caffeine than four espressos.”
However, brewing coffee in a stove top percolator was a half-hour process, at least. It also required the brewer to grind beans, and have both a modicum of skill and access to a reliable heat source. Even after ruining several dozen pots of coffee during the skill-honing phase while learning how to do this, it was still easy to botch it up. Crying baby? Need to use the toilet? Damn neighbor at the door again asking to borrow yet more sugar? Ruined. It had to be watched and the temperature had to be controlled, requiring someone to stand there at the stove.
At some point in the 1960s or 70s the electric drip maker hit the market. Dump the grounds in a filter, add water, turn it on, walk away. The results were predictable, if not exemplary. It became so popular that most of the coffee currently available in supermarkets, corner groceries, and over-priced convenience stores is pre-ground for the drip maker.
Enter the modern electric percolator. At this point I should clarify a few things. What follows is specific to the electric percolator and only the electric percolator. My methods may not work with a stove top or camp fire percolator. They may not work with those gigantic percolators found in church fellowship halls and bridge club kitchens. This is also not an attempt to suggest that the percolator should replace your hipster coffee hobby. It is, however, the very best way to make bulk coffee with stuff you can get just about anywhere. Even in MiddleOfNowhere, Flyover, USA.
You need a few items.
First, you’ll need a percolator. I use a 12-cup Presto, currently available from the A-Z super online retailer for about $30. I’ve had a Hamilton Beach that produced similar results. There are models from Cuisinart that cost a few bucks more, but I’m not sure they’re worth it. From what I can tell, they’re probably all made in the same place with the same working parts, but different cosmetics. Whichever one you purchase, it should be stainless steel inside.
Second, you’ll need paper filters. I use the type that press into the pot’s basket and then fold over once the coffee grounds are added. Around here, the Melitta brand is easy to find. These keep the grounds out of the water and make cleanup super easy. There are also disc filters that simply sit in the basket. These work, too, but cleanup can be a bit messier.
Third, you need coffee. Forget everything you’ve ever read about making coffee in a percolator. If you haven’t read anything about it, go do so now. Then come back here and forget it. In short, percolator instructions always say to use a coarse grind. I have yet to encounter anyone anywhere who suggests otherwise. And they’re all wrong. At least when it comes to the electric percolator. Go to your local supermarket and purchase coffee that has a “Euro” grind, which is finer than crappy drip grounds from Folgers, but coarser than espresso. There are several that seem to be widely available, including Melitta and Gevalia, among others. I like the medium roasts from Gevalia. Try a few until you find one to suit your palette.
Preparation is simple. The Presto perc has graduations inside the pot. Fill it to the 12 cup line with water. Put a filter in the basket. Add 8 tablespoons of coffee grounds. Place the pump stem and basket into the pot, put the lid on and plug it in. In 10 or 15 minutes you’ll have wonderful coffee with a bright flavor and a clean finish. And 48 espresso’s worth of caffeine.