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Immersion vs Percolation vs Espresso

September 23, 2017

So you’ve heard about these different ways of making coffee with all their weird names? Immersion, Percolation, Espresso… All ways of making coffee fit into one of these three and I’ll do my best to show you what I can on the subject.

Immersion brewing is a method like the French Press where the grounds and water are all mixed up and left to brew for a while. This is often called steeping or infusion.

Percolation brewing is when hot water is slowly dripped through a bed of coffee grounds and the drink collects after it has all passed through. A more common name for this is Pour Over although that’s not the only method.

Espresso is a type of high-temperature and high-pressure brew that needs expensive machinery to make.

Now the big question is, how do these different methods affect what goes in your cup? And the other big question is which one is right for you? Well, that leads to the last big question…

Look, there’s a lot of big questions. Just read the darn article, ok?

What’s the main differences between immersion, percolation and espresso?

Coffee is a drink. The drink is made from ground coffee beans. The ground coffee needs to interact with hot water so that the soluble coffee compounds dissolve. That’s about all there is to it.

Except not really.

I’m not going to bore you with the vast, unimaginable, Mariana Trench-like depths there are to coffee beans and I won’t prattle on about the pivotal ‘small print of the small print’ details and minutiae that go in to brewing a fantastic cup.

Here, I just want to explain the three main ways there are to make ground coffee and water interact. Immersion, percolation and espresso. Every method there is comes under this three-pronged umbrella. I think. Let me know if I missed something.

(Technically espresso is a form of percolation, but it distinguishes itself enough to have a separate column.)

The Basics

Immersion Percolation Espresso
french press pourover spout with espresso pouring from it
Water is mixed with ground coffee. Water is passed through ground coffee (from gravity). Very hot water is pressurized through ground coffee.
Also called: Infusion, Steeping Drip, Pour Over
Methods: French Press, Clever Dripper, Cold Brew, Turkish Coffee Pour Over, Autodrip Coffee Maker Espresso and to some degree Moka Pot and Aeropress
Brew time: Variable. 4 minutes (French Press) -> 36 Hours (Cold Brew) 3-4 minutes for 16oz brewed coffee Very short – 5-10 seconds for a shot of espresso
Typical Grind Size: Coarse Medium/Fine Fast
Extraction rate: Medium-Slow-Very Slow Fast Very Fast

A Closer Look

french press - immersion brewImmersion: the French Press lets the ground coffee and water swirl around while it brews.
Pour over - a percolation brewPercolation: a man pouring water through a Pour Over device.
Espresso brewEspresso: the machine forces hot, pressurized water through a packed ‘puck’ of ground coffee.

So what’s the difference?

Brewing coffee is all about balances. The key is to obtain an excellent extraction that produces a coffee yield between 18-22% (maximum is about 30%) where the early extracting acids and the later-extracting sugars and bitter compounds are matched evenly which creates a smooth tasting cup. It’s harder than most people think to obtain this balance and is why most people don’t really make good coffee at home.

The yield is changed by five things:

Water Temperature
Brew Time
Grind Size
Grind Consistency
Brew Method (to a lesser extent)

Whether you opt for immersion, percolation or espresso brewing the process is still the same. You are adding hot water and ground coffee together. It’s that the method you choose will dictate how much time is spent brewing which needs to be contrasted with temperature and grind size. You’ll notice the short espresso brew time is compensated with a high temperature and a very fine grind size. So long as the balance is right then it doesn’t matter. The taste can change wildly depending on method but what filter you use that makes the biggest difference.

Espresso is something of an exception purely because it produces an extremely strong and small coffee – the espresso. But you can still approximate brewed coffee from filling your espresso up with hot water and creating an americano.

If you’re looking for something more scientific here’s a great Quora answer that compares the extraction rate between immersion and percolation. The conclusion? Immersion requires a coarser grind to account for the longer brew time.

Sidenote: Grind consistency has a huge impact and is criminally overlooked. You simply can’t get by with a cheap burr grinder or a blade grinder and expect to have an even extraction. This is particularly true of coarser grinds where the cheap grinders throw in lots of fines that majorly overextract and create a bitter coffee. I’d buy preground over these two options with ideally looking to invest (read: $100+) in a quality hand or automatic grinder at some point.


Frequently Asked Questions

How does immersion, percolation or espresso affect the taste?

I’ve had numerous conversations about how much these 3 methods affect taste and I’ve never heard a satisfying answer either way.

My personal viewpoint is this. Espresso tastes quite different because it produces a small, strong shot with a small amount of crema on top . It has a very different texture. Immersion and percolation both produce brewed coffee and there is no discernible difference in taste just on this factor. As I mentioned, the type of filter (paper, mesh, none…) your method uses has a far greater impact on taste ranging from the light and bright Chemex to the full-bodied French Press.

And if you really want to improve the taste of your coffee, get yourself some quality freshly roasted coffee beans.

Which method should I choose?

If you’re looking for a way of making coffee then choosing immersion or percolation or espresso is not the way to do it. Immersion alone has at least 5 methods you could choose from and each is appreciably different from the others.

You need to consider your preference in taste, your skill level, your budget and many other things. You need to work out which of the numerous ways of making coffee fits in with your own particular requirements. What you need is a well-informed blog article that can give you a clear guide on which method is right for you.

Oh look! I have one right here…

What’s best for a beginner?

I mentioned earlier that it’s very tricky to get all the variables lined up correctly to produce a great cup of coffee. So as a beginner, you want something that is forgiving. That is to say, a method that still makes good coffee even when you get a few things wrong.

Generally speaking, immersion is the most forgiving and espresso is the least forgiving with percolation somewhere in the middle. A long extraction time with coarser coffee gives you a slower brew that is less likely to do bad things to your drink. A short extraction time gives you little time and little room for error.

Trip over in a marathon and it’s no big deal. Trip over when you’re sprinting next to Usain Bolt and you can kiss that medal goodbye.

I explain more in my article on the 4 most forgiving brew methods which I totally recommend you check out. Not biased. No. 😉

Update: An interesting perspective on this topic comes from Scott Rao in his excellent book Everything But Espresso (great read, you should get it). Essentially, he talks about his extensive testing with percolation methods, in particular Pour Over style methods, and says that the majority of Pour Over coffees that are made are substandard. He attributes this to the fact that producing an even extraction throughout the coffee slurry requires more care and adjustment than most people give it. This further supports the idea that an immersion method is the way to go early on. Also, if you’re a mad fan of Pour Over then you’ve just gotta get the book. It’s very eye-opening.

What’s the best method for each?

Obviously, any discussion of brew method is fairly subjective so I’ll just weigh in with what I think, no doubt angering the legions of internet coffee fanatics!

Immersion – French Press is the way to go. Cheap, easy to make but more than good enough for however experienced you are and gives a wonderfully rich, full-bodied taste that keeps me coming back to it. One of my favorite methods, still.

Percolation – I’m a fan of the Chemex. It looks absolutely gorgeous, is a great and easy option for making coffee for 2-3 people and provides a lovely clean taste that really highlights the more acidic notes of your coffee.

Espresso – Err… Espresso Machine I guess. I’d recommend a Rancilio Silvia for anyone looking to get started with a solid setup that won’t cost the earth. (It might seem expensive if you’re not that into coffee but basically anything less than $300 may as well be scrap metal as far as I’m concerned.)

Quiz Time!

Pick up a pen and some paper and pretend you back in school, because we’re having a quiz! There are…

espresso machine - espresso

Espresso. That’s a side-on view of an espresso machine.

pour over - percolation

Percolation. This lady is getting her pour over on.

Percolation. This one’s a close-up of a Hario V60.

turkish coffee - immersion

Immersion. This method is the unique Turkish way of making coffee.

siphon coffee - immersion

Immersion. This bizarre looking contraption is a siphon coffee maker.

pour over - percolation

Percolation. To finish, another pour over and another V60.

Enjoy this article? Absolutely hate it? Either way, let me know in the comments.

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