The auto-drip coffee maker is ridiculed by coffee snobs (and for good reason -- plenty of other methods make consistently better coffee). Nonetheless, the auto-drip's no hassle, automatic brewing still makes it the go-to choice for a lot of homes and offices looking for a quick caffeine fix. While you may not be able to get the "perfect" brew from an auto-drip, you can make it a whole lot better with a little know-how.
An auto-drip coffee maker is handy because you can set it and forget it, but the fact you can't control the temperature or the water ratio as it pours over the beans means you can't customise the brew as much. The key to good auto-drip is to do skip any silly tricks and keep it as basic as possible, starting with the right coffee beans and roast.
Start the Process Right
Since you can't control a lot of the variables that make a cup of coffee good with an auto-drip, it's important that you start the process right. This means fresh-roasted whole beans, getting a good grind, fresh water and trying to get the temperature as close to right as possible.
Pick and Store Your Beans
Since a drip coffee maker already handicaps the flavour a little, it's really important to get fresh beans. If you're fortunate enough to have a good local roaster near you, it's worth getting your coffee from them because it's almost always guaranteed fresh. Coffee goes stale quickly, and the process happens even faster when the beans are already ground, so stick with whole beans. If you're stuck with a supermarket brand, be sure to look for a roasting date on the package so you can get something relatively fresh.
If you do have a local roaster where you can buy beans directly, it doesn't hurt to ask if they have any coffee blend recommendations for an auto-drip coffee maker. They'll at least be able to steer you towards roasts that might work better. My favourite local cafe recommends a medium roast because a light roast can lose too much flavour and dark will be too strong. Photo by davidd.
Get the Grind Right to Speed Up Brewing Time
Coffee gets its flavour and aroma during a process called extraction when the hot water passes through the ground-up beans. If this happens too quickly, the coffee will be weak; if it happens too slowly, it will be bitter. The speed of this is decided by how fine the grind of the coffee is.
For most auto drip coffee makers, you want a fine or medium grind depending on the type of filter your coffeemaker uses. Here's an guide to how fine to grind it:
- Flat-bottom filters: medium (close to the texture of sand).
- Cone-shaped filters: medium/fine (a little finer than granulated sugar).
- Gold/plastic permanent filters: medium.
It might take a little experimenting to get the right grind. If your coffee is too bitter, try a finer grind. if it's too weak, make it a little thicker.
Most auto-drip coffee makers are also programmable, but resist the urge to grind your coffee the night before and set it to automatically wake you up in the morning. It's best to start the coffee brewing immediately after grinding the beans to capture all the flavour. Photo by Joe King.
Use Filtered Water with the Right Ratio
Since a cup of coffee is mostly water, the quality of that water is important. If you live in an area where tap water isn't very good, use filtered water for your coffee. You might think the taste of coffee can overwhelm the taste of bad water, but it doesn't.
Additionally, you need to play around and get your water-to-coffee ratio right. In general, you want about 1 or 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per 180mL of water. Your preferences may vary, so feel free to try different amounts. Once you get a good ratio, stick with it. When you're doing so, run a few tests on the "cup lines" on your brewer to see how they actually stack up. Different brewers gauge the cups differently, and it might not be 180mL.
Perform a Trial-Run to Get Your Coffee Maker's Temperature Up
If you're working with an especially junky drip coffeemaker like the ones you find in hotel rooms, then you're probably not brewing a cup of coffee anywhere near the temperature you should be. The National Coffee Association recommends that coffee should be brewed between 90.5C and 96C. Most cheaper drip coffeemakers can't get up to this temperature quickly enough, and they end up producing a bitter cup of coffee. One trick to solve for the low-temperature problem comes from Budget Travel:
Do a "trial run" of your coffee maker -- without coffee -- to heat up the machine. Pour the heated water back into the device and brew your coffee as usual. While you won't get the water to a perfect level of hotness, you will get it pretty darned close.
This can help get an underpowered coffee maker up to the right temperature so it properly brews the coffee. However, some drip coffee makers will keep raising the temperature even after it reaches the optimal 90.5-96 degrees (which can burn your brew), so your mileage may vary here. Get a thermometer and do some tests. If your machine consistently has problems with a consistent temperature, you're going to have a tough time getting consistent results.
The steps to getting a good cup of coffee from an auto-drip coffee maker don't stop once the coffee is made. In fact, one of the easiest ways to ruin a good cup is to leave it sitting on the heat element. Once the pot is brewed, keep these two key steps in mind:
Remove the Pot from the Heating Element
If you're using a coffee maker with a glass carafe like this one, the most important step you can take is to get it off the warming plate. The warming plate is often the reason the coffee burns and gets bitter. The second the coffee is finished brewing, dump it into a thermal carafe (like any of these) and serve it from there.
If you're in the market for a new coffeemaker it's worth it to splurge on one that pours directly into a thermal carafe, because they don't use the heating element that burns coffee.
Clean the Pot Daily, Deep Clean the Whole System it Monthly
The set-it-and-forget ease of a drip coffeemaker is great, but one of the side effects is that it can be hard to remember to keep up with the cleaning and maintenance. If you're making coffee every day, it's important to clean and spray out the carafe daily, because otherwise you're just getting a second taste of yesterday's brew. You should also clean out the whole system at least once a month, but if you're a daily drinker, then once a week is recommended. Thankfully, you can do it with vinegar.
- Fill the tank with a 50/50 measure of vinegar and water.
- Run the vinegar and water mixture through a brew cycle just as you would regularly make a pot of coffee (without grounds!).
- When it finishes, pour the mixture from the carafe back into the tank and run the process again.
- Dump the mixture from the carafe and scrub the pot with soap and water.
- Run one more cycle with regular water to flush out any remaining vinegar.
If you're using one of the metal carafes mentioned above, it's also a good idea to leave the vinegar and water mixture in the carafe overnight to remove any stains on the inside. Cleaning the coffee maker and pot can make a surprisingly big difference in the quality of a cup, so it's good to keep up with it.
No matter what you do, you're not going to get the same full-flavoured cup of coffee from an auto-drip coffeemaker as you do from something like a french press or a full-blown coffee machine. However, if the simplicity and ease of the auto-drip is its biggest appeal, the above tips will help you make the best cup possible. If you'd like to dip your toe into the other types of coffee brewing, be sure to check out our guide.
Have some tips of your own to add? Share them in the comments.