The Differences Between Regular Drip and Percolator Coffee

Have you ever wondered how percolator coffee and regular drip coffee are different?

Both of these coffee brewing methods are still widely used in the US, although drip coffee makers are much more commonly used in home these days compared to usage back in the 70’s.

Despite being less widely popular, percolator coffee generally makes a much stronger brew than most other alternative methods, so many people still use them for this reason alone.

It’s true you can get a pretty strong cup of coffee from a french press or from an Aeropress but short of brewing espresso, using a moka pot, or pulling a long black from a new-fangled Nespresso machine the electric percolator is one of the easiest ways to get strong coffee without having to babysit the brewing cycle.

Here is a quick summary of the differences between black coffee from a drip machine vs a percolator:

  • Drip coffee makers typically filter coffee through paper eliminating almost all of the fines and coffee oils.

    Although percolators can brew through paper filters most people don’t use them meaning your coffee will have more body (fine coffee ground particulate) and will also include the oils much like a french press or any other form of unfiltered coffee.

  • Drip coffee makers brew your coffee at one speed. Gravity pulls water through the grind basket and it slowly fills up the carafe.

    The only way to strengthen your brew is to use more grounds, use a finer grind size or to brew with less water.

    A percolator is different, much like a french press a percolator brews based on the amount and size of grind particles but also based on time.

    If you want a stronger cup of coffee then you just percolate your coffee longer before turning it off. This will mean that your coffee will be a bit more bitter but some people like this. Conversely by decreasing the time for percolation your coffee can be a bit weaker if that’s what you like.

  • Percolators come in both electric and stovetop models. Obviously electric models are far more automatic than stovetop models but the non-electric percolators are also usually good for making coffee off the grid in a camping or hiking scenario.

    You can usually set a percolator up over a direct heat source like a camp fire and make coffee just as you would at home.

    Drip coffee makers are simply not portable and they can’t be used without electricity which is why most people who brew from auto-drip coffee makers tend to have alternative methods on hand for those times they head out to a campsite.

I run this major coffee blog and as such I own a lot of coffee making equipment. I personally don’t make percolator coffee very often but I can tell you that this GSI percolator is a great bargain for making coffee on the campsite. I’ve done it myself a number of times.

For home use however I greatly recommend you use an electric model because they work so much better and make coffee that is consistent day to day.

One of the best on the market in my opinion is this Presto 12-cup which balances the quality of coffee with a good price tag.

But Wait! There’s Another Style of Percolator Which is Way Better Than Drip Under the Right Circumstances!

Brewing coffee in a percolator is a much older method than drip. It tends to make stronger and more bitter coffee which is why auto drip coffee makers are now more commonly used.

That is except for when huge amounts of coffee need to be made at one time.

These days large commercial style coffee urns are the go to device for caterers, churches, and even some restaurants when they have to make big batches of 40-100 cups at a time.

Electric coffee urns are basically just large stationary electric percolators that have a coffee dispenser located on the side rather than a top pour spout.

Smaller urns are usually sized for 20-40 cups of coffee at a time and are great for use in the home when you make coffee for a larger group of people, say a dinner party or for relatives that stay overnight.

Most percolator urns are easy to use, small enough to store, make better coffee than vintage percolators. They brew large amounts of coffee quickly and they don’t cost very much either.

If you have ever made a bunch of coffee for a larger group of people then you know how nice it is (or would be) to only have to automatically brew a single batch of coffee and then forget about it.

A top rated percolator urn is the Hamilton Beach Brew Station but we have a full page on this site reviewing some of the best on the market right here.

Let’s review some facts and then explore some basic questions many people have about percolators.

How are Percolator Coffee and Regular Drip Coffee Different?

PercolatorBefore we look at these two methods, we first need to go over how they are different.

  • There are two types of percolators, corded and stovetop. Stovetop percolators require more manual labor, as you have to watch it and manage the stove. Corded ones are easier because they allow for a more sit-and-wait style preparation.
  • Drip coffee runs through once, whereas percolator coffee runs through the coffee grounds multiple times. This makes percolator coffee much more potent than drip coffee.
  • The percolator method was much more common in older days, around the 1800’s up to around 1970. Drip coffee is a newer method.
  • Percolators use steam to do the job, while drip coffee just uses boiling water.
  • Percolators keep the beans/grounds in the same chamber as the water, giving it a bit of a rougher taste than that of drip coffee, which has separate chambers for the beans and the finished product.

The differences may seem kind of small and insignificant, but they are very important and, while the choice of which you prefer is ultimately up to you, these methods make a vastly different product.

Here are a few common questions we get at GBC almost daily:

Is Percolator Coffee better than Regular Drip Coffee?

As I said, this is more of a preference thing, but largely I would say yes. Percolator coffee uses the same coffee grounds more than drip coffee does. So, overall, you’re getting more out of what you’re paying for than you would be with regular drip coffee.

A percolator uses a series of chambers. One chamber holds a large body of water. This large body of water comes to a boil and the steam from the boiling water comes through a small crevice and passes to the top of the percolator. When the steam starts to cool, the dew that comes down drips through the coffee grounds and back down into the boiling water to be reprocessed.

Now, because of the way this is done you might think the strength of the coffee would be uneven, but actually, the process is aided by a small plate in the pot called a spreading plate. The spreading plate ensures that an equal amount of water goes through coarsely ground coffee beans. That way your coffee always has an even taste.

This process ensures you get the most value out of your coffee, although some people may not enjoy the sheer strength that percolator coffee tends to have. The caffeine content is also roughly equal with that of espresso.

Earlier, I said it requires a bit of management. By this, I was referring to the temperature. It needs to be kept at a consistent temperature that’s just below boiling.

If it is heated too high, the beans/grounds will burn and be wasted, which will ruin the coffee. This is very easy to mess up if you are using a stovetop percolator.  However, electric percolators generally have a maximum temperature they can get to that is just right to avoid burning the beans or ground.

If you are interested in a percolator, even just to try it out, you can find some pretty inexpensive ones that work well. This Farberware Percolator is pretty inexpensive and is well worth the cash if you want a stovetop option. If you’re looking for an electric percolator, the Hamilton Beach Percolator is one worth checking out.

So, if you enjoy really dark roasted coffee with a strong scent and stronger taste, you will likely love percolated coffee.

Is Regular Drip Coffee better than Percolator Coffee?

If you are looking to avoid strong coffee, regular drip coffee is a perfectly fine choice. Drip coffee is the most widely consumed form of coffee, today, and is generally the consumer choice. Drip coffee is strong enough to really taste the coffee, but not too unbearably so.

Most drip coffee machines are around the same range as percolators, so neither will set you back all that much. The nice thing about drip coffee is that the machines range widely, you can find some advanced coffee makers that can be set to start automatically, including shortly before you wake up. There’s a large range of versatility when it comes to drip coffee makers because of how widely popular they are.

The downside to drip coffee is that it wastes a bit of the coffee compared to percolator coffee. Drip coffee only runs through the coffee once, so there is much less value in using one. So the big determining factor between the two is how strong you want the taste of your coffee. Either one will be a great choice, but the strength of percolator coffee may be a bit too strong for some people.

If you are looking into getting a good drip machine, I would recommend a coffee maker like this BESTEK one. It is inexpensive and has the programmable timer option I mentioned earlier.

So overall, I would say that if you can spare the time for it, percolator coffee can be the better choice if you can handle the strong taste.

Does Percolator Coffee Have More Caffeine?

As I said above, a percolator can make stronger coffee that includes the oils which is what I like. This is why I think percolators can make better coffee than drip.

The reason for this is because you can brew your coffee longer (assuming you maintain even temperature control) to achieve a better and fuller extraction of flavors from your coffee grind.

The longer you brew your grounds the more flavors come out and the more caffeine will make it to your cup as well.

On average the standard 8-ounce cup of drip coffee will contain approximately 150mg of caffeine whereas the average cup of percolated coffee will contain approximately 200mg of caffeine but both quantities can be adjusted easily up or down by adjusting the inputs.

The problem with most percolator coffee has to do usually with human error in the brewing process.

Brewing too long or too hot will extract all the good flavors, all the caffeine but also the bitters than follow.

If you manage your temperature well you can brew longer extracting more caffeine and strength without the bitters that most people don’t want.

Of course, a drip coffee maker can extract more caffeine to but to get it you will likely have to use more grounds than you normally would and use possibly a finer grind size too.

So Which Brewing Method is Best?

percolator-coffeeFor getting the most value for your money, the percolator would be the best value. It makes the most out of the coffee it uses, but again, choosing drip coffee is better for those who can’t handle the stronger taste or bitters that most people dislike.

I still recommend at least trying percolated coffee once or twice and seeing if you can refine the brew to your liking. With manual percolators you can make really great or really terrible coffee but you can adjust just about everything to really make it your own.

Now, percolated coffee may not be feasible for some people, because it does require a bit of time to prepare, the length depending on how strong you prefer your coffee, but, overall, it still takes a while.

Percolated coffee is somewhat similar to French press coffee, in that it takes a bit of babysitting to make it properly.

It’s also similar to espresso in that with skill and practice you can make awesome coffee or horrible coffee… it’s all up to you and your desire to be involved in the brew cycle from start to finish.

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