Making the Most of Drip Coffee

Grandma's drip pot_post.jpg

Photo by Jerry Baldwin

Please excuse my absence these last few weeks. Early rain threw the grape harvest-winemaking schedule into high gear. Now, seemingly without warning, Thanksgiving has past and cold, windy weather is upon us. It's time for hearty eating, red wine, and hot coffee. What else do we need?

As much as many coffee professionals talk about press pots and espresso, more than half the coffee brewed at home is in drip pots of one kind or other. And there are many: electric drip machines, cone filters in two shapes, flat bottom filters, café filtre, Neapolitan flip-drip, and the flat-bottom metal pots that were prevalent in earlier years--so much diversity that we'll have to divide the topic just to make some sense of it.

Whether to use a paper filter divides one group clearly from another. Filter papers are their own complicated subject; different papers filter differently and taste different from one another, affecting the flavor and texture of the coffee. For a later post.

With all these pots, the beverage is fuller-flavored than filter drips produce, and you are connected to 150 years of coffee-brewing tradition.

As you might guess, given my preference for hearty press pot coffee, I prefer making drip coffee without a paper filter. As industrial processes developed, several alternatives to paper filters were created too. Gold-coated and nylon mesh filters are used today as green alternatives to paper filters and for the fuller taste I prefer and come in many shapes and sizes as replacements for paper. Gold filters are a bit more expensive, but are easily washed in soapy hot water (rinse thoroughly) or run through the dishwasher. Nylon mesh filters do an excellent job, but are not as easily cleaned; coffee oils tend to build up. Both of these permanent filters allow the flavorful oils and minute sediment into the cup to preserve the flavor.

Coffee oil will go rancid after several days if the filter isn't used daily or properly cleaned. Coffee oils are easily dissolved in a weak chlorine bleach solution, but wash with soap and water then rinse well. An alternative to prompt cleaning is to immerse the filter in water, which will keep oxygen and rancidity away. In the days of flannel filters, this was the overnight storage method for careful coffee-tenders.

Although coffee filtered through paper was invented a hundred years ago, the prevalent home methods in the intervening years were porcelain or metal pots that had perforations in the drip chamber to filter the grounds. There were (and are) many variations of these traditional brewers in many different cultures.

In the U.S., Grandma's drip, as I call it, was one of the three prevalent home brewers until the advent of the self-contained electric pots in the early 1970s. It's pretty simple: on top of the coffee pot is a cylinder with a perforated base. Beneath the cylinder is a chamber that screws onto the bottom of the upper cylinder. The grounds go in the middle chamber. The upper cylinder is filled with hot water; the perforations regulate the flow into the coffee grounds below, and the coffee drips through the perforations in the brewing chamber into the pot below.

A great benefit of the design is that the upper chamber holds as much as the coffee pot below, so one needn't stand around and continue to pour. These pots were most often manufactured in aluminum and were very inexpensive. They were the mass-produced version of the more refined French porcelain drip pots still being manufactured by at least one French firm.

Another version of this pot, the Biggins, was also developed in France, though it turns up more often in New Orleans and environs. They're challenging to find new today, but the Biggins was a mainstay of Louisiana coffee. Chicory is not required.

Still another variation is the Neapolitan flip drip--the Napoletana. There is a pretty good explanation of the method on Wikipedia; note however, that to start brewing with the brewer in the photo, remove the lid and turn the pot upside down, so that after the heating of the water and the coffee brewing takes place, you can pour through the spout. Older versions of the brewer were manufactured in many different metals, aluminum as well as tin-lined copper or brass, and (as with the Alessi) stainless steel.

With all these pots, the beverage is fuller-flavored than filter drips produce, and you are connected to 150 years of coffee-brewing tradition. The cup quality is enhanced over most of the electric machines, because you have boiled the water so it's hot. Few electric machines can produce brewing water in the 195- to 205-degree range required for good flavor extraction.

[Curator's note: My grandmother, and my mother, used what Jerry calls Grandma's drip, which I made sure to confiscate while researching The Joy of Coffee. It's still a good and easy way to brew, for all the reasons Jerry says. But the second the coffee is ready, take it off the stove! And don't put it back. If you don't drink the coffee all at once, transfer it to a thermos you've first rinsed out with hot water, so you won't lose any heat to the lining. As Jerry will be the first to say, though, best to drink it all at once and make another pot later. Or sooner.]