Who doesn’t love a little “mid-century” in their life? Everything seemed better, no? Stuff had better design, more style, a high quality of manufacture and proven durability. Cars, furniture, clothes, architecture…you name it.
But was it a case of style over substance? Is it my age talking? Getting older tends to cement impressions of fondly remembered times as being better-reality be damned. To go forward in my coffee journey do I need to look back? More to the point do I need to look back and let go?
Exhibit A: The CorningWare Six-Cup Percolator. The porcelain is white like the truth, smooth as an Arbutus tree and emblazoned with cornflowers in blue. It looked good then and it looks good now. It hits me just so.
For some, the shapely gorgeousness of the aforementioned percolator will prompt a drifting into a narcotic-like state flooded with the memories of sunlit family meals, a great report card, riding your bike without a helmet and the smell of your Mom’s perfume. It’s complicated.
For the less romantic, younger, more idealistic, perhaps mustachioed crowd who are working in coffee, a percolator is an unspeakable horror. A monster. Impossible to redeem as a method for brewing coffee-any coffee, let alone the farm fresh, varietal named, elevation indicated, nano-lot selection from their roaster of choice located anywhere but here. Trust me, they’re cool. You haven’t heard of them.
A percolator is a de facto torture chamber for coffee, barely worth the words it would take to dismiss anyone foolhardy enough to ask the question.
Or is it?
Careful drip coffee preparation is very much of the moment. Percolators are the purvey of church basements, catering companies and vintage stores that sell you back your grand parents teak furniture along with all manner of fiddle faddle from way back when. Perfect for accessorizing but really for display purposes only.
Has the percolator been unfairly judged? Was there a genius in its design that is only revealed to those willing to embrace the past while applying the most up to date coffee brewing technique?
With the enthusiasm of a Grade 9 science class I set out to test the hypothesis. Can a percolator brew a suitable cup of coffee for a discriminating palate?
Right out of the gate I stumbled. While chewing on the hypothesis I watched a presentation by Vince Fedele (of Extract Mojo fame) from the 2012 Nordic Barista Competition. In his presentation he set the stage for introducing the idea that different methods of brewing (i.e. drip vs. immersion) require different amounts of coffee to achieve an optimal result. Brewing in a percolator was indicated as a completely separate brew method, not addressed in this talk and more to the point dismissed for his “never having had a coffee from a percolator that wasn’t over-extracted” and therefore not to be considered for the purposes of the presentation And by extension ever. (The video has since been pulled down. Shame. If anyone can find a link please let me know.)
Not good. Vince leads the new coffee brewing orthodoxy. If he says that percolator coffee is over-extracted by design-it is. Although not quite like receiving an inconvertible word from God, his pronouncement is pretty close.
Fortunately though, not close enough! Besides what’s a little over-extraction between friends? Adding a dash of cream that never cheated forgives all brewed coffee sins!
By the numbers we’ve got 1L of water, 60 g of coffee, 6 minutes of mesmerizing perking and voila, I present to you one hot mess.
99.9% of brew methods in use today fall down from the simple fact that they cannot sufficiently contain and use a correct portion of fresh coffee. The CorningWare percolator on the operating table is no exception. Grounds overflowed the filter. Tragedy ensued
The second way that 99.9% of the brew methods fall short is the temperature of the water. Typically it isn’t hot enough. In the case of the percolator, it is much, much to hot-boiling in fact-leaving you feeling like you’ve got a burbling grenade on the hot plate.
Did either of these glaring limitations give me pause? Of course not. The cup, while a bit dirty had a savoury profundity that I thought was worth pursuing. The cup wasn’t cask aged but it was definitely unfiltered. Yes there were some grounds but there were also some oils and the numbers looked promising. Not perfect but promising. Re jig.
Coarser grind, compensate with a longer perk time.
The acidity comes from the bottom when you’re expecting it from the top. The rest of the profile is pressed out and unremarkable, turning stalky as it cools.
Still not good.
The feeling of driving up an icy hill with bald tires is creeping into my consciousness. Fresh coffee at the portion I’d be happy with…. it’s a mess. The coffee blooms, has nowhere to go and crawls over the edge of the filter and into your developing brew. Every time. The solution is obvious-re jig!
Less coffee. Finer grind. Longer brew cycle-go!
We are now deep into over-extracted territory here. Still flirting with issues of too much coffee (using 40g) to be contained in the filter. The coffee tastes like nothing. Wallflower bland with a latent, enamel removing dry lift to the finish.
I stopped here.
The TDS is poor, there is no strength. The extraction is breaking through the 22% high limit like a Saturn rocket. To get the strength I’d like, the extraction is only going to get worse. I wonder aloud why would anyone drink coffee at all if it tasted like this? Damn.
If you believe in a coffee promised land (and I do) percolator brewed coffee was fast becoming something best skipped in order to avoid hurting yourself…. and others. Why risk certain harm? Perhaps the better question to ask is, if you care so little about coffee as to brew it in a percolator, what the heck are you doing anyway? There are easier, better ways to brew coffee. There is also tea. Seriously.
You can tweak portion size, grind, time the pot spends burping along but I hand-on-heart promise that you are in no way going to capture even a 10th of what the coffee you’re using has to offer with one of these things. I knew this as fact from playing with the larger 101-cup units but held out a baseless faith that my easy on the eyes CorningWare Perocolator from the good ol’days wouldn’t let me down.
What’s old isn’t new again, it’s old and it’s best we all moved on.