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Espresso machine vs. percolator: Which is right for you?

Stovetop espresso makers, sometimes called moka pots, are used worldwide as an alternative to the barista-style machines that operate with 15 to 19 bars of pressure.
Stovetop espresso makers, sometimes called moka pots, are used worldwide as an alternative to the barista-style machines that operate with 15 to 19 bars of pressure.

Should I get an espresso machine or a percolator?

When it comes to brewing coffee, espresso machines and percolators produce some of the strongest, most intense cups of Joe. But what are their differences, and which machine is right for your morning routine?

In 1889, Hanson Goodrich sought a patent for the percolator, which sends bubbling boiling water up a tube and over coffee grounds repeatedly. Coffee cycles through the machine until bubbling stops. The robust results made percolated coffee the American standard until drip coffee makers emerged in the 1970s.

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Espresso, on the other hand, is associated with European coffee and dates back to 1884 when Italian Angelo Moriondo patented the first espresso machine. With espresso, a small amount of boiling water is forced through finely ground coffee beans just once, resulting in a concentrated coffee that can be enjoyed alone or as the foundation for milk-based coffees, such as lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos.

Today, there are both stovetop and electric percolators and espresso machines available. Below are the pros and cons of each so you can choose which is best for you.

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Stovetop percolator

Boiling water initiates the percolator process. With a stovetop percolator, you can brew a pot of coffee over electric or gas burners, or even an open fire. Water is placed in the base of the machine and grounds are put in a metal or plastic basket at the top. This brewing process is simple and one of most affordable ways to make coffee. You can find stovetop percolators for as little as $15.60 for an aluminum model, $20 for glass, or $35 and more for stainless steel. Campers prefer using enameled percolators because the heavy-gauge steel holds up well.

Pros

  • Stovetop percolators are inexpensive and can work without power, making them ideal for camping.
  • You can make enough coffee for two to eight people.

Cons

  • Sometimes boiling water gets too hot and over extraction leads to a burnt taste.
  • Many percolators don't use a paper filter, and unfiltered coffee brewing methods have been linked to higher risks of cardiovascular disease.

Stovetop espresso maker

Stovetop espresso makers, sometimes called moka pots, are used worldwide as an alternative to the barista-style machines that operate with nine to 15 bars of pressure. Stovetop espresso makers work similarly to percolators. Boiling water produces steam that is forced up a small funnel over compact coffee grinds. However, instead of cycling through the machine, the water goes through the grounds once, producing a strong aromatic espresso.

These stovetop espresso makers come in a variety of styles and range from less than $10 for an aluminum moka pot to more than $200 for some designer models. Among mid-range offerings, consider the Primula stainless steel espresso maker, the stylized Alessi or the 10-cup sleek and durable Bialetti Venus.

Keep in mind when a moka pot brand claims to produce six cups of coffee, that is based on European demitasse cups, which are about two to three ounces. Most Americans consider a cup to be eight ounces, and mugs are usually 12 to 16 ounces.

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Pros

  • Stovetop espresso makers are less expensive than electric espresso machines; a top-of-the-line moka pot costs about the same as a bargain basement automatic espresso machine.
  • Stovetop espresso machines are tiny and easy to store.

Cons

  • Although they make a concentrated coffee, these stovetop pots don't produce crema, the hallmark of the best espresso.
  • It may take more tinkering before you learn to produce a consistent shot of espresso.

Should you get a stovetop percolator or espresso machine?

These are similar methods and comparable in terms of price. If you brew coffee to serve more than one person, the percolator is a tried-and-true way to make coffee. Those who want only a shot of espresso for one or two and would rather not invest in a larger espresso machine, the moka pot will serve you well.

Electric coffee percolator

The electric percolator's popularity took off during the post-World War II baby boom. It remained the standard way of making coffee until automatic drip coffee makers (like Mr. Coffee) became a mainstay in American households. Drip coffee makers use filters, which remove some of the oils that give percolated coffee its weighty composition. Still, some people prefer the thicker, stronger brew. If that describes you, you can find electric percolators from trusted brands like Cuisinart and Farberware. They come in aluminum, stainless steel, or copper. Coffee urns, like this unit from Hamilton Beach, are oversized percolators.

Pros

  • Large coffee percolators can serve more people without having to start a fresh pot.
  • Percolators produce a comforting, almost hypnotic sound.

Cons

  • The percolating process tends to over extract coffee leading to a bitter, burnt taste.
  • Considering the cost and cleaning, a French Press produces a similar brew without over extraction.

Electric espresso machine

Electric espresso machines start at no frills units under $50 and can cost as much as $10,000 for pseudo-commercial models. Some machines use 15 to 19 bars of pressure and produce beautiful brown crema. Electric espresso machines come with or without a milk frothing component; some use capsules or pods. To get an electric espresso machine at a similar cost to an electric percolator, you'll have to forgo some frills and features. Some affordable options, priced under $150, include the Nespresso Essenza Mini, the Barsetto Gevi and the De'Longhi Stilosa.

No matter what you spend, if you like lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos and mochas, you’ll need a shot of espresso.

Pros

  • With an electric espresso machine, it's easier to make lattes, cappuccinos and other coffee house favorites.
  • Temperature gauges and other built-in features on electric espresso machines helps with espresso consistency.

Cons

  • These machines are far more expensive than percolators.
  • Frothing components on electric espresso machines are noisy.

Should you get an electric percolator or espresso machine?

Percolators and espresso machines offer two distinct ways to brew coffee. The primary difference is that espresso is the base for all popular coffeehouse drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos. If all you want is a regular cup of coffee, a percolator will get the job done. But if you like fancier coffee drinks and to experiment with flavors, milks and creams, an espresso machine is the way to go.

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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