Best Cheap Coffee Makers
- Published on
- By Elizabeth Sheer
A coffee maker is a staple in many households. If you rely on that hot, caffeinated cup to get your day rolling -- and sometimes keep you in overdrive -- it may be tempting to spend more than necessary on a coffee maker. The highly regarded Technivorm Moccamaster KBT741, for example, costs around $300. To help you avoid that expense, we've focused our research on the best cheap coffee makers under $50. Brands such as Hamilton Beach, Black & Decker, and Mr. Coffee dominate the market for low-priced coffee makers.
Cheap Coffee Makers Buying Guide
A coffee maker is a staple in many households. If you rely on that hot, caffeinated cup to get your day rolling -- and sometimes keep you in overdrive -- it may be tempting to spend more than necessary on a coffee maker. Most of the models reviewed by consumer product experts exceed the $50 ceiling we set for a cheap coffee maker. We looked instead to coffee maker reviews on retail sites, where we found that buyers who can barely open their eyes without a cup of coffee in the morning consider the best cheap coffee makers perfectly decent delivery systems.
Brands such as Hamilton Beach, Black & Decker, and Mr. Coffee dominate the market for low-priced coffee makers. While the choices are wide-ranging, most consumers seem to be looking for a machine that will quickly get a hot mug in hand without a lot of fuss and muss, and keep the remaining coffee warm for a quick top-off as needed.
At the top of our list is the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra 48465 (starting at $39), a 12-cup automatic-drip model that doesn’t require a carafe. Also right up there is the Capresso 5-Cup Mini Drip (starting at $40), which is just big enough for a few mugs and looks chic instead of cheap in the minds of many users.
The Black & Decker DLX1050 (starting at $22), a 12-cup machine that comes in black (DLX1050B) or white (DLX1050W), is a favorite among consumers for making a fast pot and keeping it warm. Another 12-cup coffee maker, the Mr. Coffee CG13 (starting at $17) is not programmable and short on extras, but its simplicity is what devotees like about it.
Based on our research, two models did not measure up to the standards of the best cheap coffee makers. The thermal carafe on the Mr. Coffee JWTX85 (starting at $38) is a huge selling point because it keeps coffee warm without constantly heating it, but the coffee that initially comes out is faulted with being fairly tepid already. The Farberware 12-Cup Coffee Maker 103744, a Walmart exclusive (starting at $40), makes perfectly fine coffee, reviewers say, but too much of it gets all over the pot, the countertop, and anywhere but in the cup.
Single-Cup Coffee Makers.In many consumers' minds, nothing beats the convenience of pod coffee makers. With coffee in pre-portioned pods, no carafe, and no filter basket, there's no measuring and very little cleanup. Brewing just one cup at a time also keeps you from winding up with a pot of lukewarm or stale coffee. Single-serve coffee makers are ideal in households where everyone prefers a different kind of coffee and for people who make only one cup a day.
But there are more than a few negatives to these machines. Some reviewers complain that pod coffee makers are noisy due to the pressure needed to fire the coffee through the grounds to serve up a cup in less than a minute. And such a short brew time is unlikely to produce rich coffeehouse taste. Disposable pods also raise the hackles of environmentally conscious consumers.
But perhaps the biggest drawback of all is the price. Popular Keurig brewers generally cost more than $100, with some models running closer to $200. And that's only the beginning: Even the inventor of coffee pods, as quoted in The Atlantic, doesn't have one because they’re too expensive to use. How expensive? A pound of coffee from pods, according to the same article, costs about $40 -- close to three times as much as even premium ground coffee.
Still, single-cup units have gotten to be big business, and most coffee maker manufacturers are getting on the bandwagon -- with or without pods. For consumers who want the convenience of small-batch, grab-and-go caffeination without the added expense and environmental waste of those costly little plastic pods, there are single-serve models that use ground coffee instead. While many of these single-serve machines still fall outside the Cheapism range, there are at least three good choices under $50: the Black & Decker Brew ‘n Go DCM18 (starting at $18), Hamilton Beach The Scoop Single-Serve Coffee Maker (starting at $36), and Capresso On-the-Go Personal Coffee Maker (starting at $40).
Users often tout the economic and environmental advantages of these single-cup coffee makers. They like that they can use whatever coffee they prefer instead of proprietary pods. On the other hand, because ground coffee has to be measured into the filter and then dumped after the coffee has been made, these models are not quite as convenient as pod brewers. Still, some are hybrids; that is, they can use either ground coffee or soft coffee pods. The Capresso and Black & Decker single-serve coffee makers both offer this choice. They also come with travel mugs.
Manual vs. Drip.While this guide focuses on automatic coffee makers, some coffee purists and budget shoppers swear that a manual coffee maker such as the Melitta 10-Cup Pour-Over Coffee Brewer (starting at $13.29) or a French press such as the Bodum Chambord (starting at $28.40) is the way to go. They tout the advantage of being able to boil the water to ensure it's hot enough when it comes in contact with the coffee.
The manual pour-over method may take more time and labor, but it allows the coffee to "bloom," according to the food site Serious Eats, resulting in a tastier brew. Experts at Long Beach Coffee Roasters say coffee made using the French press method is more densely flavored than automatic-drip coffee, partly because the grounds stay in contact with the water and also because there's no paper filter to trap essential oils. These alternatives to a cheap automatic coffee maker have the added benefit of not taking up valuable counter space.
What We Looked For
Carafes.Carafe size and design come up often in user reviews. Most of our picks are 12-cup coffee makers. Keep in mind that a "cup" in coffee speak is not an 8-ounce mug; it's more like 4 to 6 ounces. Any new coffee maker requires some trial and error with your favorite mug. Owning a 12-cup coffee maker is a boon when guests come over but probably overkill for one coffee drinker. Also, experts say that making only one or two cups in a large coffee maker often produces weak coffee, unless the machine has a special "small batch" setting. This function adjusts the water flow so it spends the proper amount of time in contact with the grounds, producing an optimal pot when you need only a few cups. The feature is usually confined to higher-end models but is available on one of the best cheap coffee makers, the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra 48465. The Capresso 5-Cup Mini Drip is also a top pick for consumers who drink only one or two mugs a day.
The carafes on budget coffee makers are typically made of glass. While breakage doesn't come up that often in reviews, coffee inside a glass carafe requires a warming plate underneath to stay heated. The result some hours later is that the brew has become bitter. The Mr. Coffee JWTX85 comes with an unbreakable thermal carafe. However, the instructions say to preheat the 8-cup carafe with boiling water for five minutes before brewing, suggesting that the machine relies on the water as much as the pot to keep the coffee warm. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that a major disgruntlement with the JWTX85 is that it doesn't brew hot coffee.
Some coffee makers dispense with the carafe altogether. That's what many users like most about the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra, which is a carafe-less 12-cup coffee maker that dispenses directly into a mug. That's its best feature, according to user reviews at Bed Bath & Beyond.
Filters.Experts agree that cone-shaped filters are best at draining water and extracting flavor. Most low-end drip coffee makers, including our picks, use flat-bottomed, basket-type filters, which experts say are more prone to clogs and overflow. But this is the shape best suited to more coarsely ground supermarket coffee -- the inexpensive kind that comes in a can.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America touts permanent mesh filters made of gold or nylon. These yield an earthier, more complex brew, because they let some sediment through. The initial investment is about $7 to $10 -- more than a box of paper filters -- but you save money over the life of the coffee maker by not continually buying filters. That's not to mention the environmental benefit. Lifting out and throwing away a paper filter is a bit neater, however. The Capresso 5-Cup Mini comes with a gold-tone permanent filter, as do the single-serve coffee makers mentioned above.
Programmable Coffee Makers.Enthusiasts who insist on freshly grinding their coffee while boiling the water for an individually crafted cup might scoff at the idea of an automatic coffee maker that can be set the night before. But many people enjoy waking up to a pot that's already being brewed. Programmable coffee makers are by no means confined to the high end of the market. (In fact, some of the most expensive machines don't offer this option.) All the budget models on our list except the ultra-cheap Mr. Coffee CG13 are programmable. Consumers may fear that programming a coffee maker will be about as confusing as programming a DVD player, but based on our reading of reviews, that does not seem to be the case.
Pause and Serve.If you don't want to wait for a full pot to finish brewing, an automatic "pause and serve" option suspends brewing to let you pour a cup before the entire cycle is finished. Almost every automatic coffee maker comes with this feature, including all our top picks.
Automatic Shut-Off.Most automatic coffee makers shut off on their own after two hours, a boon for users likely to run out the door and leave the appliance on. Some, such as the Farberware 103744, have a “keep warm” extension that heats the plate for four hours. The Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra has a warming heater inside the tank to keep coffee warm for up to four hours. The no-frills Mr. Coffee CG13 is the only one of our picks that requires the user to remember to switch off the machine.
Experts agree that coffee begins to lose its flavor within 15 minutes of brewing, and coffee kept on a hot plate for an extended period can taste burnt and acrid. They recommend immediately transferring coffee from a glass carafe to an insulated pot (this is why some people prefer a thermal carafe).
What We Ignored
Water Filters.Water quality is crucial to producing a good cup of coffee. The Farberware 103744 comes with a charcoal chlorine filter, which can improve the end product in locales with hard or poor-tasting tap water. But the downside of a built-in water filter is having to buy replacement filters and change them out every two to three months. People often forget about this added maintenance and cost, which, while relatively low, adds up over time. Consumers who already have a water filter on the tap or in a pitcher can use the filtered water for their coffee and get similar results.
Coffee Maker Reviews
Experts and consumers posting coffee maker reviews range from those who revere an artisanal brew to those just in it for the caffeine rush, and their expectations vary accordingly. America's Test Kitchen concludes that no truly inexpensive model brews a perfect cup, a finding that's backed up by consumers and other experts. However, coffee maker reviews also indicate that most frugal consumers just want a decent, hot cup of coffee. More than subtle and fully extracted flavor, they simply want to avoid buying a coffee maker that suddenly doesn’t work, leaks like a broken dam, or requires fiddling to get it to function properly. And overall our picks deliver.
Brewing Time.A common complaint in coffee maker reviews is that budget models brew too slowly. Fast brewing isn't only a matter of convenience; it also prevents coffee from becoming too bitter. However, a brewing time that's too short can result in weak, watered-down coffee. The best drip coffee makers strike a balance. Experts at the National Coffee Association suggest that, in a drip coffee maker, the coffee and water should be in contact for about five minutes. Larger low-cost machines in particular don't hit that mark, and frequently have brew times as long as 10 minutes or more. Capresso coffee makers, normally out of the Cheapism range, have a brew time of no more than one minute per cup to prevent over-extraction, and the 5-Cup Mini Drip is no exception.
Brewing Temperature.Coffee aficionados know that a rich, flavorful cup starts with freshly ground beans, and the quality of the beans should not be underestimated. However, just like the brew time, the temperature of the water is also a huge factor. The water that filters through the pot should be between 195 and 205 degrees, according to the NCA. Cheap coffee makers generally struggle to meet this criterion, some by a long shot. The Black & Decker DLX1050, for example, touts “signature elements” to provide ideal brewing temps, yet in consumer product testing, it falls short of meeting the recommended standard. Several users reviewing the coffee maker on Amazon claim they measured the temperature of the coffee coming out of the machine at about 170 degrees. Nevertheless, many say that the final product tastes great and measures up to coffee produced by more expensive machines.
To a certain extent, the temperature of the coffee that actually ends up in the cup is a matter of personal preference, but lukewarm coffee is a definite knock against the Mr. Coffee JWTX85, with numerous complaints about the temperature of the brew in its thermal carafe. On the other hand, more than a few reviewers on Amazon say the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra keeps the coffee stored inside the machine near boiling, so it is plenty hot when it's dispensed. This is seen as a plus by some and a minus by others.
Single-serve coffee makers also seem to brew coffee hotter than their bigger brethren. Experts at Seattle Coffee Gear tested the temperature of a cup produced by the Capresso On-the-Go Personal at 190 degrees and warn users to be careful of burning their fingers on the appliance itself. The ultra-cheap Mr. Coffee CG13 surprisingly seems to hit that "just right" mark with a majority of reviewers. Mr. Coffee models similar to the CG13 have performed very well in consumer product testing when it comes to yielding a hot cup, and countless reviews of this machine on Amazon suggest that it delivers. It also stays on indefinitely to keep the coffee warm -- just remember to turn the machine off when the pot is finally empty.
Design.Given that most coffee makers have permanent homes on kitchen counters, design factors into many consumers' buying decisions. Counter appeal is a big draw for the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra and the Capresso 5-Cup Mini Drip. Many users who have posted reviews on Amazon like that the Hamilton Beach model matches their stainless steel appliances, and a Crate & Barrel customer says the Capresso machine "looks very expensive.” The Farberware 12-Cup Coffee Maker also sports stainless steel styling, but reviews from consumers who purchased it at Walmart complain about this coffee maker’s design overall. Many say the machine leaks and the carafe is liable to spill water and coffee everywhere.
Height and footprint are also considerations, because coffee makers generally need to fit under cabinets, and most have a lid that lifts up to provide access to the water reservoir. A common complaint about budget coffee makers is that users have to move the machine out from under a cabinet to fill it. At more than 15 inches high, the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit Ultra comes in for particular criticism. Aside from difficulties adding water to the reservoir, there are complaints on Amazon that the spout on this model is too far back to center a mug underneath and dispense coffee without spilling. However, many others say they've had no problems with the design or with leakage.
A one-cup brewer may be the best choice for a cramped kitchen. The single-serving Black & Decker Brew 'n Go is small enough that several users writing on Amazon say they store it in a cupboard.
Durability.Some consumers posting coffee maker reviews suggest that the average lifespan of a budget model is about as long as the typical one-year warranty, although some cheap coffee pots don’t last even that long. The Mr. Coffee CG13, for example, is apparently plagued by malfunctions, although many users insist that the coffee maker is a great value and has lasted them more than three years. Given the incredibly low price, many say they were more than happy to replace the coffee maker when it did give out.
Consumers are not quite as forgiving with the Black & Decker DLX1050. There is more than a little grumbling in reviews about breakdowns of this otherwise positively reviewed, easy-to-program, and easy-to-clean coffee maker. The two-year limited warranty on this model may come in handy.
Keep in mind that maintenance plays an important role in making a coffee maker last. Consumers tend to see sluggishness in the brew time as a sign that it's time for a replacement -- and sometimes it is -- but the machine may simply need to be decalcified. Experts recommend using white vinegar and water or a commercial decalcifier every three months, and more often if using hard water. Try this before spending money on a new coffee maker.