How to brew better coffee at the cottage

Cottage coffee has a character all its own. The crisp mornings, the lingering smell of the previous night’s campfire, and the mist coming up off the lake all combine to make a caffeinated cup at the cottage unlike anything you’ll find in the city.

For many cottagers, the ultimate cup of vacation coffee involves a stove-top (or campfire) percolator. With its characteristic bubble-and-hiss and ability to spread wake-you-up aromas to even the farthest bunkies, perked coffee has a legion of devotees who treasure its no-frills appeal.

The problem? Do it wrong, and instead of a strong, bracing cup of joe, you end up with a sludgy, bitter, tarry mess. So here’s how to do it right.

1. Start with cold water and a clean pot. This holds true for any method of making coffee. Cold tap water tends to have fewer dissolved minerals in it, which will make for a better-tasting brew. (And, for the same reason, if you’re on well water, consider using filtered or distilled water for your coffee.)

2. Use the right amount of coffee. Now, this is a matter of preference, and can really only be determined by trial and error. Standard recommendations range from one to three heaping teaspoons of coffee per cup of water—so experiment to see what works best for you and your guests. If the coffee ends up too strong, add some hot milk or water. If it’s too weak, add some instant coffee to beef it up.

3. Use the right grind and type of coffee. Using a coarsely ground, low-acid coffee will give you the best result in your percolator. (Most canned coffee is ground for a conventional drip-method coffeemaker, so will be too fine to really perform well in a perk.) Contrary to what you might think, darker roasts tend to be lower in acid, since they spend more time in the roasting process—but keep in mind that the flavour tends to be stronger. Again, experiment to find out what works best for you. If possible, grind your coffee beans that morning, or carry pre-ground coffee in an airtight container.

4. Wet the basket and lid. This will help keep the grounds from migrating into your mug.

5. Don’t over-perk, and don’t over-heat. This is the biggest mistake novice perkers make. Don’t forget about your coffee pot, especially once perking’s started. Instead, turn the heat down a little and set a timer for anywhere from three to six minutes—a longer perk means a stronger flavour, but wait too long, and your coffee will over-boil and taste burned. Once perking has stopped, allow the coffee to rest off the heat for a few minutes. This will let the water still in the basket flow through into the brew. If you have to keep the coffee warm, do so over low heat.

6. Little additions can make a difference. If you’re worried about bitterness, a tiny pinch of salt in the coffee grounds can smooth out the edge. A cinnamon stick can also provide a little extra flavour for a special treat.

All set? Break out the perk, turn on the stove, and get that cottage collection of mismatched diner-style mugs ready to go.