What Is Drip Coffee? A Simple Guide

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Drip coffee makers are the single most popular type of coffee maker in the United States and much of the world. But what is drip coffee? How does it differ from brewed coffee?

Whether you want to become a coffee connoisseur or just understand your next Starbucks order, it helps to know what drip coffee is, what other brewing methods are available, and how to tell if your coffee maker is a drip coffee maker.

What Is Auto-Drip Coffee?

A woman about to pour coffee from a drip coffee maker

When people talk about drip coffee, they usually mean auto-drip coffee. Most home and office coffee makers are automatic drip coffee makers. The design of these machines can vary, but they usually have a few things in common:

  • A glass or metal carafe.
  • A heating plate that the carafe sits on.
  • A filter basket in a plastic enclosure directly above the carafe.
  • A clear or opaque plastic water tank that sits beside or behind the carafe.

Auto-drip coffee is simply the coffee made by these machines. Because they are typically operated by a single touch, auto-drip coffee makers offer some of the most consistent coffee of any brewing process. 

Okay, But What Is Drip Coffee?

Throughout this article, I’ll be referring specifically to auto-drip coffee when I saw drip coffee, but it’s actually a much broader category. Auto-drip coffee, pour-over coffee, and percolated coffee all fall under the broad category of drip coffee.

Drip coffee is generally any coffee made by heating water and allowing it to drip through ground coffee just by the force of gravity. For comparison, the other main categories of brewing methods are:

  • Pressure coffee makers — Where drip machines rely on gravity, some coffee makers use high pressures to push water through the coffee grounds. This allows faster brewing times and results in a more flavorful, concentrated brew.  Espresso machines, Moka pots, Keurigs, and the AeroPress all fall into this category.
  • Immersion coffee makers — Immersion brewing methods allow the water to stay in contact with the coffee grounds for an extended period of time, after which they are typically filtered off. These methods include the French press, cold brew coffee makers, and siphon coffee makers.
A collage of all the types of coffee makers

Is drip coffee the same as brewed coffee?

Drip coffee is brewed coffee, but it’s not the only brewed coffee. In fact, all types of coffee are brewed. The broad category of brewed coffee includes espresso, French press coffee, cold brew coffee, and all of the other drip, pressure, and immersion methods we talked about above. 

How do Drip Coffee Makers Work

Automatic drip coffee makers all operate very similarly.

  1. The cold water in the reservoir is heated until steam starts to rise.
  2. The rising steam flows through a tube that guides it above the coffee filter basket.
  3. The steam condenses at the end of the pipe and drips onto the coffee grounds.
  4. While flowing through the grounds, the hot water extracts the coffee’s oils, acids, and sugars.
  5. The water drops out the bottom of the filter basket and is collected in a carafe. In the case of no-carafe machines, a tank inside the machine collects the coffee instead.
  6. The heating element maintains the temperature of the coffee until it is served.

Comparisons to Other Coffee Brewing Methods

Drip coffee is by far the most popular coffee brewing method for home usage, but there are several alternatives. Let’s see how drip coffee compares to pour-over coffee, percolator coffee, French press coffee, and espresso.

Drip coffee vs pour over

A manual pour-over, the process that automatic pour-over coffee machines mimic

As mentioned before, pour-over is a type of drip coffee. Where auto-drip coffee attempts to provide a one-size-fits-all solution that is very beginner-friendly, pour-over coffee allows for a lot of customization.

With pour-over brewing, the temperature and brewing time can be modified to suit the characteristics of the beans and the individual preference of the user. That extra customization is fantastic if you know what you are doing, but the learning curve is very steep. 

Auto-drip coffee is more consistent than pour-over. There are ways to improve it (as I’ll cover below), but your options are more limited than with a pour-over. On the bright side, that also means you are unlikely to have a bad brew. Auto-drip is faster and more hands-off than pour-over, making it a good option for those with limited time or patience.

Percolated coffee vs drip coffee

A close-up view of coffee brewing in a percolator

Have you seen those stovetop or electric coffee makers that look like tea kettles? There’s a good chance that was a percolator. For many years, percolator vs drip coffee maker was the main choice people had when buying their home coffee machine. 

You can make percolated coffee that tastes almost identical to drip coffee, but percolators really shine if you prefer stronger coffee.

Percolators offer a lot more control over the brewing process than drip coffee makers do. The water in a percolator is allowed to run through the grounds multiple times, so a longer brew time will result in fuller, more flavorful, and eventually more bitter coffee. 

Drip coffee vs french press

Pouring a french press, hopefully made with the right coffee to water ratio.

The paper filters used in a drip coffee maker block a lot of the oils from making their way into your cup of coffee. French press filters only block the grounds — everything else gets through. That means that French press coffee has a heavier body and more coffee flavor.

Drip coffee, meanwhile, has a lighter flavor. Some would describe it as blander, but good drip coffee can also show off the unique complexity of the beans better than French press coffee can.

Drip coffee vs espresso

A high-end semi-automatic espresso machine with a digital display

Espresso is a more flavorful, concentrated coffee made by quickly passing pressurizing water through fine coffee grounds. The stronger, more concentrated flavor of espresso makes it an ideal base for many types of coffee drinks like cappuccinos and lattes.

Americano vs drip coffee

When a shot of espresso is diluted to the same volume as a cup of drip coffee, it’s referred to as either an Americano or a long black coffee — depending on how the water is added. 

Espresso has more caffeine per ounce than a cup of drip coffee, but the typical espresso-to-water ratio of an Americano leaves it with less caffeine than drip coffee. Even at this dilution, Americanos still offer a fuller, richer alternative to auto-drip coffee. 

Ways to Improve Your Drip Coffee

Some people just don’t like drip coffee. If you have become accustomed to French press coffee or espresso, you may never get used to auto-drip coffee. You could always picking up an alternative coffee maker under $100 to see if non-drip coffee is more to your liking. Espresso is more expensive, but you can find a great espresso machine for under $1000.

Those are all more extreme measures, though. If you are dealing with bitter coffee, sour coffee, or just flavorless drip coffee, there are a few easier steps that you can take.

Add more (or less) coffee grounds

Adding more coffee grounds to a coffee filter

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to measuring coffee grounds. I created my coffee-to-water ratio calculator to help with this issue, but I can offer some quick advice here, too. The key is to control the level of extraction. Too much water leads to over-extracted, bitter coffee. Too little water results in under-extracted, sour coffee.

Start with about 3 tablespoons (1.5 level coffee scoops) for each eight-ounce cup of water. If your coffee is too bitter, try adding more grounds. If it’s too sour, try using less ground coffee. If you have to do more than minor adjustments from that range, try one of the other solutions below instead.

Use a grinder (and the right grind size)

A handheld coffee grinder, perfect for use as a travel grinder

The biggest mistake coffee lovers make is buying pre-ground coffee. It’s convenient, but coffee grounds go bad much faster than whole beans. Getting in the habit of grinding your own coffee beans is a must-do for better drip coffee.

You don’t even need one of the best coffee grinders to see a real difference. Go out and buy a small coffee grinder if you want a cheap way to discover the importance of fresh coffee. Grinding coffee doesn’t take a lot of extra time, and you’ll immediately taste the difference.

Grind size can be used to control the extraction level, just like the coffee-to-water ratio. Drip coffee is typically made with medium-ground coffee. You can make the grind size slightly larger if your coffee is too bitter, try a coarser grind. If it’s too sour, try a finer grind. Don’t go past about a medium-fine or medium-coarse grind or your coffee quality will quickly go downhill.

Buy better coffee beans

Even if you are buying whole beans, there is probably still room for improvement — especially if you are buying your beans off a grocery store shelf. Good coffee starts with high-quality, fresh coffee beans, and grocery store coffee is neither of those things. 

Grocery store coffee has often been sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse for far too long. Even if you are lucky enough to get a fresh bag, it was likely made from low-quality beans that produce bland, bitter coffee. The best black coffees are made with beans bought from a local roaster or online from a premium coffee roaster. 

The best part: You don’t have to pay a lot more to get a huge boost in quality. You can still make have your cup of coffee cost much less than a drink from a coffee shop. Try buying a single bag of single-origin Costa Rican coffee beans, one of the best Ethiopian coffee brands, or a delicious peaberry coffee to see just how much better fresh, premium coffee can be. You can also find premium flavored coffees if you don’t want better coffee without giving up the strong hazelnut or blueberry aroma of your morning brew.

A close-up of Sumatran coffee beans from the Gayo region

If you really want to ramp up the quality, you can try Kona coffee beans, but that is going to cost more than these other options.

Upgrade your coffee maker

Not all drip coffee makers are the same. There’s a better class of these machines called automatic pour-over coffee makers. As the name implies, these machines are made to mimic the quality of pour-over coffee while still maintaining the ease of use that you’d expect from an automatic coffee maker.

Automatic pour-over coffee makers are basically the next generation of automatic drip coffee makers, with improved drip heads, better water temperature control, and improvements to the brewing rate. These changes make a huge difference in the quality of the coffee. Unless you are a pour-over pro, they are probably going to be even better than your homemade pour-over coffees. Not bad for a fast, automatic process.

You could also consider a drip coffee maker that has more brewing options. Some of the best Ninja coffee makers provide the perfect level of customization for those that are picky about the quality of their cup of coffee.

If you have limited counter space, you may also want to consider a coffee maker with built-in grinder — also called a grind-and-brew coffee maker. These machines are probably the most convenient way to make a great cup of coffee. You just add beans instead of grounds, and you get a quality brew made from freshly ground coffee. No need to measure, transfer grounds, etc.

Beyond Drip Coffee

Through much of the world, including the United States, drip coffee is the first intro we have to the delicious world of coffee. And there’s a lot to explore in your drip coffee journey, including better coffee beans, better coffee makers, and changes to the brewing process itself. 

But drip coffee doesn’t have to be the end of your journey. When you are ready to move to something new, there are numerous exciting options like AeroPress espresso or at-home Nitro cold brew makers. One of the best things about coffee (and there are a lot to choose from) is the sheer variety. You’ll never be done exploring all of the brewing methods, coffee beans, and coffee drinks.

If that sounds exciting, then welcome aboard. If not, I hope this article still helped you to understand what drip coffee is.

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