Standard procedure on updating one of my ultimate guides is culling a bunch of machines that are no longer available. Drip-coffee or filter-coffee machines are the exception. Some old beaters are still knocking around and are as popular as ever.
That basically sums up these machines perfectly. Who needs major innovations, endless updates and marketing razzmatazz? A drip-coffee maker is as homey as the gurgling noises they’re famous for.
Every now and then, though, new machines pop up on the market that are worth catching up on, like the Behmor Brazen, which emulates manual pour-over drippers.
Then there are all the (more or less) unabashed Technivorm Moccamaster copycats. Not that any manufacturer has totally nailed it yet. With good reason.
As you can see, there’s a whole lot more buzz around drip-coffee machines than you might imagine. Reason enough for me to revamp this guide with new top picks, additional tips and a slightly different take on drip coffee from a machine.
Table of Contents
- Top PicksFor the UnfussyFor the FussyFor the OfficeCheap Machines
- UK Market
- How It Works
- Hardwired Problems
- Shopping PointersCarafe OptionsWater-Gun EffectAroma FunctionCoffee QualityConvenience FactorsTechnicalitiesCleaning
- Timer vs. Grinder
- Coffee Maker vs. Manual Pour-Over Dripper
- Tips & TricksIngredientsWater QualityFilter FunctionBrewing ProcessesTemperature
- Milky Drinks
- Descaling & CleaningDetergentCleaning Carafes
- Spare Parts
- Coffee Maker vs Super-AutomaticCoffee ConsumptionBudgetHabitsCoffee Geek or Regular Joe
Top Picks: Way More than Just a Caffeine Fix
Just a few short years ago, I wrote that even the most undiscerning coffee drinkers know that what you get from these machines is mediocre joe. The compromises and potential pitfalls are just too big.
Going back even further, there was a time when I also thought that the stuff from the pot was the last word on the “coffee break.” Not because of the beans or even the brew. No, it was all about the ritual, shooting the breeze and being able to make a great big pot all at once.
Admittedly, a lot of machines are still the product of this kind of thinking. Attention to detail and other subtleties in the fine art of brewing don’t factor.
That’s not to say these are bad coffee machines. Not convinced? Take a look at my current top picks in the various categories.
The Best Drip-Coffee Maker for the Unfussy
Let the coffee snobs smile smugly into their hipster beards as they read that category title. I think there’s a lot to be said for it.
After all, the number one reason people buy coffee machines is to brew a pot with fewer hassles. Period.
Previously, those after quality rather than quantity shopped for pour-over drippers or explored just about any other brewing method. Now, that’s changing.
It’s time we raised our cups to easy-to-use machines that provide a constant stream of good drip coffee without a whole rigmarole or pretending that this is a major achievement. It’s unsurprising that as the mother of drip coffee, Melitta, has a strong lineup.
I think that the Top Therm, for one, is great work-a-day appliance and the Optima Timer is equally functional. All three machines are reasonably priced at under $200. Although they’ve been around for ages, they’re generally available on Amazon.
In putting together this update, I noticed that Philips’ U.S. product page doesn’t feature a single drip-coffee maker. These machines are still available in the UK and Europe, but all of my old favorite models have been discontinued. Sob, sniff.
Despite that, I’m really happy to say that there’s a good number of highly recommended products in this category. This alone is testimony to the fact that fuss-free drip-coffee makers are freely available. And the differences between them are pretty subtle.
My ten cents? Budget in the region of $100 and you’ll get a quality machine that will be a faithful coffee-making companion for a long time to come.
Best Drip-Coffee Maker for the Fussy
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Which is to say, no shout-outs for fuss-free drip-coffee makers without also giving the machines that fuss over every detail their due. The good news is that no longer needs to be an either-or choice. You can have both!
Still Number One!
The Best, Most Ingenious Coffee Maker on the Market Beats the Cheaper Alternatives!
Ask about the Moccamaster and I have just six words for you: best coffee maker in the world. Enough said. No other machine processes grounds as gently and evenly, producing a brew not unlike a manual pour-over dripper.
But there’s no shortage of challengers eager to snatch the crown. Growing numbers of manufacturers are trying more or less brazenly to replicate or simply knock-off the Technivorm Moccamaster. The results are mixed and no one can touch the original.
A far more left field approach comes from the stainless-steel clad Ninja specialty coffee maker, which aims to muscle in on super-automatic espresso machine turf with big talk that it can make any coffee drink.
The main reason Ninja can make that claim is the foldable milk frother. While it won’t heat the milk the way traditional systems do, you can make microfoam from hot or cold milk. An interesting addition is the iced-coffee option that concentrates the coffee so melting ice won’t leave it tasting watered down.
Of course, the coffee isn’t espresso or even the super-automatic variant but will still make a decent cappuccino. Other reviewers have noted that internal temperatures can reach 208 degrees Fahrenheit — which is just too hot and makes for a bitter brew. So, if you’re after great joe, this is not the best coffee maker.
The Best Drip-Coffee Maker for the Office
Coffee makers and offices go together like mornings and brain fog. Which is why three things are critical in the machine that produces the magic caffeine jolt: that it brews up a ton of coffee, lasts for years and is easy to clean. A machine that certainly fits the bill is the Breville Precision Brewer.
With all its bells and whistles, the Breville has a hefty price tag.
Not Better, but Different to the Moccamaster
Breville Precision Brewer
Finally, good drip coffee in the office!
Very precise settings & preparation
Very large volume capacity
Perfect mix of custom & automated options
Coffee like from a pour-over dripper
Steep price thanks to unnecessary functions
Then again, bragging rights seldom come cheap.
You can check out my video about it, although it’s only in German. If Deutsch is no problem for you, you’ll notice that I refer to the machine as the Sage Precision Brewer, which is how it’s marketed in the UK and Europe. It’s still exactly the same coffee maker. For those who don’t do Deutsch, keep reading, it’s all here.
Buy Cheap, Buy Twice
You can’t really expect the best coffee maker and best price to share the same Amazon page. Despite often serving up little more than hot, black caffeine, budget coffee makers sell like hotcakes. With a price tag of about $25, the crowd-favorite Mr. Coffee rules the bargain basement.
The 12-cup coffee maker incredibly easy to use — from the brewing to how effortlessly the basket lifts out for cleaning. Brewing time is a suspiciously fast two minutes — versus the Moccamaster’s roughly six. If you can’t hold out that long, you can interrupt the process to grab a cup.
There’s also a lot of reports of it breaking about a year after purchase. Maybe that’s no biggie considering how small the outlay is, but the cost of a new coffee machine each year adds up quickly. Why not just get something good from the start? Less throw-away society, more blow away with flavor.
The Black &Decker 12-cup programmable coffee maker is another popular cheapie. For the extra $25 over the price of the Mr. Coffee, you get a programmable machine. On the downside, even after running the newly unboxed machine with water but no grounds twice, a horrid plastic taste tends to linger into the first few pots.
For one-to-two-person households, the five-cup (actually more like two-to-three mugs) Krups Simply Brew Compact coffee maker has a slick stainless-steel finish and is temptingly priced at just over $30.
Again, what you save in dollars and cents might cost you in frustration. While filling the water tank can be irritatingly messy because the lid only opens 90 degrees, the lack of auto-shutoff is a much bigger oversight. Basically, it means you risk burning out your machine. I’ll delve into the reasons for this in more detail further on.
The larger Krups ProAroma left me equally cold.
When Is a Drip-Coffee Maker a Filter-Coffee Machine? The UK Market
On the other side of the pond, the drip-coffee maker is better known as a filter-coffee machine and is by no means the beloved pop culture purveyors of a morning caffeine jolt. The hang-up appears to be with the big quantities. I’m not going to argue. Brewing less than a full pot often results in bad extraction.
Nevertheless, that’s now a thing of the past because manufacturers are not only producing smaller machines like the Krups Simply Brew Compact, but also what’s known as a single-serve coffee maker, which makes just one cup of coffee at a time. The Moccamaster Cup One is a prime example. Admittedly, with a £230 price tag, this single cup coffee maker is nothing short of highway robbery, but you get my point.
After all, the full-sized, £200 (go figure!) Moccamaster KBG Select not only offers better value for money but also adjusts the extraction process so that brewing half a coffee pot instead of the full ten cups tastes just as good. Unsurprisingly, it holds on to its title as the best coffee maker in Old Blighty, too.
If you want to go large, the Sage Precision Brewer will do so in delectable style.
In fact, UK joe drinkers have reason to do the java jig because unlike their American cousins, they can get their hands on the ground-breaking Beem Basic Selection Pour Over, which lives up to its name’s promise.
I had a full-on geek out over this baby. It all starts with a built-in scale, which weighs the coffee grounds and calculates the appropriate quantity of water. The real wow-feature is the water dispersion, whose even jet rotates to mimic the action in making pour-over coffee by hand. With an almost identical price point to the Technivorm Moccamaster, the only reason it doesn’t unseat the reigning coffee maker is that it feels a bit rickety.
How Does a Drip-Coffee Maker Work?
Wikipedia will tell you that Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization is “a research institute for investigations of complex non-equilibrium systems, particularly in physics and biology.” So, um, serious science. That’s why when those guys think it’s worth sharing how a drip-coffee maker works, you’d better believe there’s more to it than a plasticky $30 machine suggests.
Here are the fascinating (and slightly surprising) facts about what goes on inside your machine:
In every drip-coffee machine, water is heated in a reservoir until the boiling bubbles are forced upwards through a narrow tube. A non-return valve ensures that the water only travels in one direction. After that, gravity does the rest of the work. The hot water pours through the coffee grounds and paper filter, out the filter holder and into a pot.
Almost every machine without exception relies on the same principles. By placing the water reservoir above the filter, the Philips Gourmet sidestepped having to force water upwards. Since this machine is not around anymore, it doesn’t really count. Nevertheless, other brands, like the Behmor Brazen, have picked up on the idea. We’ll see what this means later.
What really blows my mind is that the conventional system works without a pump. I’m sure most of us would expect that to be absolutely essential. After all, without a pump, a super-automatic espresso machine, for instance, is just an expensive hunk of junk with a grinder.
How cool is it that a drip-coffee machine relies entirely on the pressure created as water molecules expand when they evaporate into steam. Of course, this is what makes it possible to manufacture machines as cheap as the Mr. Coffee.
So where does that trademark drip-coffee gurgle come from? It’s a result of the water boiling and rising, the valve closing and the incremental build-up of pressure.
You might think that the gradual nature of things would make for a nice gentle extraction process. After all, when making pour-over coffee by hand, we are also careful to distribute the water evenly through the filter before adding more. By its very nature, a drip-coffee maker throws a spanner in the works — in more ways than one.
Problems Hardwired into Drip-Coffee Makers. And How to Fix them
Until now, drip-coffee machines didn’t stand a chance in a taste-off against manual pour-over brews. That’s because the machine was basically a black box, while with pour-over extraction, the level of precision is literally in your hands.
In the past, it seemed pointless even trying to get under the hood of most drip-coffee machines. Since then, I’ve had change of heart and am now all for getting the most out of them, especially as a lot of the familiar issues have already been resolved in the latest generation of machines.
Pressure is often a sticking point with drip-coffee machines. How forcefully the water is squirted out over the coffee grounds depends on the valve and the way that the basic components work together. Since no pump is necessary, it’s really just physics, pure and simple.
In contrast, when making pour-over coffee, you deliberately avoid firing water out of a spray bottle. The aim is to achieve a gentle, even jet. When the machine spews the water, some patches of grounds get more of a soaking than others. The result? Extraction that’s far less uniform than what you get with a good hand pour.
Growing numbers of manufacturers are diligently addressing this flaw. As you might have guessed, this is an area where the Technivorm Moccamaster is literally quite the rainmaker.
Thanks to a showerhead, the more missile-like droplets are slowed to deliver a gentle sprinkling.
Another gremlin stems from the fact that many drip-coffee makers don’t heat all the water in one shot, instead delivering a portion at a time. Which is why you get the gurgling noises. The problem is that consistent water temperature is critical for brewing.
Following the Philips Gourmet’s lead, the Behmor Brazen Plus nips this problem in the bud with a top-mounted water reservoir — no stop-start, uphill journey for the water.
A top-mounted water reservoir also automatically eliminates the third coffee maker pitfall — variations in water temperature over time and as a result of moving through systems.
While water turns into steam at about 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature for manual pour-over brewing is around 201 degrees Fahrenheit.
While a degree or two either way is no biggie, coffee makers tend to be creatures of extremes. That’s why brewing temperatures around 212 degrees are not uncommon. Whatever your brewing style, that’s just too hot.
Equally problematic is the speed with which the water cools as it passes through the filter and into the carafe. Long story short, you get a nasty cup of badly extracted cold swill — especially when brewing small quantities.
In fact, the temperature in the pot is a deciding factor in my process for reviewing the best drip-coffee makers in 2021. You’d think it isn’t too much to ask that your coffee is hot, even when only making a small amount. Apparently, it often is.
Talking about things getting hot — and not just under my collar: If there’s one feature that’s emblematic of everything that’s wrong with coffee makers, it’s that supposed must-have, the hot plate. I feel really strongly about this:
This is where we get to see filter coffee machines for the vicious circle they are. That’s because we’re right back where we started with the “real” reason people but these machines: they don’t want to have to think about dosage, grind texture or temperature.
There’s a tendency to make more coffee than is immediately necessary. Just in case someone wants another cup of coffee, or because it’s an unspoken rule at the office, or the machine entices them into it.
On the dosage front, most people stick to the “one spoon per cup, plus one for the machine” formula. It’s a tried-and-trusted recipe and so universal that I use it when testing machines.
That brings us to a bit of a reality check regarding one of the fundamentals of great extraction. It’s no accident that baristas and coffee nerds stand their pour-over drippers on kitchen scales. After all, striking the perfect balance between the proportion of coffee to water is a science in itself.
What to do? There are a couple of machines like the Wolf Gourmet programmable coffee maker that have a built-in scale to automatically weigh the grounds, but they’re neither cheap nor readily available. Hopefully, other manufacturers will catch on soon.
Time for a topic that really gets me frothing at the mouth. I’m just never going to back down on how dumping pre-ground, industrially processed supermarket beans into your machine is wrong in every way.
Even if coffee makers are seemingly regular joe machines, freshly ground beans are the only acceptable choice!
For all that, I’m willing to admit that taking the time to freshly grind beans before loading up the machine, just isn’t this bunch of coffee drinkers’ style.
Grind-and-brew coffee makers should be the perfect win-win. Very mixed results in my reviews, however, indicate that there’s still a long way to go in this category.
Let’s briefly summarize the challenges the coffee maker must overcome:
- Water is forcefully fired at the coffee grounds instead of gently dispersed by hand.
- The water is not uniformly heated.
- The water temperature isn’t optimal for brewing drip coffee.
- The brewed coffee cools rapidly as it trickles into the carafe.
- The beans are seldom freshly ground.
- Dosages are eyeballed rather than measured with any precision.
- Coffee is brewed based on supply rather than demand.
For a coffee maker to perform well under review, it has to do a lot of ducking and diving to avoid these hardwired issues. It can be done — just look at the Moccamaster. Unfortunately, that’s still the exception and not the rule.
Key Pointers when Buying a Coffee Maker
Before I dig into detailing the best coffee maker features, I need to set the record straight once and for all:
Models like the Mr. Coffee are little more than filters with a power supply that bungle everything imaginable.
By the same token, there’s no need to cough up some $300 for the spectacularly good Technivorm Moccamaster or one of its successful knockoffs. Sure, it’s worth it, but suss out what’s really a priority for you.
Thermal or Glass — the Great Carafe Conundrum
For a moment there it looked like the thermos had lost its mojo — especially as machines with slicker designs all featured glass carafes.
Yes, it’s not only more stylish, but you can see the coffee. All in all, it’s a very pretty package. Plus, let’s not forget that glass is incredibly hygienic.
That’s all well and good except that the ugly stepsister has one distinct advantage: a thermal carafe keeps your coffee hot for longer. There’s no need to resort to the hot plate because insulating is not the same as endlessly stewing your brew.
For me personally, this is reason enough to knock the glass carafe off its pedestal. So, I’m glad to see thermal carafes on such strong contenders as the Breville Precision Brewer.
Bottom line, both options have their place. So, it’s unsurprising that Breville also offers the Precision Brewer with a glass carafe. Rinsing your glass carafe with hot water before brewing helps to prevent a cold surprise in your cup. In fact, you should do the same with a thermal carafe because they’re just as good at retaining cold as heat.
In case you were wondering, manufacturers have no illusions about glass carafes and the cold coffee problem. That’s why they often recommend that brewing up bigger quantities keeps your coffee hot. Vicious circle, like I said, seeing as we’re now back to making coffee based on supply, not demand.
If you’re eyeing a model that’s available with either a glass or thermal carafe, I always say go with the thermal carafe. Even if it costs a bit more and doesn’t look as dainty.
The Water-Gun Effect: Seeing the Brewing Process in Action
Until recently, it wasn’t possible to inspect this part of a machine. All machines were put together the same way and there was no real way of getting wise to how gently and evenly the water was being dispersed over the ground coffee.
The Technivorm Moccamaster was always the exception, thanks to its showerhead, which is broad enough to slow the water flow and boasts lots of holes to rain it down softly over the grounds.
More and more manufacturers — and not just those trying to knock off the Moccamaster — are jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, even Black & Decker sports a version of the shower head. Brands are waking up to the fact that the water-gun effect doesn’t produce good joe.
Even more conventionally engineered models can get in on the action with the relevant valves. The truth only comes out in the cup, though, because you can’t take a look-see at how softly the water is dispersed. Unfortunately, all examples that used this solution are no longer available. Probably because the showerhead is getting all the attention.
Ideally, you want a coffee maker with a pre-infusion or pre-soak function as it’s called on the Behemor Brazen Plus. Basically, this is what pour-over aficionados call the blooming phase: the coffee grounds are moistened with a little water so that they swell up and release their aromas more readily. It’s only afterwards that the actual brewing process gets underway.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll notice machines which rely on precise showerheads for saturation are the also the ones more likely to have a pre-infusion function on the menu. The Breville Precision Brewer is a case in point.
In fact, the Breville even allows you to control the blooming phase by adjusting the relevant brewing parameters. If you ask me, this is really just a gimmick on a drip-coffee machine. But hey, it doesn’t hurt.
The Aroma Function
Above all, Philips and Melitta — brands built on specializing in drip-coffee machines — include an aroma function (by that or another name) on many of their mid-to-top-range products. For instance, on the Ninja specialty coffee maker, it’s the “rich” brewing option.
So, what is it anyway? Basically, it does the same thing as the coffee strength feature on super-automatic espresso machines. The difference is that on coffee makers there is only one brewing variable that the machine can adjust — the water flow rate.
Despite that reality, you tweak how quickly or slowly the water hits the ground coffee and extracts your brew on a bean scale. Water that quickly drains into the coffee pot is in contact with the grounds for less time and produces milder coffee. A slower flow produces a stronger brew. This why the Mr. Coffee’s lightning-fast, two-minute gives me pause.
What seems gimmicky at first glance, can in fact help you get the most out your beans and machine — by at least simulating a pre-infusion.
That’s because this function is just a mechanical switch in the brewing process. So, you can initially slow the flow dramatically, before bumping it back up to the desired rate. With a bit of practice, this can make a big difference.
Older models, such as the Melitta Enjoy Top Therm, led the way and the function translates well on newer “pro” models, too.
(Automatic) Coffee Quality
On my to-do list is a “best machines for dummies” article, since I often find machines that are very forgiving of human error and still deliver good or even very good cup of coffee, despite owner fumbles.
I’m happy to report that in compiling the 2021 guide to the best drip-coffee makers, I’ve discovered quite a lot of machines engineered that way.
My approach is always to stick to the homespun wisdom of “X spoons plus one.” Admittedly, I get different joe every time, even when using the same beans. At least there are few disappointments on the palate.
How fascinating is it that each pot delivers a different flavor profile? Especially when I test a bunch of machines one after the other on the same day.
Even if you can’t really compare tasting notes on this basis, the difference between good and bad coffee makers is pretty obvious. Bum machines, like the Krups ProAroma produce a tasteless craffee.
It never ceases to amaze me — in fact, my amazeballs overflow out the playpen — that this once hit-or-miss machine segment actually succeeds in teasing out subtle nuances in flavor.
What we’re seeing here is a clear trend: good, inexpensive models deliver a clean, oil-rich brew. As you rise up the price scale, the more fruity and acidic notes come to the fore.
This is only true if you’re religious about one basic rule:
Quite the opposite!
As long as you grind them fresh, it almost doesn’t matter if you weigh every fraction of an ounce when dosing. And that, fellow coffee fiends, is a big advantage of coffee makers that I wasn’t counting on.
Let’s run through all the things that make setting up and loading a coffee maker a total breeze. The list includes:
- Removable water tank or
- One-hand dispensing
- Easy to read volume indicator with as small cup graduations as possible
- Removable filter holder
What’s one-hand dispensing you ask? It’s a carafe that allows you to pop the lid with the same hand holding it. After all, most of us grab the pot in one hand and open the faucet with the other. Having to stop and unscrew the lid? Annoying.
The volume indicator is pretty self-explanatory. After all, the difference between the best-tasting coffee and dreck is using the right amount of water. Increments of a single cup allow you to brew exactly as much as need. You might not realize it, but the position of the indicator markings can be a big deal if your kitchen is small.
Most machines work on the “brew till the tank runs dry” principle. That’s why you need some measure of accuracy when filling the water tank. And don’t confuse cup portions and cup measures. Cup, mug, yours or mine, it doesn’t matter. The water volume is a guideline created with grandma’s coffee dosing in mind.
Manufacturers of good, new-generation machines, like the Breville Precision Brewer, know you can’t fight the all-pervasive, folksy dosing formula, but are smart enough to nudge you towards greater accuracy with an additional scale in fluid ounces.
Easy disposal of used filter papers and grounds isn’t the only reason a removable filter holder is a must. This is a key detail even on swankier models because being able to pull out the filter holder and moisten it (and the filter paper) makes for far superior coffee.
In this section, I pick apart details that seldom appear in product descriptions. This is pretty much the raison d’être for the 2021 guide to the best coffee makers. These are the nitty-gritties of whether a machine is an all-rounder that caters to every demand or whether it’s cut out for office life or a small family home.
Coffee Temperature and the Quantity Quandary
As I’ve already pointed out, brewing the absolute minimum often brings out a machine’s most ungenerous side. The only workarounds are preheating the carafe, brewing a bigger quantity and sometimes switching out the carafe for one made of a different material. Just remember, the hot plate stays off!
(Automatic) Extraction Time
To put it in a nutshell, it doesn’t matter whether you’re making pour-over coffee by hand or using a machine, slow and steady wins the drip-coffee race. So, if you’re looking at a machine without the option to adjust flow rate, rather pick one of those that are proven in my reviews to gurgle away at a leisurely pace. In my experience, the lower the price tag, the more likely it is to be a hare than a tortoise (yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. Coffee).
The lower the minimum volume, the better. After all, you want to avoid wastage and making coffee for the sake of it. Sometimes calculating the true minimum volume can get complicated. But it’s worth it.
The same goes for maximum volumes. While roughly 40 fluid ounces is about standard, the Breville Precision Brewer is the world’s only machine to brew up a whopping 60 ounces in one go.
My gripe isn’t so much with the electricity a machine consumes when in use than the fact that many of them draw power even when switched off.
That’s to be expected in appliances, such as the Melitta Optima Timer and Black &Decker programmable coffee maker, which have a clock display. That’s because coffee makers with timers have to be able to start themselves up automatically. But there is no good reason for a cheapo machine like the Krups ProAroma to do this.
I’m only mentioning this because it’s literally a make-or-break feature on a drip-coffee machine. A decent model should switch itself off after a specific period of time so that the machine doesn’t burn out. The timing on this varies a lot. Machines with a thermal carafe are usually programmed to cut out earlier than those with a glass carafe.
For many of you, the fact that cleaning a coffee maker is a piece of cake is a big plus. The reason is that none of the internal parts come into contact with the coffee.
Easy maintenance and care are big motivating factors in many coffee drinkers’ choice of a filter-coffee machine over a super-automatic espresso machine.
Keep in mind that not even coffee makers are immune to the effects of scale and other deposits. Which is why the more components you can remove and stick in the dishwasher, the better.
Since thermal carafes can’t go in the dishwasher they need to be easy to clean by hand. A big mouth and removable lid make life a lot simpler. This isn’t usually an issue with the glass variety whose lids are usually hinged.
The weak link in the chain is the water reservoir where all kinds of things like to breed. Which is why removable tanks are the more hygienic option. Otherwise you have to remember to check it. I’ll get into the ins and outs of cleaning and descaling coffee makers a bit later.
Which is Better, a Coffee Maker with a Timer or a Grinder?
A drip-coffee machine is a slacker’s best friend. Add a timer and your laziness can reach new heights.
When your alarm goes off a 7am, the coffee is ready and waiting. No one has to drag themselves out of bed. How great is that?
Of course, there’s a catch. A timer function pushes up the price — even if the machine it comes with wasn’t worth wasting your money on in the first place. What’s worse is that standby mode doesn’t exactly set up a machine for careful brewing:
Water left standing in the tank overnight is a petri dish for all kinds of things, the aroma escapes from the ground coffee in the filter and the appliance is constantly drawing power.
One way to avoid sacrificing aroma is by freshly grinding the beans instead of just scooping the pre-ground stuff out of a bag. What’s more, there’s no shortage of grinders that are as easy to use as a drip-coffee maker.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Who does that? If a coffee maker is your speed, all that effort probably isn’t.
All the more reason to get excited about grind-and-brew coffee machines. As an added bonus, they also have timers. But there are four drawbacks that put a damper on things:
- They’re comparatively more expensive.
- They’re bigger.
- They require more cleaning and maintenance.
- This machine category is only just to coming into its own.
With its built-in grinder, a machine like the Melitta AromaFresh — which gets my thumbs up — doesn’t cost anymore costs than the more premium model. That’s a huge win IMHO.
If you want to know more about cleaning and maintaining grinders, which is really not such a big deal, check out my guide to super-automatic espresso machines.
It just so happened that without intending to I ended up testing the AromaFresh over an extended period and putting it through its paces daily. Based on the results, I recommended the thing to someone who had a $50 machine and only bought cheap supermarket beans.
One day and some grumbling later, he refused to part with the Melitta coffee maker and has since devoted himself to improving supply chains for quality coffee beans. True story!
Bottom line? Forget about the timer and focus on incorporating good, fresh coffee beans into the brewing process.
Coffee Maker vs. Manual Pour-Over Dripper Showdown
When I started on this long quest for the best coffee makers, I already knew that I needed to compare drip-coffee machines with manual pour-over brewing. Now, I’ve done just that.
After all, a bunch of you are clamoring to know whether there really is a difference in taste or whether I need to get off my coffee-nerd high horse.
Entering the ring for the electrical side is the Philips HD7546. Although no longer available in the U.S market, this is still a solid bet for anyone who wants no-fuss coffee. It was also very affordable and to top things off came with a thermal carafe.
I deliberately decided against the Moccamaster because it functions on principles very similar to manual pour-over brewing. Plus, it’ll leave your wallet a whole lot lighter. All in all, it’s not exactly your everyday machine.
Before actually doing the taste-off, my guess was that the differences would boil down to subtle nuances. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
To ensure a level playing field between electric and manual, I kept the key parameters the same:
- Fresh beans, ground to the same texture
- Exactly the same amount of ground coffee (by weight!)
- Exactly the same coffee beans
- Exactly the same quantity of water
- Water filtered through a Brita jug
- Exactly the same cups
For the coffee I chose top-notch yirgacheffe beans. With its unparalleled floral notes that really come into their own when extracted with a filter, this Ethiopian variety is ideal for drip coffee.
Want to know why? Check out my guide to pour-over coffee. Suffice to say for now that the filter collects most of the fats and oils, leaving only the beans’ most delicate notes. And a good yirgacheffe has that by the bucketful. In my coffee beans review (currently only in German), you will find suggestions for this.
In true cupping tradition, I labeled the cups at the bottom and tasted them blind with a couple of independent third parties (aka Coffeeness team members).
These are the results:
- The coffee maker seriously pumps up the citrus notes.
- Manual pour-over brewing brought a broader spectrum of fruit flavors.
- The machine coffee had far more oils — what’s called a fuller body.
- Once the coffee has cooled, the stuff from the machine becomes sour, while the pour-over version packs an intensely fruity punch.
Like I said at the beginning, same roast, but you wouldn’t know it from the two totally different coffees. Both pass the taste test, but a machine can’t bring out the subtleties that an experienced home barista can coax out with the pour-over method.
You could get two brews with more of a family resemblance by using a coarser grind in the machine and a finer one for the manual pour-over. Only that kind of defeats the point, which is to show how despite being technically similar, what we’re dealing with is two different approaches to coffee.
By its nature, the machine is harsher and works with the already dominant aromas. Depending on the flow rate, more oils may be extracted, which obscure finer nuances. If those are what you’re after, manual pour-over brewing is definitely the way to go.
As for the machine joe turning sour rather than fruity on cooling, that just shows the appliance pushing up against its limits. Where compromise and standardization are the order of the day, the resulting coffee is inevitably also a characterless, one-size-fits-all brew.
In fact, part of the character of the best-tasting coffee is that it’s just equally delicious hot or cold. That’s why there are machines designed especially for making cold-brew coffee, like the Hario Mizudashi cold-brew coffee maker.
With a little love and attention, your coffee maker can show character, too — not what you get from a pour-over dripper, but also no better or worse.
Tips & Tricked Out Coffee Makers
In the previous version of this guide, I suggested that if you want truly sophisticated flavors from your drip-coffee maker, you need to remove the filter unit, place it on a glass carafe and do the job by hand.
That’s no longer strictly true. Innovative new machines have taken a leaf out of my book and not only emulate pour-over methods but actually allow you to do just what I suggested.
A removable basket section on the Behmor Brazen, creates more room for pour-over devices to fit under the showerhead.
But even the traditional old coffee makers can be optimized. Wait, you say, you want me to do the work? Isn’t that the point of a machine? Sure, but in Arne’s little coffee school no one gets to sit on their hands. You didn’t expect anything less from me did you?
Optimizing the Ingredients
If you’re a regular Coffeeness reader, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me right now. Because by now, you’ve heard me preach it often enough: Good coffee comes from quality beans and water. Since the supermarket coffee brands are still raking it in, I’m going to say it again. Emphatically. With exclamation points.
Use Quality Beans!
If I had a philosophical bent, this would be my categorical imperative (nod to Kant). You’ve heard of garbage in, garbage out? Same equation here. It takes good beans to make good coffee. Simple as that.
Since using a filter subtracts flavors — i.e. it removes a number of notes in a coffee’s flavor profile — it lends itself to a range of roasts.
If you like lighter, more floral roasts, you can really go wild with this method. There’s good news for lovers of dark roasts, too — it often takes a filter to reveal their hidden, subtle depths. Which brings me to the next imperative, which is just as categorical:
Grind the Beans Yourself!
Again, I consider this a non-negotiable, for reasons already outlined above.
Optimizing Water Quality
Thanks to my rants about using tap water rather than mineral water for making coffee, I’ve gotten some nasty e-mails for my pains. Proof positive that H2O (even for coffee) is a hot topic.
You don’t need to fill your machine with filtered water, but it should at least be fresh. In other words:
- Always empty any water left in the tank and rinse it out after each brewing cycle.
- Push your mixer over to cold. All the way.
- Allow the water to run for a moment before filling the tank.
That way you’re assured of well oxygenated water for your coffee. A higher oxygen content helps to better open up the coffee aromas.
A removable water tank is a big plus in a machine. With all other versions, you basically have to make a plan. Ideally, one that involves an extra container for filling.
Yeah, I know nobody does that. Everyone just grabs the empty carafe. Just remember that has tiny traces of coffee in it which are now being dumped in the brewing cycle. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Optimizing Filter Function
By giving you this tip, I might be putting myself into a tight corner. Here goes anyway: I don’t like Melitta filters. Why? Because they have a woody whiff about them. Which soon finds its way into your coffee.
There’s nothing wrong with the fibers, they’re clean and don’t pose any health risks. In my experience, however, they just don’t do as good a job at filtering as their Japanese competitors.
That’s a real pain the neck because in terms of shape and size Melitta filters are pretty much the standard for any coffee maker. In fact, many cheap supermarket brands are basically Melitta filters.
Word to the wise: Some supermarket filters seriously reek. Who wants that?
Filters made by Japanese brands, such as Hario or Kalita, are truly pristine and have absolutely NO odor. Admittedly, you might have to cut them to get them to fit certain machines, which isn’t the end of the world.
If you’re wondering whether flat-bottomed, cup-shaped or pointy filters are better, I’d say it boils down to personal preference. I lean towards the pointy ones because the extracted coffee is channeled directly into the carafe.
The flat-bottom version works better in most coffee makers. Of course, this can change from one machine of the moment to the next. With the Breville Precision Brewer, you even have the option of choosing a smaller version of the basket filters used in the restaurant industry for making large quantities.
Once you’ve picked your filter, you can move on to more important matters:
Rinsing the filter paper inside the basket before brewing. Always. Without fail.
Why the extra step? It not only washes dust and manufacturing residues off the paper fibers but also opens the pores so it can do a better job of filtering. Once they’ve soaked up some water, they allow the good stuff to pass through during brewing.
Optimizing the Brewing Process
OK, I admit we’re heading deep into coffee nerd territory here. Anyone who fiddles with a machine as basic as a coffee maker and its basically standardized brewing process is more than a little obsessed. Welcome to my world.
A lot of drip-coffee makers let you lift the lid over the filter during brewing and directly access the filter and the water outlet.
If you see that all the water is landing on the same spot instead of dispersing evenly over the filter, it’s a good idea to stir the brew as soon as the filter is full. Do it early on and ideally only once.
Another way of tweaking your brew is through the texture of your ground coffee. Sure, the aroma function is helpful, but the coarseness of your grounds will have a bigger impact.
The finer the texture, the slower the water seeps through. Doesn’t matter how fast the water hits the grounds. Just be careful that the coffee isn’t too fine or the filter can quickly overflow.
As I mentioned before, you can also adjust the aroma function shortly after the water starts to flow to mimic a pre-infusion.
Word to the wise: There are machines that automatically take care of all these ins and outs. Hello, much vaunted Breville the Precision Brewer.
Optimizing Coffee Temperature
Back to the all too familiar “hot in the filter, cold in the pot” gripe. Rinsing the pot well with hot water before brewing and giving it a quick dry will go some way to solving the problem. A machine — like the Breville — that lets you adjust the brewing temperature is still a rare beast. Expect to see dollar signs.
Looking for the Milky Way?
You guys aren’t the only ones still learning. I am, too — every time I test things for my reviews. For instance, I’ve discovered that I’m not just a fan of coffee machines, but also milk frothers.
Some automatic frothers produce microfoam of a quality that far surpasses most super-automatic espresso machines. Seriously.
If you love lattes and have just added a decent coffee maker at a reasonable price to your cart, why wait to round out your coffee station with a compact milk frother?
The Miroco milk frother is a handy appliance and a steal at $40 — even if I still think that the more expensive Philips Senseo Milk Twister is a better investment.
I only mention milk frothers because I think they play really nicely with a coffee maker and really enhance your coffee corner. Plus, there’s no need to fork out loads of money, get your head around complicated tech or free up a lot of space.
And what do you get out of these machines? Café au lait, mon amour! They even zazz up your unassuming cup of machine joe in the morning.
Descaling and Cleaning Drip-Coffee Makers
Even if your coffee machine is doing its thing without complaint, cleaning is a must!
By the time you notice an unhealthy cough mixed into the gurgling during brewing, your machine is telling you loud and clear that it has a build-up of mineral deposits. If there is less coffee in the carafe than was originally in the tank, the tubes are probably almost totally blocked.
I’ve probably spent as much time grappling with scale as tap water — whether it’s cleaning super-automatic machines or testing kettles.
At least cleaning a coffee maker is much easier than a super-automatic espresso machine, since the components that carry the water don’t come into contact with the coffee. Plus, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.
If you know how hard your tap water is, you can use a rule of thumb to determine cleaning intervals. My trusty table will help you out:
|Level||Degree of Hardness||Grains per gallon of calcium carbonate||Degree of general hardness (dGH)||How often should I descale? |
|1||Soft||Less than 8.77||Less than 8.4 dGH||Rarely |
|2||Moderate||8.77 to 14.56||8.4 to 14 dGH||Occasionally |
|3||Hard||More than 14.56||More than 14 dGH||Often |
With a Brita filter, your tap water with a hardness level of 2 or 3 is turned into a soft level 1. The reason that I name-drop Brita is not just because it’s what I’ve used in my kitchen for years, but also because the cheaper versions work on the same principle.
What's the Right Detergent for Your Coffee Maker?
While I’ve furiously debated detergent formulations for super-automatic machines, it’s simple household products all the way for coffee makers.
Skip the expensive overkill products and just run a brewing cycle with a full tank of water mixed with citric acid. Then repeat with clean water alone. That’s it. You’re done.
In terms of organic chemistry pure and simple, vinegar will do the job, but it will also corrode valves and the machine’s rubber parts faster. Plus, that vinegary note has a nasty way of lingering.
Cleaning Glass and Thermal Carafes
On a drip-coffee machine, coffee residues are localized in the carafe (and the filter). After a while, you’ll notice a stubborn and ugly discoloration in your thermal carafe.
If you think your super-smooth glass carafe is immune, guess again. The harder your water, the worse the stains. That’s because when the water dries, calcium-magnesium deposits form crystals hardening the undesirable coffee residues.
Much like with limescale in your machine’s innards, a mixture of water and citric acid will bring the sparkle back to your carafe. For stubborn coffee stains, pick up some Corega tabs at the drugstore. This denture cleaner is a head (full of teeth) and shoulders above dishwasher tabs:
- They dissolve faster in lukewarm water and fizz up.
- They’re gentle on materials and very effective.
- They’re cheaper, especially if you get the store brand.
- They’re slightly less damaging to the environment than the dishwasher tabs.
As always, I’m wringing my hands, begging you not to let it get that far. If you rinse your glass or thermal carafe well after each use and wipe it clean, you won’t get any discoloration at all.
If you ignore the hot plate and make only as much coffee as you’ll drink, then you won’t “bake” the residues onto the surface of the pot. It’s as simple as that.
Is it Worth Getting Spare Parts for a Coffee Maker?
Basically, the answer is simple. Check what your machine costs. That awful hunk of junk that is the Krups ProAroma costs under $80. A replacement glass carafe costs about $25.
Who wouldn’t take their lumps (and the total of $105) and just get a machine with far superior thermal carafe that produces better joe?
Of course, if the machine in question is very expensive — specifically the Moccamaster or the Breville the Precision Brewer — things couldn’t be more different. A new carafe for just over $50 is definitely worth it to keep getting javalicious joe out of your $300 machine.
The good news is that at a least a couple of brands, including Ninja, present a third solution to the broken carafe problem: coffee makers that work with just about any receptacle.
Thanks to the Multi-Serve dial, the Ninja Specialty coffee maker automatically brews in different container sizes, ranging from small 9.5-ounce cups to 43-ounce carafes. As long as the substitute carafe is of an appropriate diameter and can be securely placed below the brew basket, you can use whatever you want. Like, say, your Chemex, which is now suddenly a multipurpose device. Now, that’s resource optimization!
Hopefully other manufactures will soon follow suit. Because truth be told, spare parts for coffee makers often aren’t worth it. On a lot of models, the things most likely to need replacing, such as carafes, came with exorbitant price tags.
Decision, Decisions: Coffee Maker or Super-Automatic Espresso Machine? What's Right for You
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked whether a coffee maker or super-automatic espresso machine is the better choice, I’d be rich. The question comes up so often mainly because people are confused about the kind of coffee each of the machines actually make. Plus, the marketing doesn’t help.
You thought super-automatic machines were sexy and drip-coffee machines were as their name suggests — drips. Not anymore. That’s because the new generation, like the Moccamaster and its clones, are totally instagrammable and are putting the spotlight back on these machines.
I’ve come to love both. Above all, drip-coffee makers just keep getting better as they increasingly take their cue from coffee’ holy grail — manual pour-over drippers. All that aside, I’d like to give you a few tips on how to choose what will work best for you.
How Much Coffee do You Drink?
Do you only drink a small cup of coffee every day or does it take a giant pot each to get you and everyone else in the household on the clock?
Although more and more super-automatic coffee machines feature a “long coffee” function, which produces a bigger quantity in one go, coffee makers are still the first choice for bigger batches.
By the same token, manufacturers are catering to WFH singles with single-serve coffee makers like the Moccamaster Cup One that make one great cup at time – so the second or third cup of the day isn’t cold, stale or burnt but just as fresh as the first.
If you only need one or two cups, I’d personally go a totally different route and look into a French press, etc. Once you’ve nailed all the variables, this is faster and more efficient than a machine.
The only problem is that it’s hard to switch things up. If mom is always jonesing for a latte, but dad would rather get his fix with an espresso, then a super-automatic espresso machine is the better option. Otherwise you’re just handing over all that money you supposedly “saved” by getting a drip-coffee machine to the coffee chain around the corner.
Since I started using a super-automatic machine, I’ll only leave home for a specialty coffee out of professional curiosity or when away on longer trips. Not because I’m dying for a break from the ho-hum stuff from my coffee brewer.
Milk froth alone is not a good reason to jump on the super-automatic bandwagon. A milk frother will give you that without skimping on the quality.
How Tight is Your Budget?
When it comes down to the bottom line, even the best coffee maker will leave less of a hole in your credit card than a super-automatic espresso machine. By way of comparison, just look at the pimped-out Breville Precision Brewer and the far more expensive DeLonghi Magnifica ECAM 22.110.B.
While even machines in lower price brackets can make a good cup of coffee, only super-automatic espresso machines at the upper end of the price range really deliver the goods. On top of that, there’s the costs of detergents, water — and last but not least — beans.
Due to the huge differences between the extraction process, grind texture and preparation techniques between the two types of machine, a super-automatic espresso machine consumes more coffee. Admittedly, a dried out coffee puck only weighs around 7 grams, while a full filter basket clocks in at around 56 grams. However, that’s enough for a good 10 cups. The super-automatic would need at least 70 grams to deliver the same quantity.
How Much of a Creature of Habit are You?
Earlier in this article, I went on a major tangent about how you can pimp your drip-coffee machine. So, while it’s possible to make some changes to a standard machine, coffee makers have and always will pander to people who like routine.
If you’ve found a roast you love and take the trouble of using a grinder and following all the steps involved in making quality drip coffee, then there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your thing. A coffee maker is the right choice for you.
For those who thrive on changing things up, exploring different coffee flavors and testing beans, I recommend a super-automatic machine.
You can still cultivate your little habits, but swerve off the beaten track at the touch of a button. This is also where the coffee maker and grinder combo gets more interesting.
Another way to look at it is to ask, how many of the available features on a super-automatic espresso machine will you actually use? Anything that you don’t actively use is just wasted money.
How Serious Are You about Drip Coffee?
Are you wondering now that the end of the article is in sight whether I’d just as soon plump for a drip-coffee machine as my beloved pour-over dripper? Yes, I would. The new machines are awesome and do a great job of mimicking the care involved in pour-over coffee. But they can’t replace them!
Pour-over drippers are Major League, while even good filter coffee machines are only Little League. But there’s real talent and fans in both. Let me walk you through a few scenarios so you can decide which is the right coffee maker for you:
- Looking to get a precise take on a new coffee? Manual dripper.
- Do you love trying out new coffees? Manual dripper.
- Using an especially delicate roast? Manual dripper.
- Does the roast have an especially strong flavor profile? Machine.
- Do you want all the technicalities in place to get the best flavor out of the bean? Machine.
- Is your mom coming to visit? Machine.
- Is she bringing grandma? Machine. And haul out the dark roast!
- Do you just want to make coffee for yourself? Manual dripper.
- Do you pooh-pooh process and just want the end product? Machine.
- Do you want to learn more about coffee and how to make it? Manual dripper.
- Do you like to finish things off with some milk? Machine.
- Are you on Instagram? Thanks to the new generation coffee makers — both!
While we were all going gaga over super-automatic espresso machines, a lot of manufacturers have really pushed the envelope with good, automatic drip-coffee makers, elevating this brewing method to an art form in its own right. Not exactly Picasso, but paint-by-numbers, for sure.
An automatic drip-coffee maker operates to certain standards, which crush character. But there’s no reason you can’t add the personal touch yourself — by trying new roasts or tweaking the variables.
Got questions? Fire away! I looking forward to connecting with you in the comments section.