The Forbidden Love of Percolators

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When it comes to making coffee, Ryan and I are basically our own parents. Our own grandparents, even. How is that? One lovely, retro word: percolators. In the plural, and growing happily in number.

Yes, really.

Perking is how the great majority of people made coffee until the mid-1970s when Mr. Coffee arrived on the market and replaced tens of millions of “range top” and “electromatic” percolators in kitchens across America. Because of the meteoric rise of domestic automatic drip machines four decades ago, most people under 40 have no idea how to make coffee in a percolator, and those are the people from whom you read reviews of percolated coffee versus automatic drip coffee that talk about how percolators allegedly boil and make burnt coffee.

But many people over 40 who clearly remember percking their coffee every day often complain that automatic drip coffee doesn’t taste the same. That’s because just like you have to learn the ins and outs of your particular automatic drip machine, you have to learn the ins and outs of your particular stove top or electric percolator. With any method of coffee preparation, you can make some pretty nasty coffee if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Percolators are known for creating a deep, rich, robust flavor, as well as spreading a very rich coffee aroma while the coffee is being made. They’re also known for making coffee that’s hotter, and that can stay hotter without burning, than coffee made in an automatic drip machine. They don’t “boil coffee the life out of coffee” like those unfamiliar with them allege that they do, either—unless you want them to. How long and vigorously you perk your coffee is up to you—depending on your coffee of choice, personal tastes, and most importantly, personal experience with your own percolator. Which is exactly what people who’ve never used a percolator often fail to grasp.
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We stopped using automatic drip machines because, although we had a high-end machine, we could clearly taste the flavor of the PVC tubing through which the water traveled from the reservoir to the heating element to the drip basket. Before you scoff, we’re far from alone in realizing that, either. There is no possibility for the flavor of plastic to enter your coffee if you use an all metal or metal/ceramic/glass percolator.

Once we switched over to a modern, metal percolator, The flavor of our coffee markedly improved. We thought the percolator might be something we would use in addition to our automatic drip machine or that we might not like it. Instead, we immediately took our automatic drip machine and put it in storage and we never used it again.

Ryan kept saying that vintage ceramic stove top percolators made even better coffee then the modern, automated metal model that we were using. He was right. Once we were gifted a vintage early 1960s Corning Ware Range Top pyroceram percolator—the kind you see sitting on the stove on every rerun of Maude—we were blown away from the very first pot that we made. To me, personally, it’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, it can make miracles out of low-end beans (we always grind), and it can sit for hours on our oven’s warming burner without ever burning the coffee or ruining the flavor.

Like I said, the negativity that percolators receive is really because half of living Americans have no first-hand recollection of using them, how to use them correctly, or even how they work. We know how to use them and we’re completely hooked. A couple of weeks after receiving the gifted pot, we went thrifting and found the earlier, 1961 stove-top model that ours originally replaced. They now rotate duties every other day in our kitchen.
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So what do all those under-40 non-perkers not know? For starters, that if they’ve ever used a French press then they’ve already perked their coffee, because percolation simply means infusion—that is, extracting chemical compounds (i.e. flavor) from a porous material with a solvent. And it makes no difference to the gods of chemistry whether you continuously pour the solvent (water) over the porous material (coffee grounds) in a percolator, or continuously let the porous material soak in the solvent in a French press.

So there.

Nor do they understand the mid-century sexism that led to the meteoric rise of the domestic automatic drip. It’s not as if drip machines were new in the early 1970s. Bunn fast-drip machines had been around for decades in every diner in America, but until the 1970s no one clamored for them to become household appliances. Not until a relentless wave of now widely panned, highly sexist 1960s coffee commercials ridiculed American wives by telling their husbands over and over that they didn’t know how to make coffee correctly unless they used the right brand. When Mr. Coffee home drip machines hit the market in 1972, they weren’t an immediate success. Not until baseball great Joe DiMaggio became their spokesperson a year later—and continued to ridicule American wives by telling their husbands over and over that they didn’t know how to make coffee correctly unless they used the right machine.

Perhaps most of all, though, those under-40s really don’t get the mechanics of percolators in the first place. Your coffee grounds sit in an perforated basket under an equally perforated basket cover, poked through by a hollow metal stem which holds the basket above the level of the water. At the bottom of the stem is a wide, conical stand. As water approaches the boiling point, water beneath the stand is forced up the stem, bounces off the bubble dome in the carafe lid (yes, that that nifty see-through glass thingy has a name) which distributes the water evenly across the basket lid, and drips through the coffee grounds and back down into the water below.

The perking process begins below the temperature at which water boils and continues past the boiling point until stopped by you (for stove-top models) or a timer (for electric models.) Although some vintage electric percolators let your choose your perking time, contemporaty models usually offer only a pre-set cycle over that’s out of your control. Our 12-cup electric model took about 12 minutes to complete its cycle, including about eight minutes of perking time.

Stove-top percolators take a lot longer but give you a lot more control. You start them over high heat, turn the heat to medium-low once perking starts, and take them off the heat when your flavor and strength preferences tell you to do so. Higher heat during perking will give your coffee more of a well-done flavor. Longer perking will give you a richer flavor. Perking forever on high heat will destroy your coffee—this is what people who never used a percolator before always do before they pronounce percolators to be the spawn of the devil. But now you know how not to follow their lead.

Our Range Tops take about 25 minutes to complete a cycle over a sealed electric burner, including around 15 minutes on a high burner to begin perking, and depending on the coffee we’re using, eight to ten minutes at medium-low or medium to perk. We’re currently in love with whole-bean, classic-roast, very old-school Eight O’clock Coffee. We perk those 100% arabica grounds low and fast. Ryan also has a thing for equally old-school Chock full o’Nuts. But ever since the Great Recession, that coffee has been adulterated with a pretty obnoxious amount of robusta beans, so we perk higher and longer to end up with a brew that we like.

See how it works?

Once you’re done perking, you remove the stem and basket from the carafe to stop overextracted oils from leaching down into your coffee. At that point, you can leave the pot on a warming burner, warming plate, or vintage 1960s percolator warming candle (or simply leave it on if it’s an electric model), or reheat it at a later time without the coffee ever tasting burnt. Unlike every modern automatic drip coffeemaker in existence. (Fun fact, the traditional method for keeping your stove top percolator warm was to purchase a candle warmer.)
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Of course, there was that pesky, massive recall of Corning Ware percolators. Both our current vintage percolators are recalled models. Modern percolator opponents (not to mention Ebay and Etsy) will tell you it’s dangerous to you use any Corning Ware vintage percolator. But that’s simply not true. As with everything, there’s a very interesting story behind that. Here are the Cliff’s Notes:

  • The original problem. The ceramic sinks of the 1950s were breaking the glass pouring rims on Corning’s original pyroceram percolator carafes.
  • The problem everyone remembers. To fix the original problem, Corning epoxied a metal rim to the top of the carafes, and bolted a plastic handle onto the new rim. That was a big mistake. Corning didn’t know it yet, but their epoxy curing methods were faulty. Later, Corning removed the bolts and decided to rely entirely on the epoxy seal to keep the metal collar/handle  attached to the carafes. That was a bigger mistake. Now nothing was holding the percolators together but epoxy.
  • Failures start to happen. In 1974, the rim/handle assemblies began to separate on newly redesigned, 1974-model percolators, resulting in injuries.  Corning updated its epoxy-curing methods and re-released the 1974 models, and etched  a serial number into their metal rims to indicate which pots were the re-released versions. But that didn’t go far enough.
  • The first, modest recall. In 1976, after additional complaints, Corning voluntary recalled all 1974-model percolators except for the etched/re-engineered ones. But that still didn’t go far enough.
  • Corning leaves the building. In 1978, due to the rise of automatic drip machines, Corning dropped out of the coffeemaker business and ceased production on all of its percolator models.
  • The second, massive recall. In 1979, after additional failure reports involving older models manufactured before 1974, Corning voluntarily decides to recall all percolators with metal rims manufactured from 1961 to 1978, except for the re-engineered 1974 model which remained in production until 1978.

Let’s unpack that. First, that means not only are all pyroceram-rimmed Corning Ware percolators safe and unrecalled, but so is every re-engineered metal-rimmed model produced between 1974 and 1978. The trouble with that is it’s much easier to find the recalled pots in contemporary thrift and antique stores. Models with the pyroceram rims tend to have chipped pouring spouts, being more than half a century old at this point.

Second, it’s worth noting that most people never gave up their recalled pots. Since they were already out of the coffeemaker business by 1979, Corning only ever asked people to send back their lids anyway, in exchange for coupons for other Corning Ware products. Most people just put their percolators in a cabinet, bought an automatic drip machine, and went on with their lives.

It’s also an open question how much research Corning did, if any, to identify if the epoxy issues really were distributed across every single metal-rimmed percolator model. Again, not being in the coffeemaker business anymore, they were more likely interested in making the problem go away completely rather than managing it. At the time, Corning said it had received 4 complaints of failures and 0.7 complaints of injuries for every 10,000 percolators sold. That unpacks to a 0.04% failure rate. To put that in perspective, four decades later Consumer Reports frequently reports estimated failure rates of unrecalled contemporary consumer goods to be closer to 10% or higher. So the case can be made that you’re potentially at greater risk using a contemporary coffeemaker than a recalled Corning Ware percolator.

I can attest such failures of modern product manufacturing. (As I’m sure you can, too.)

In fact, our high-end automatic drip was notorious for shorting out and/or catching on fire due to water seeping into the electronics due to a design fault when it was originally released. A fault that was “fixed” in later models not by eliminating the water seepage, but adding a little plastic umbrella over the power cord. It’s companion model (which we also owned) was known for a design fault that led to the machine clogging and flooding your kitchen counter. A fault that was never fixed—and repeated kitchen floods were exactly why we threw that machine away after a few months. (For both of these machines, Cuisinart, I’m glaring directly at you.)

There were the two expensive KitchenAid stand mixers I owned. The first one stopped working after a week. Its replacement—sent to me directly by KitchenAid—shredded metal confetti into my food the very first time I used it.

The Apple laptop that came out of the box bent. Yes, bent.

The iPad Pro that also came out of its box a similar way.

Given that all of that, as well as the subculture of people one the web (and not for nothing, in our own lives) who have continued to use their vintage, recalled Corning Ware percolators for years, I’m more concerned that home electronics will suddenly fail (much more, actually) than I am about whether we may own one of the one-in-2,500 epopoxied percolators that fail.

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Still, you do have to adult in an informed manner while you’re using them. Always support them from the bottom with a pot holder. Never pour them supporting them or carry them solely by their handles. Never leave them soaking in a soapy sink (allegedly a major precipitator of epoxy failure.) And of course, have more than one.

Just in case.

Our original, gifted pot is an all-epoxy mid-1960s model. Our second pot is its epoxied-but-still-bolted predecessor. We remain on the lookout for 1959 models with their original, unchipped pyroceram pouring rims and unrecalled, re-engineered models from 1974. Clearly, we’re obsessed.

Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s not all about the pyroceram pots. The comorbid Pyrex Flameware stovetop percolator madness is setting in, too. I can feel it.

Or maybe I’m just drinking too much coffee.

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