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Percolation and brewing seem used quite interchangeably in English, in many contexts, but not all. For example, I can often see "percolation time" in technical documents or Wikipedia entries, but often hear "brewing time" as well.

Is there any usage guidelines for these words in the English coffee world?

The problem is that percolation and brewing are not just about coffee: Both terms are generic. Percolation sounds more technical and focusing on liquid getting through a filter. Brewing seems focusing more on "solid into hot water", without involving necessarily a filter. This lets me think the words usage can be made quite accurate.

Please note that the scope is "restricted" to English, as percolation is a Latin word, and it seems usage differs in English.

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Brewing is a part of every coffee preparation method: it's the time when the water (or steam) is in contact with the grounds. It is a generic term.

Percolation however, would only be used when making percolator coffee. You would not talk about percolation time when making espresso, for example. I would not use it as a generic term.

  • I am not sure about your claim on percolation. We can see "percolation time" for espresso. For example, the Wikipedia page on espresso mentions it. That's one of the reasons for this question! – Eric Platon Feb 6 '16 at 9:39
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    @EricPlaton The word percolate appears once in the page you linked. It is a direct copy of the English version of the INEI guidelines linked from the page. I can't immediately locate the Italian version, but I suspect that it's simply an ambiguous translation. I agree that conventional English usage is as fredley said: percolate is specific to percolators. – hoc_age Feb 7 '16 at 16:11
  • Nice found. The Italian version states the same: "Tempo di percolazione". Percolation being of Latin origin, still confused. Perhaps I should frame the question to English only. – Eric Platon Feb 12 '16 at 3:12
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In the world of coffee, the two terms are basically interchangeable - as long as you are talking about water passing through coffee, and that it is also being passed through some sort of filtration.

Percolation by definition is the extraction of a substance by passing water through it. Your brew time would be the time that your water is in contact with your coffee grounds. I wouldn't ever say my French press's percolation time is 4 minutes, because you never really filter it. But you could talk about any other non full-immersion brew method with either term, even espresso! Espresso is after all filtered, and water percolates through it.

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To me a percolator is a just a mechanism. You have a heater at the bottom, a tube, and a check value. The water enters the tube and some of the water is vaporized and it pushes the hot water to the top. They have no pump. That style of coffee maker is called a percolator. From there the term got used a lot ways.

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In an academic article (in English language and authored by two Italian authors) espresso preparation is divided into these three steps:

  • Grinding of the roasted coffee
  • Coffee powder dosing and tamping
  • Brewing (more correctly Percolation)

In the rest of the document, percolation is preferred. According to this, Eric's first hypothesis in his question about technical documents seems correct.

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