With coffee makers, you can please some of the people some of the time
Of all of the small appliances we review it's probably safe to say that coffee makers get the most contradictory ratings of all. 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. For every expert that puts a specific coffee maker at the top of their test or list, there are hundreds of owners who say that same machine is nothing but a buzz kill.
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 understand exactly what type of coffee maker you want before you buy one. People who love a lot of bells and whistles and buy an expensive coffee maker whose sole function is to customize the act of coffee making are often sorely disappointed in their purchase because they wanted a programmable timer, brew strength settings, a clock, pause and serve functions, or other conveniences. By the same token, if you like to be able to tweak and customize every pot you make, a $40 drip coffee maker that's loaded down with electronic controls won't give you what you want.
In this report, we cover full-size coffee makers. If you prefer a making one cup at a time, or are into lovingly preparing each cup from scratch as pour-over 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 have a single stream of water that drips through the grounds. Coffee aficionados feel that this method doesn't fully extract the flavor from ground coffee beans. Higher-end drip-style coffee makers have what's known as a "showerhead" action; they spray and saturate the grounds, then hold them for a period of time for optimal flavor extraction. Basic drip coffee makers also 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 $35 Mr. Coffee or "sprays" from a $300 Technivorm, so don't spend more than your palate or personal preference demands, or that your budget can tolerate.
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 sometimes for much longer. The ones we review in this report 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 keeping coffee hot in a container, rather than on a hot plate, better maintains the original flavor. 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. Another perk of a thermal carafe is that you can take it with you to the table, or out on the patio to enjoy a few cups without having to traipse back and forth between table and coffee pot. Thermal coffee makers are more expensive than comparable 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 more reasonable price points.
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 lets you 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 (and those are covered in their own report), 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.
How we found 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 comments regarding 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.