When it comes to coffee makers, you can please some of the people some of the time
There are few small appliances we review that get as uneven ratings as coffee makers. For everyone who absolutely loves their coffee machine, there is an equal number who insist that same appliance is the worst thing they ever owned. We could blame this disconnect on cranky people who post reviews before they've had their first caffeine fix of the day, but, in fact, this merely highlights how important it is to know exactly what kind of coffee maker you want before you buy. People who love a lot of bells and whistles and buy an expensive coffee maker whose function is to customize the act of coffee making are often sorely disappointed in their purchase because they wanted a programmable timer, and brew strength settings, and a clock, and pause and serve functions. By the same token, if you like a lot of customization, a $40 drip coffee maker with a bunch of electronic controls won't give you what you want.
In this report, we cover full-size coffee makers. If you prefer a cup at a time, or are into lovingly preparing each cup from scratch as pourover and French press aficionados do, see our report on one-cup coffee makers. Also, no serious coffee fanatic's life (or kitchen) is complete without a good coffee grinder for that perfect blend every time.
There are a few basic types of coffee makers.
Drip coffee makers are the most common. These are most often found in homes or office break rooms and they make multiple cups of coffee, usually in a fairly short period of time. Coffee grounds are placed into a filter, water is added to a separate reservoir, the water heats up, is poured over the grounds, and the brewed coffee drips into an included carafe. The carafe sits on a heating element that keeps the coffee hot, usually for several hours. Drip coffee machines can be very simple -- just an on/off switch -- or highly programmable with clocks, delayed start and brew strength settings. Most have some sort of automatic shut-off just in case you forget.
Less-expensive drip coffee makers just have a single stream that critics say doesn't fully extract the flavor from ground coffee beans. Higher-end drip-style coffee makers spray and saturate the grounds, then holds them for a period of time for optimal flavor extraction. Basic drip coffee makers don't brew at the super high temperatures that are considered ideal for maximum flavor extraction (around 200 degrees Fahrenheit).
But don't be put off by temperature, sprays, saturation and all those other theories about how you should be brewing coffee. There are plenty of people who can't tell the difference between coffee that "drips" from a $300 Technivorm or a $35 Mr. Coffee, so don't spend more than your palate or personal preference needs.
Thermal coffee makers do not have a hot plate. Rather, they have a thermal carafe that keeps coffee hot, usually for up to two hours, but some for much longer. The ones we review here are still drip-style coffee makers, they just don't have the heated pad that a glass carafe sets on. A lot of people prefer this type of coffee maker because they say being kept hot in a container, rather than on a hot plate better maintains the original flavor of the coffee. This does away with the common complaint some people have that after about an hour or so (or less) the heated pad-style coffee makers impart a "burnt" flavor to the remaining coffee. Thermal coffee makers are more expensive than glass-carafe models, but in the last few years most manufactures have started making some version of the thermal carafe coffee maker, so it's easier to find them at prices ranging from $100 to $150.
Grind and brew coffee makers offer two-in-one convenience. Most people are fine with buying pre-ground coffee, which is available in a vast array of flavors and blends, but there are plenty who prefer to buy the whole beans and grind them at home. The idea is that the fresher the ground coffee, the more flavorful the coffee will be. In addition, grinding your own beans enables you to tweak the size of the grind, thus more specifically customizing the final flavor. Most people who grind their own beans use a separate coffee grinder, but many love being able to put the coffee beans into one container, water in the other, program the machine, and walk away. Expert reviews often pan grind and brew coffee makers, but users give them a lot of love, and that's what's most important.
Finding the best coffee makers
To find the best coffee makers in all of this confusion, we pored over the results of professional tests from ConsumerReports.org and Cook's Illustrated, read up on what the coffee "experts" had to say, and evaluated hundreds (if not thousands) of owner reviews. Owners and experts definitely diverge in their opinions of which coffee machine is best, possibly more so than with any other small appliance category we cover, and it's interesting to read owner input into the results of professional tests. What we found are the best coffee makers available, from high-end, specialty brewers, to your basic set it and forgot it models. If you're passionate about coffee, one of these will give you the jolt you need.
Elsewhere in this report:
Drip coffee makers
This is the most common type of coffee maker, but don't settle for common performance.
Thermal coffee makers
A thermal carafe keeps coffee hot for hours, without continuous cooking.
Grind and brew coffee makers
These handy 2-in-1 machines give you the freshest coffee in the shortest time.
Want to avoid buyer's remorse tomorrow morning? Our Buying Guide explains what to look for in a coffee maker.
Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top coffee makers, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.