Coffee Makers Performance
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 inexpensive model brews a perfect cup, a finding that's backed up by consumers and other experts.
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 the coffee from becoming too bitter. However, a brewing time that's too short can result in weak, watered-down coffee. The best coffee makers strike a balance. Experts say that a pot of coffee should take no longer than five or six minutes to brew, but larger low-cost machines in particular don't hit that mark. An expert at HowStuffWorks reports that the 12-cup Mr. Coffee JWX27 takes about 13 minutes to brew a full carafe. Other budget 12-cup machines appear comparable -- for instance, a consumer posting a coffee maker review on Amazon finds that the Hamilton Beach Ensemble 43254 (starting at $38) takes about 10 minutes.
The smaller, 4-cup Cuisinart DCC-450 (starting at $21) makes a full batch in about five minutes, according to Whole Latte Love. The Black and Decker Brew 'n Go Personal DCM18S (starting at $19) takes only about three minutes, says one consumer who posted a coffee maker review on Amazon.
Temperature.Experts agree that the best-tasting coffee is made with water that's just under the boiling point. Budget coffee makers generally do not hit that mark -- some not by a long shot. The Mr. Coffee JWX27 (starting at $35) is one low-cost model touted by experts for having a brewing temperature consistently over 195 degrees.
To a certain extent, the temperature of the coffee itself is a matter of personal preference. But when numerous people posting coffee maker reviews say their coffee doesn't come out hot, you know there's a problem. One coffee drinker who posted a review of the Mr. Coffee TFTX85 (starting at $40) on Epinions has to heat the coffee in a microwave after brewing to get it up to the desired temperature.
In coffee maker reviews at Macy's, several users say the Cuisinart DCC-450 can make hot coffee; however, it automatically shuts off after 30 minutes instead of keeping coffee warm throughout the morning. A few users say the coffee doesn't stay hot even that long. On the other hand, the Hamilton Beach Ensemble earns raves from users posting coffee maker reviews on Amazon for coffee that stays piping hot (although purists might lament that coffee left sitting on a burner becomes bitter and often tastes burnt). The Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 (starting at $47) stores coffee in an internal tank instead of in a carafe on a hotplate, so it stays hot for hours without acquiring that burnt taste, according to users who have posted coffee maker reviews on Amazon, although a few complain their brew is lukewarm.
Carafe size and design come up often in user reviews. Popular sizes range from 4- to 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. Most of our picks are 12-cup coffee makers. If you drink only one mug a day, opt for the Black & Decker Brew 'n Go Personal DCM18S. Owning a 12-cup coffee maker is a boon when guests come over but probably overkill for you. 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 (more on that later).
Carafes that pour everywhere but in the cup are a leading cause of complaint among buyers of cheap 12-cup coffee makers. Some reviewers appreciate that the Mr. Coffee JWX27 doesn't spill coffee all over, but one user notes in a review at Sears that you have to pour carefully. Other users posting reviews at Amazon have found that dripping is commonplace with Mr. Coffee machines. Owners of the Hamilton Beach Ensemble 43254, on the other hand, almost uniformly report on Amazon that the carafe pours neatly and doesn't drip.
While the carafes on budget coffee makers are typically made of glass, the Mr. Coffee TFTX85 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 pot rather than the water to do much of the heating. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that a major disgruntlement with the TFTX85 is that it doesn't brew hot coffee.
The carafe on the 4-cup Cuisinart DCC-450 is stainless steel but not insulated, and one user warns on Amazon that it gets extremely hot. Other unhappy owners note that the spout on the carafe is flat, making it virtually impossible to keep coffee from spilling unless you pour extremely slowly.
Some coffee makers dispense with the carafe altogether. That's what many users like most about the Black & Decker Brew 'n Go, which comes with a stainless-steel travel mug. A few users posting on Amazon say the inside of the mug imparts a distinct "plastic-y" taste to the coffee. Others point out that you can always use a ceramic mug instead. The stainless-steel mug does keep coffee hot, according to several users posting reviews at Walmart. The Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 is a carafe-less 12-cup coffee maker that dispenses directly into a mug. That's its best feature, according to some users commenting at Best Buy.
Coffee Filters.These come in two shapes -- cone and basket -- and experts agree that the former is best at draining water and extracting flavor. A few budget coffee makers, including the Cuisinart DCC-450 and the Black & Decker CM1650B 12-cup coffee maker (starting at $50), use cone-shaped filters. Most other low-end drip coffee makers use flat-bottomed, basket-type filters, which experts say are more prone to clogs and overflow. They are most appropriate for coarsely ground supermarket coffee -- the 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 Black & Decker Brew 'n Go and CM1650B 12-cup coffee maker have permanent filters that require rinsing after every use. The Brew 'n Go filter is dishwasher-safe, but that doesn't do any good in an office or anywhere without a dishwasher.
Water Filters.Water quality is crucial to producing a good cup of coffee. In locales with hard or poor-tasting tap water, a built-in water filter can improve the end product. The Mr. Coffee JWX27 comes with a filter designed to eliminate 97% of the chlorine in water. The Hamilton Beach Ensemble has a removable charcoal filter, as does the Black & Decker CM1650B.
The downside of a filtration system is having to spend about $10 for a new filter every two to three months. People often forget about this added maintenance. If you already have a water filter on your tap or in a pitcher, you can use the filtered water for your coffee and get similar results. (Bottled water also works, but why spend the money?)
Automatic 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 are programmable coffee makers, save for the Cuisinart DCC-450. 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, a "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, although it doesn't always work. Some consumers posting reviews of the Mr. Coffee JWX27 on Amazon find that if you pull out the pot while the machine is still running, it dribbles hot coffee onto the burner plate.
Automatic Shutoff.Most automatic coffee makers shut off after two hours. The Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 and Black & Decker CM1650B can be set to remain on for up to four hours. The hotplate on the Cuisinart DCC-450 goes off after 30 minutes, which some users posting reviews on Amazon complain is way too soon. However, others like that the burner shuts off before the coffee gets ruined. Experts at the Coffee Tea Warehouse and elsewhere agree that coffee begins to lose its flavor within 15 minutes of brewing, and coffee kept on a hotplate for an extended period can taste burnt and acrid. They recommend immediately transferring coffee from a glass carafe to an insulated pot. That's why some people prefer automatic coffee makers with thermal carafes.
Other Settings.While some people just want to pour in the water and coffee grounds and press start, several automatic coffee makers on our list offer extra settings. Experts warn that making only a few cups in a 10- or 12-cup machine can produce weak coffee, so a "small batch" setting helps make an optimal pot if you need only a few cups. This function adjusts the water flow so it spends the proper amount of time in contact with the grounds. It's usually found on higher-end models but is available on the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 and Black & Decker CM1650B. Those models and the Mr. Coffee JWX27 can also be adjusted to produce a stronger brew. This feature earns praise from several users posting reviews of the Mr. Coffee JWX27 at Walmart. Consumers say the resulting coffee actually has a bolder flavor, as opposed to the bitter brew that results when you simply add more coffee -- a strategy that also gets expensive. The Mr. Coffee JWX27 boasts another feature called a Fresh Brew Timer, which tells you exactly how long the coffee has been sitting on the plate.
Coffee Maker Design
Given that most have permanent homes on kitchen counters, coffee makers' design is a factor. Counter appeal is a big draw for the Hamilton Beach Ensemble 43254. Many users who have posted reviews on Amazon like that the stainless-steel coffee maker matches their other appliances. (Purchasers of the red version are crazy about the color as well.) The Cuisinart DCC-450 and Mr. Coffee TFTX85 feature stainless-steel carafes, but user reviews complain about the coffee makers' design overall. On Epinions, for example, many people say the Mr. Coffee machine spills water and grounds everywhere.
Height and footprint are also considerations, because generally coffee makers need to fit under cabinets. Most have a lid that lifts up to provide access to the water reservoir. A common complaint about budget coffee makers -- the Mr. Coffee TFTX85 and Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 among them -- is that you have to move the machines out from under a cabinet to fill them. The design of the Mr. Coffee TXTF85 further irritates several users, who say in reviews on Amazon that the lid is difficult to get off and must be aligned perfectly for water to get through. Numerous consumers posting on Amazon and a consumer product review site say the spout on the BrewStation Summit is too far back to center a mug underneath and dispense coffee without spilling. Some also find the water reservoir cumbersome to fill. However, many others dismiss these complaints, having had no problems with the design or with leakage at any point in the process. It takes some people a while to get used to the design of the Hamilton Beach Ensemble, according to reviews on Amazon; for instance, they say the reservoir opening is small and awkward to reach.
Reviewers warn that you have to be careful not to overfill the 4-cup Cuisinart DCC-450 when pouring in water or coffee grounds. However, the advantage of a small coffee maker is it doesn't take up much counter space; one user who posted a review at Chefs Catalog compares this small coffee maker to a quart of milk. Likewise, the single-serving Black & Decker Brew 'n Go is small enough that one user who posted a review on Amazon stores it in a cupboard.
Durability.Some consumers posting coffee maker reviews seem to find that the average lifespan of a budget model is about as long as the typical warranty: one year. One purchaser of the Mr. Coffee JWX27 comments on Amazon that as soon as the warranty period was over, the machine started just boiling water, without dripping it through the grounds. Still, other purchasers say the machine brews good coffee day after day; one happy owner who posted a review at Walmart reports that it took three years for the burner plate to start to wear down.
Many buyers of the Hamilton Beach BrewStation Summit 48464 seem to be satisfied customers who are on their second or third BrewStation machine. One user who posted a review at Walmart asserts that this is the best one yet, thanks to features such as easy-to-read guides that show how much water is in the reservoir and how much coffee is in the tank, although a couple of others gripe that it lasted less than a year. The Hamilton Beach Ensemble 43254 is praised for its lasting quality. One owner reports having had it for more than two years with no problems. While some consumers who have posted reviews on a product testing site have owned Black & Decker Brew 'n Go machines for years, others have had to replace them after a few months, and several suggest that the quality has slipped.
The Cuisinart DCC-450 comes with an impressive three-year warranty, and one satisfied owner who posted a review at Chefs Catalog says this small coffee maker lasted for longer than that with no problems. But another consumer posting at Macy's found that it did nothing but sputter after three months, so the consumer used the warranty money to buy another brand.
Maintenance plays an important role in making a coffee maker last. A user of the Mr. Coffee TFTX85 who posted a review on CNET says after a few months the machine took more than half an hour to make coffee. Consumers tend to see such a slowdown 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 you have hard water. Try this before spending money on a new coffee maker. One admiring owner on Amazon says the Mr. Coffee TFTX85 is just starting to fade out after 10 years of use, and several other consumers make good claims for the longevity of this machine.
The Mr. Coffee JWX27 reminds users when it's time for a cleaning, a feature that many consumers posting reviews at Walmart appreciate. This cleaning cycle does not actually clean the machine for you but will run water through several times.
Single-Cup Coffee Makers
In many consumers' minds, nothing beats the convenience of pod coffee makers, which are also called single-cup coffee makers. With coffee in pre-portioned pods, no carafe, and no filter basket, there's no measuring and very little cleanup. Single-cup coffee makers hold up to a quart of water in a tank; they work by building up pressure and firing the water through the coffee grounds. This method can usually get coffee into a cup in under a minute. Brewing just one cup at a time 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. Some reviewers complain that pod coffee makers are noisy -- that's because of the pressure. The disposable pods raise the hackles of environmentally conscious consumers, and if you are expecting rich coffeehouse taste, you're unlikely to get it.
Perhaps the biggest drawback, though, is price. The well-known Keurig Platinum Brewing System (starting at $160) costs more than three times as much as any of our picks. And that's only the beginning: The New York Times crunched the numbers and found that buying coffee in pods is equivalent to spending more than $50 for a one-pound can or bag of ground coffee. Frugal consumers can, however, make their own pods or buy refillable pods.
The pods usually hold enough coffee for a 6- or 8-ounce cup and come in various types for different brands of single-cup coffee makers. Keurig coffee makers use plastic K-Cups, Senseo machines use paper pods, and Tassimo single serves use T-discs. While these three are the most popular, other brands are getting in on the act. Hamilton Beach, Cuisinart, Mr. Coffee, and Melitta now market single-cup coffee makers.
The Hamilton Beach Personal Cup One Cup Pod Brewer 49970 (starting at $17) is the cheapest of the single-cup coffee makers. It's quite small and holds only enough water for one mug, but it's so simple to use that it has practically no instructions. It uses Senseo pods, which are admired for their ecologically sound construction. Many consumers posting reviews on Amazon focus less on the particulars of this machine than on the benefits of owning a cheap single-cup coffee maker generally. Some complain that it makes weak coffee or note that the construction doesn't match that of more expensive one-cup coffee makers, but overall reviews are overwhelmingly positive.
Most other single-cup coffee makers fall outside our sub-$50 price range, but a few come in under $100. Bunn is known for making restaurant coffee makers, and most users posting reviews of the brand's My Cafe MC Pod Brewer (starting at $78) on Amazon maintain that the quality of this machine is comparable. Relatively few disagree, citing durability issues and a plastic taste to the coffee. The Bunn brews up to 14 ounces at a time and includes a pulse-brew feature designed to extract more flavor from each pod.
The Mr. Coffee Single-Serve Brewing System BVMC-KG1-001 (starting at $80) uses the famous Keurig technology and plastic K-Cups. It holds 8 ounces of water, enough for one cup. Users posting reviews on Amazon say a cup can be ready in under two minutes, and others rave that this single-cup coffee maker is just like a Keurig, only cheaper. The Mr. Coffee comes in white, red, and silver.
Many consumers like the single-cup Black & Decker Brew 'n Go Personal DCM18S as an alternative to a pod coffee maker. Users posting reviews at Walmart like that you can use your choice of coffee and don't have to pay a premium price for plastic pods. A consumer who posted a review on Amazon says the Brew 'n Go can do almost everything just as well as a pricey pod coffee maker for about a 10th of the price.