Percolator vs Drip Coffee Maker: What’s The Difference?

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There’s more than one way to make an amazing cup of coffee. If you’ve decided on filter coffee over espresso, for most people the decision comes does to percolator vs drip coffee maker. Both can provide an excellent cup of coffee, but the difference in ease of use and versatility likely makes only one the right option for your next cup of joe. Are you ready to find out which one you should buy?

What Are Drip Coffee Makers?

If you buy any random coffee maker, it’s probably a drip coffee maker. Although the initial design for drip coffee makers dates back to 1908, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the automatic drip coffee maker provided a practical and cost-effective alternative to percolators. Ever since then, drip machines have ruled the filter coffee market.  After all, they provide a quick and simple brewing process, and they are available at very low prices.

The mechanics of a drip coffee maker are fairly simple. A reservoir of water is heated to near-boiling. The steam coming off the water flows through tubes which lead it to condensing and being dripped overtop the ground coffee. The hot water makes its way through the grounds and into the coffee pot below.

What Are Coffee Percolators?

Percolators have been around a lot longer than drip coffee makers. The original model was patented all the way back in 1865, and stovetop percolators started to appear in 1889. The technology has not come very far since then.

Percolators have a bottom chamber that acts as a water reservoir and an upper chamber that stores coffee grounds. The water in the reservoir is brought to a boil, allowing it to rise up, condense, and drip through the grounds. That part is essentially the same as a drip coffee maker, but that’s where the similarities end.

As I mentioned earlier, water that flows through the grounds in a drip coffee maker ends up in your coffee pot, removing it from the brewing process. Once all the water flows through, the process is complete. In a percolator, on the other hand, the water coming off the beans returns to the reservoir, ready to continue boiling. This means that the water is free to flow through the grounds again and again until the percolator is removed from the heat.

Even if you’ve never used one personally, you’ve likely seen a percolator brewing coffee in action. Those giant coffee-making urns that you sometimes see at parties and corporate events are actually modern percolators. Unlike drip coffee makers that are usually make anywhere from a single cup to 12 cups, these commercial percolators sometimes make up to 100 cups of coffee.

What Kind of Coffee Do Percolator vs Drip Coffee Makers Make?

The difference between percolated coffee and drip coffee comes down to two main factors.

  1. The water in a percolator can achieve a rolling boil, whereas drip coffee makers are limited to a lower heat — typically near boiling or at most a low boil.
  2. In a percolator, water can flow through the beans multiple times.

Both of these factors lead to a potential for over-extraction of the coffee beans when using a percolator. Over-extraction leads to stronger coffee since you are pulling more caffeine, but it also results in more bitterness.

Aside from the bitterness, over-extracting coffee also results in a decreased depth of flavor, including many of the subtle notes that make each blend of coffee unique. You’ll also notice a difference in mouthfeel, with drip coffee providing a smoother, lighter experience.

Are Percolators or Drip Coffee Makers Easier to Use?

In case it wasn’t obvious by the last section, automatic drip coffee makers are by far the easier brewing method. As long as you add the right amount of water and the right amount of coffee beans and grind the coffee beans to the appropriate coarseness, your coffee quality will be consistent. After all, it’s hard to mess up pressing a single button.

Percolators take quite a bit more effort to perfect the brewing process. It’s not impossible to make a perfectly brewed pot of percolator coffee, but it takes more skill and attention. You’ll have to control both the water temperature and the brewing time to make the extraction process give you the coffee flavor you are looking for.

Of course, this means that you do have more ability to dial in your perfect cup of coffee with a percolator. Most drip machines give you little or no control over the brew process. This means you can’t make any terrible mistakes, but it means that the machine may be entirely incapable of making coffee the way you want it.

Another advantage of percolators is that there is a percolator for just about any heating option you have available. There are electric percolators, stovetop percolators, microwave percolators, and campfire percolators. If you can learn to master a percolator, you never have to be far from a freshly brewed cup of coffee.

Which Is Better: Percolator vs Drip Coffee?

If you want a simple, fast, and consistent brew process, drip coffee makers are the way to go. They are the most popular coffee makers for a reason. You may never experience the perfect cup of coffee with a drip machine, but you will also rarely get a bad cup of coffee.

Percolators are nowhere near as simple as drip coffee machines, but if you can get past that they do have their advantages. You have more control over the brewing process, and you’ll be able to make a strong coffee that most drip machines just can’t produce. The wide range of percolators available also means that you can use the same brewing style whether you are at home, camping, or anywhere else.

And that’s pretty much what this all comes down to. If you are the type of person that wants a coffee machine that is easy to use, buy a drip coffee maker. If you want added versatility, then it might be time to master the 150-year-old art of the percolator.

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