Back to the past: Return of the percolator

Over three decades our household has averaged a new coffee-maker every three or four years. We’ve had Braun, Gevalia, Black and Decker, Krups, and other brands I’ve forgotten. A couple of times we got the $90 model but mostly they’ve been about half that price. Either way, eventually they quit working and this big non-repairable piece of plastic and electronics goes into the garbage.

As years have passed they’ve gotten more complicated, and that seemed to be the downfall of last week’s purchase. It was a Krups with an added water filter (good for us, with mineral-rich well water, but also one more thing to have to find, buy, and replace––profit’s big on consumables, like printer cartridges!). It also had an extra idiot light feature: a “low water” display and override which would keep it from running if it thought there was not enough water. This was not a feature we wanted, in fact we did not discover it until it malfunctioned on the third day of use. Push ON and all that happened was a cryptic pattern flashing on the display.

In the morning, when you want your coffee, reading a coffee-maker manual is not on your list of desired activities. Before consulting the manual we tried the chimpanzee approach, pushing the four control buttons in various combinations. Luckily we did not happen to activate any of the more arcane features, which can only be guessed at, nor (since we live in such a remote location) did the machine’s electronic calls for help manage to bring its plastic comrades jetting to its aid in time to defend it from our mishandling. Nor did we fix it, even after we deciphered the display message. We plugged and unplugged it, emptied and refilled it, all to no avail. Then we called the Customer Service number and listened to music for 20 minutes before a polite woman with a southern accent came on, heard our story, and informed us that by unplugging it and plugging it back in, we had “done all the troubleshooting” that we could do and our next step was to pack it up and ship it to their service center. Or, she said, we “might be able” to return it to the point of sale for a “straight-across trade”. Yes, I said, thinking “But not for another one of your brand!”

By then, we had made our morning’s coffee using a kettle and a flat-bottomed gold filter set in a sieve over a large pyrex measuring container. It was good. Caffeinated, we discussed our next step. Something simpler, not plastic and electronic, would be good; perhaps it would even have been Made NOT in China. We decided on a percolator, since Dan said he’d seen one on the shelf when he chose the Krups, and I remarked that when I was a kid people had the same percolator for 20 years, perking on and on. We marvelled that the coffee-makers of our childhood were still being sold. Maybe we weren’t the only people tired of having to read a manual for something that should be simple, and tired of the (planned or unplanned) short life-span of the new coffee-makers.

For $45 we got a shiny stainless steel West Bend percolator. It has no controls. Fill with water (there is a clear water gauge on the side, one new feature); insert the tube up which the hot water flows; put coffee in metal basket, put on lid, place basket on tube, put coffee-maker lid on, plug in. Less than a minute later hot water is flowing up into the clear knob on top and down onto the coffee basket. There is no possible programming, no clock, and only one “feature”, a plastic light on the base. I thought the thing was already broken, when the light did not come on after the percolator was plugged in. But no: the light comes on when the coffee is done. It keeps the coffee hot until unplugged, so you have to remember to do that to avoid cooked-all-day coffee remains. Unlike all the coffee-machine carafes we have ever had, the percolator does not drip when you pour too fast. Also, it takes up less space on the counter.

And the coffee? We like it better than what we were drinking before. The perking noise is pleasant, unlike the hissing and puffing of the previous type. Only one part didn’t turn out as we hoped: it was “Made in China”. But we hope it’s the last coffee-maker we buy for a long long time.

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