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Lay the Percolator to Rest

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Through the ages all factors related to coffee have advanced. From ground upon a rock to highly-advanced grinders capable of adjustment as small as 0.0005”.  For pan roasting to computer controlled roasters that give precise control over every batch. We new even know now the genetic structure of the coffee plant itself. Much the same can be said of methods of coffee preparation.

Espresso machines can easily be said to be the most advanced form of coffee-making. Some commercial machines have three separate computers inside just to control brew temperature and water delivery. But here in the West, Percolater.

That statement will likely rankle some, and the reasons are simple. The percolator began its life in around 1814 or a bit earlier. The first US patent for what we now know as the “modern” percolator was granted in 1889. These were designed to be placed on a stove or other similar heating source. After W.W.II the electric percolator came into vogue as the movement to “modernize” the American home took hold. But some modern conveniences have their drawbacks. Let’s take a look at why:

The percolator is just a pot with a spout. Usually it is taller than it is wide. Placed on a heating source , the water inside begins to heat and rise. It flows up the center tube (1) where it splashes against a clear dome (2). There are variations to that, but this is what most people think of as a stereotypical percolator. After the splash, the water trickles into a basket suspended in the pot. This basket contains the ground coffee. It flows through the grounds (4) and dribbles back down to the bottom of the pot to begin its journey again. It does this over and over. As the coffee brews the wonderful aroma of the beverage fills the home as vapors and steam are emitted through the pouring spout (6).

It is that last fact that makes the percolator a favorite method in some households to this day but is also one of the reasons that this method is best put to rest. That wonderful aroma makes an excellent “air freshener” for the home, but that aroma is, to a great extent, the flavor of the coffee being boiled off. Brewed coffee should normally not get over about 202 to 203F. degrees, and that as a maximum. Depending on many factors, coffee brewed at around 196 to 198 can be fantastic. The heat from the stove will cause the liquid in the pot to approach the boiling point as the brewing process progresses. While it may not actually reach 212 F., it certainly has great potential of  surpassing 205F.

The other problem is the nature of the process itself. As the coffee is passed through the grounds, over and over, the potential for over-extraction is multiplied. Anyone who has ever had a bitter cup of perc’d coffee knows this as a fact.

There is also the difficulty of knowing when to stop the brewing process by taking the pot off the burner. A timer can be used or the color of the coffee splashing in the glass dome on top can be used as an indicator. Being that so much of the flavor has the potential of being boiled off throughout the process, precision is a minor factor in brewing time here.

But that aroma, the evidence we use to show what is bad about a percolator is also a big reason why it is still used today. That aroma is more than enough to get most folks out of bed in the morning. The aroma says “good morning.” The device is also simple to use and easy to clean.

So the basics are there but there have been improvements. The drip coffee maker combines the convenience of  this simple brewing method and has the potential to control over the process. The biggest improvement over the percolator is that the water is heated and then released through the ground coffee just one time. That gives the potential of  alleviating over-extraction, but the majority of drip makers create another by having a brew temperature that is too low. As mentioned earlier, brew temperature is critical for the best cup of coffee. Whether this low temperature is due to design flaws, cost-saving measures in design and production, or lawyers attempting to avoid having their clients sued is unimportant. The taste of the coffee is important. No home drip brewers had true adjustable brewing temperature until now.

The most advanced drip coffee maker ever offered for home use is now in its second generation. Invented by Joe Behm, the Behmor “Brazen Plus” eliminates all the problems of the percolator and has advanced drip brewing into the realm of science. It has even earned European and American certification by the SCAA and the SCAE. Brew water is held above the coffee in a stainless steel reservoir where it is heated to a preselected temperature chosen by the user, controlled by electronics using a sensor that is in the water itself. Once the water reaches that selected temperature, only then is it released through the coffee held directly below. If desired, the Brazen can pre-soak the grounds, allowing them to become pre-saturated which eliminates uneven extraction. When the brewing begins, the water is released in a slow, on-off cycle, which allows the water to drain through the coffee and not flood and disrupt the bed of grounds. Water is distributed evenly over the coffee by an advanced shower head with many moles instead of just one small nozzle over the coffee. The machine can even be set for your altitude and the boiling point calibrated to compensate for that. This also compensates for electronic drift over time.

This does not mean that older methods of coffee preparation are obsolete. Turkish coffee is one of my very favorite methods, and that way method of coffee preparation is the oldest in the world still in use today.  Even cowboy coffee has greater potential of making a better cup than a percolator. But the majority of households use drip brewers today and there is no more advanced home drip brewer than the Behmor Brazen.

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