Published April 1, 2007. From Cook's Country.
Does an inexpensive model have to feel cheap?
Almost every home kitchen we know has an automatic drip coffee maker. Yet while few people are actually satisfied with the coffee their machines produce, many are also reluctant to spend hundreds of dollars on high-end models. For those users, we developed a testing on inexpensive drip makers—priced under-$50—and asked each to pass two hurdles: Do they brew coffee reliably well? Are they easy to use?
The convenience of these machines goes undisputed. Provided you load ground coffee in the filter and water in the reservoir and set the clock with a pre-programmed brewing time, each one will literally brew coffee while you sleep. Despite brewing coffee easily, however, none brewed it perfectly. We suspect that the shortcomings relate to several factors, including brewing time, filter-basket size, and water temperature.
To extract the desired degree of water-soluble flavor compounds (18 to 22 percent) from the coffee grounds, brewing time should be no more than six minutes. Longer brewing times can cause overextraction. None of our machines was able to brew a full pot of coffee in this time (brewing times extended from 9:40 to 11:55, a flaw responsible for the harshness or bitterness we tasted in varying degrees in the coffee from every machine).
The small size of the filter baskets on most machines is another potential detriment to coffee quality. Coffee authorities agree that ground coffee should have ample headroom in the filter basket to be agitated and swollen by the water passing through it. When we filled the cramped filter baskets typical of our machines with enough grounds for a full pot, full flavor extraction was compromised because the grounds got compressed in some areas.
During the testing, temperature also arose as an issue that affected coffee quality. As we sipped our way through hundreds of cups of coffee, tasters commented consistently that the coffee from all the machines was not as hot as they would have liked. Few automatic drip machines are able to heat the water to the target brewing temperature of 195 to 205 degrees, largely because the power is divided among several different components, including burner plates and clocks and other electronic features, in addition to the heating element.
All the machines except the thermal carafe model took a significant nose-dive when we tasted coffee that had sat in a glass carafe on the burner plate for 30 minutes. Across the board, the coffee lost a noticeable measure of quality, tasting flat and anywhere from slightly to very burnt after 30 minutes on the burner. Thirty-minute old coffee from a thermal carafe was another story (whether the carafe is attached to the machine or you use an independent carafe). There was much less flavor degradation after 30 minutes in the thermal carafe than on the burner plates of the other machines.
Since we didn’t find much difference in coffee flavor, the user-friendly qualities proved to be the most important in determining our recommendations. Filling area, accessibility and solidity of the filter basket mechanism, and one-handed access to the spent grounds all proved important in differentiating the crowd. We liked those machines that felt solid and were user-friendly.