Percolator vs Drip Coffee Maker: What’s the Difference?
It’s the battle of the old-school coffee makers. These two machines have been around for decades and have been thoroughly tried and tested. We explore where these two shine and where they fall short.
When it comes to percolator vs drip coffee, which one is right for you? Read our guide to find out.
The coffee percolator might seem a little old fashioned today, but its invention was a big step toward brewing better coffee. Before this, people were making coffee by merely boiling water grounds – a coffee brewing method known as a decoction (1).
People created the percolator to produce a cleaner cup of coffee, free from the grounds.
The percolator works by heating water until there is enough pressure to push it up through a tube. It then falls through the coffee grounds and is returned to the water reservoir. The water continues this cycle until removed from the heat, creating the stronger coffee that is the machine’s signature. This does give percolator coffee a bit of a bad rap for being over-extracted, but fans say this is an issue of how you use it:
The percolator’s reputation for producing bitter coffee is probably more to do with people percolating coffee for too long.
With the right technique and a little attention to detail, you should be able to get a strong but not overdone coffee.
Drip Coffee Makers
The arrival of the drip coffee maker was a death knell for the humble percolator. The design completely automated the process, reducing user error, and allowing people to do other things while their coffee brewed.
A drip coffee maker works on the same theory as a pour-over, but the resulting coffee differs significantly. The water is heated in the machine, dripping slowly through the ground coffee to produce a smooth but mild brew.
I love being able to really taste the beans in drip coffee – espresso is amazing but I like spreading out the experience.
Drip coffee may not have the punch of other brewing methods, but it does allow you to taste the subtleties of the coffee. Just be aware that the warming plate, which is one of the significant advantages of the drip machines, can be detrimental to the taste (2).
If you want to see how drip coffee stacks up compared to French press, we have a guide for that too.
For a guide on brewing perfect drip coffee at home, watch our video:
Comparing the details: Percolator vs Drip Coffee Maker
Now that you know a bit about these machines, how does percolator coffee vs drip compare? The method is one thing, but in the end, it comes down to which one will suit you best in terms of your requirements and your tastes.
Ease of use/skill required
You really can’t go too far wrong with classic drip coffee makers. The process is automated from start to finish. Unless you forget to add the coffee grounds or fill up the water tank, you’ll have a great cup of coffee every time without any issues.
Programmable drip coffee makers will let you adjust strength or keep-warm temperature, but the rest is automatic once these are set.
Stovetop percolators require some practice to use. Also, you might need to experiment with variables if you want to perfect your coffee. There’s also the chance that you might leave it unattended and completely burn your brew. Still, modern percolators will take out some of the elements of human error. Brew temperature is regulated, and most will switch to a keep-warm mode when they finish the brewing process.
WINNER: The drip machine comes out on top for this one. Getting your hands on a fresh cup of coffee is really just a matter of adding the grounds and flicking a switch.
The flipside to any automation when it comes to coffee machines is the lack of control you have. A drip coffee maker is undoubtedly convenient but not necessarily the best choice if you want to tweak your coffee to your exact requirements. Some high-end drip machines allow you to program elements such as brew strength or keep-warm temperature, but ultimately, this is an automatic process.
With a stovetop percolator, the fate of your coffee is in your hands.
You will need to reach a specific water temperature to start the percolation; how quickly you get there, but how long you keep it boiling and how long it stays in the heat is up to you. The percolator itself is also variable. Along with the choice of electric or stovetop, you’ll also get the option of materials like stainless steel, ceramic, and glass.
WINNER: The percolator’s manual use pays off when it comes to making adjustments to the brew. Plus, it’s the only one of the two that you can take on a camping trip.
Both of these machines are designed to brew multiple cups of coffee at once. Unlike an espresso maker or Aeropress, the percolator and the drip machine are much more family-friendly. Drip coffee makers will brew up to 14 cups, and it’s easy to see why they’re such a popular coffee machine for offices.
Home percolators run to about the same size as a drip coffee machine, usually with a maximum capacity of 12 cups. But if you’ve ever had coffee from an urn at a catered event, that is a large percolator you’re drinking from.
WINNER: If you’re looking for a domestic machine, both of these coffee makers have a pretty equal capacity. But if you’re a crowd, only the coffee percolator offers the option of 20 cup capacity machines.
The difference in taste between these two machines is due to how the coffee and water are integrated. With drip coffee makers, it’s essentially an automated pour-over technique. The hot water passes just once through the grounds, creating a mild, smooth brewed coffee. For the best flavor, don’t leave the coffee pot on the warming plate.
Those who swear by their percolator love the fact that the coffee is so bold. The continually circulating water is passed multiple times through the grounds to create this full-bodied brew. This is also the method’s downfall, as keeping it moving requires boiling water (or close to it), which can over-extract or burn the coffee (3).
WINNER: While it does come down to personal preference, in the end, we’re going to have to go with the drip coffee maker. It doesn’t have the strength of perked coffee, but it does treat the beans with a little more respect.
This might not be the answer you’re looking for, but the truth is that when it comes to coffee, it all depends on what you like to drink. Each machine has its pros and cons, its fans, and its critics.
If you want an utterly fuss-free experience each morning (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you can’t go past the automatic drip machines. It’s a foolproof method of brewing consistent coffee that requires nothing more than filling it up and switching it on. It’ll even keep your coffee warm if you’re planning a second cup.
For those who like their first cup of joe to be hot and strong, percolator coffee will give you that kickstart to the day. If you select a stovetop version, you’ll also have the ability to tweak your brew time to achieve the perfect strength.
Drip coffee is not the same as pour over. However, it can be seen as a fully automated pour over because it has the same primary method. Still, with pour-over coffee, the ability to adjust brew time, water flow, and temperature affect both the final brew’s flavor and texture.
Percolator coffee is not bad for you. However, studies have shown that any unfiltered coffee, such as that made with a percolator, contains higher levels of oils known as cafestol and kahweol. These are known to raise cholesterol levels and have been linked to cardiovascular disease. However, just as important is whether you add cream or sugar to your coffee (4).
Don’t use drip grind coffee in a percolator. A drip machine can take a finer grind due to the paper filter. The percolator’s metal filter will allow this fine grind to pass through and you will end up with grounds in the coffee.
- Meister. (2018, August 09). Coffee History: The Percolator. Retrieved from https://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/03/coffee-history-the-percolator-how-it-works-history.html
- Christof, T. (2015, January 13). How to Make A Really Good Cup of Drip Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.foodandwine.com/drinks/how-make-really-good-cup-drip-coffee
- Cadwalader, Z. (2017, March 29). Kickstarter: Perk Brings The Percolator To The Modern Age. Retrieved from https://sprudge.com/kickstarter-perk-brings-percolator-modern-age-117964.html
- Yu, Y. (2020, April 29). What is the healthiest way to brew coffee? Retrieved from https://www.today.com/health/what-healthiest-way-brew-coffee-t180152