NOTE: There is a fair amount of disagreement on this article. For opposing views please take a look at the comments and make your own decision based on what you like.
Percolators violate most of the natural laws about brewing coffee.
- Don't over extract the oils and flavor. Percolators work by taking coffee and reheating it and throwing it over the grounds over and over and over again.
- Never reheat / boil coffee. This destroys the flavor. For best flavor, boil the water, pass it over the grounds and retain the heat. Don't reheat it.
Violating these rules may not sound like much, but these are about the only rules there are. The effect of a percolator is to keep passing boiling water/coffee over the grounds until there is no flavor left and the flavor in the coffee is so dead that it's a worthless waste.
There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about the re-boiling of already brewed coffee.
About half way through this video from "Coffee brewers institute" (1961) there is a good example of the boiling and re-brewing over and over again of coffee in a percolator. At approximately the 7 minute 40 second mark they show a glass percolator.
If you look in the bottom half you will see already brewed coffee. The already brewed coffee is boiling and being pushed back over the grounds. That's a pretty good visual demonstration of what is happening.
Most modern percolators are the electric variety - they plug into a wall outlet and are a self-contained unit.
Most electric percolators use a stainless steel basket with quite large perforations, which makes select the appropriate grind important. You do not want to use a paper filter with these, as it could prevent proper drainage and flow, and cause the coffee to spill over.
There are also stove top percolators, which are meant to be placed on a stove surface instead of plugged in, and these are different from moka pots.
Percolator vs. Vacuum pots
Reading several comments some seem to be people who are not talking about a percolator but a vacuum pot or a moka pot.
If you have a brewer that pushes water up into a second (usually upper) chamber by steam and holds the water in the upper chamber during brewing then pulls it back via vacuum into the lower changer after brewing that's not a percolator. That is a vacuum pot which is described over here. Vacuum pot coffee also happens to be one of my favorite ways to have coffee.
Percolator vs. Moka Pot
A moka pot (unlike a vacuum pot) will push the water through the grounds and into an upper chamber that it is served from.
I realize that in a few cases manufacturers have chosen to add the word percolator to the description of their moka pots. Strictly speaking this is not any more correct than calling a moka pot an espresso maker which is another common marketing gimmick for moka pots.
How to choose a percolator
Ultimately the preference of coffee makers comes down to personal preference. I'll go further to say most people will probably prefer whatever they are accustomed to so if you grew up on perc pots you may always prefer them even if they have inherent problems. There is nothing wrong with that.
You won't get the "best" cup of coffee as defined by coffee snob, but it will produce a cup of coffee on par with most coffees brewed at home in a regular drip pot coffee maker. Having said that if you are looking for your first coffee pot or your first non-drip coffee pot I would encourage you to skip the perc pot.
If budget is a concern a French Press is excellent. If budget is less of a concern you can get a good manual Vacuum pot for a little more than an electric perc pot.
If you have already tried the other methods and want to try something new give a perc pot a try. They are not expensive so you won't be out a lot of money. If you end up loving perc above all else then by all means celebrate your discovery of the way that is right for you.
Coleman brand percolators are a line of percolators designed for outdoor use at campsites, picnics and barbecues. They're rugged and specifically designed to be used over campfires, similar to stove-top models.
User reviews seem to indicate that while the outside is durable, the glass knob on top, and aluminum basket, can be problematic over the long run.
Be sure to follow the instructions provided when you purchase your brewer.
Hamilton Beach Percolators
Hamilton Beach manufactures a line of stainless steel electric percolators with detached electrical cords, making them portable. While initial usage indicates that these make good coffee, quickly, there are a large number of complaints that the machine stops working under a year. Make sure to get a good warranty.
West Bend Percolators
West Bend is a brand that manufactures large-scale percolators, labeled as "urns". The distinction between a regular percolator and an urn appears to be that an urn is meant for serving large quantities of coffee, such as at events.
They come with a dispensing spout (spigot) near the bottom of the machine that makes it easy to dispense coffee without tipping the machine.
Urns and percolators operate off the same principles.