Straight to the Point
Our top pick is the Bonavita 8-Cup One-Touch Coffee Maker. It’s easy to use and brews consistently great coffee. You might be asking, “Is $150 really inexpensive?” We do think it’s a reasonable price for a device you’ll likely use daily and still far less than other home brewers, which can cost upwards of $400 (or more). However, if that price isn’t doable, we also like the Mr. Coffee 10-Cup Coffee Maker. It’s about $80 and has a thermal carafe.
As a former barista—who’s been in the speciality coffee industry since 2010—my day used to begin by dialing in espresso and batch brewed coffee, getting things just right for customers. I’d pour myself five ounces of coffee to start, replenishing my cup every time I brewed a fresh batch.
Now that I work from home, though, my needs are very different. I’m brewing coffee once, in the morning. That’s it. Instead of tweaking my brew recipe throughout the day, tasting as I go, I need a brewer that’s just going to reliably do a good job, which can be difficult to find at an affordable price point.
Serious Eats last tested coffee brewers in 2018, however coffee technology has changed a lot in the past four years. So, we’re re-reviewing coffee makers, including old favorites, updated versions of previously tested machines, and entirely new models. This review is split into two parts: the best automatic drip coffee makers (if you have more to spend) and the best models for $150 or less.
There are some excellent brewers that fall into this more inexpensive category (although the Specialty Coffee Association’s or SCA’s list of recommended brewers only includes one under $150), but there are also a lot of clunkers. I specifically want to talk about what to look for in a more cost-effective brewer and the features sub-par brewers use to disguise their shortcomings. But, first, here’s a quick look at the top models after testing.
The Winners, at a Glance
The Best Inexpensive Coffee Maker: Bonavita 8-Cup One-Touch Coffee Maker
The Bonavita 8-Cup brewer is SCA certified and does exactly what a great brewer should: it holds a high brewing temperature, extracts coffee evenly, and keeps coffee hot in its thermal carafe. (Editor’s note: When we tested this model, we paid less than $150 for it. Now, at the time of publish, the brewer’s price is about $160. Prices tend to fluctuate on Amazon, but, regardless, we do think this model is worth the extra $10.)
The Best Coffee Maker Under $100: Mr. Coffee 10-Cup Coffee Maker
This Mr. Coffee 10-cup model was the only brewer in this price range that brewed in a reasonable amount of time (the SCA recommends between 4 to 8 minutes), was easy to use, and produced well-extracted coffee.
- Brew Test One: Brew medium-dark roast coffee, to assess brew time, how well the machine does with a standard coffee available at a supermarket, and the resulting brew’s flavor.
- Brew Test Two: Brew light roast coffee, to assess brew time, how well the brewer does with a harder-to-extract bean, and the resulting brew’s flavor.
- Brew Basket Saturation: After each brew test, evaluate brew basket saturation, as an evenly extracted brew bed is a sign of a well-designed coffee maker.
- Total Dissolved Solids: Measure total dissolved solids or TDS using a refractometer, to see if it provides a baseline for how much coffee is ending up in the final cup.
- Temperature Tracking: Using a thermocouple, track the water temperature of the showerhead and the brew basket during brewing, looking to see how stable these temperatures are and at what temperature brewing occurs.
- Heat Retention: Using an instant-read thermometer, check the temperature of the coffee right after brewing and again 30 minutes and an hour later, to see how hot the carafe keeps it.
- User-Experience Evaluation: Determine how easy each coffee maker and carafe is to set up, use, and pour from.
- Ease of Cleaning: After each test, clean the coffee maker’s carafe and brew basket by hand, looking for any factors that make one machine easier to clean than another.
- Preset Functions: When necessary, try the preset functions these models offer.
Why You Should Trust Us
I’ve been in the coffee industry since 2010. My very first coffee job was as a barista at a high-volume shop where we weren’t allowed to change the grind setting on the grinder. After that, I was behind the bar in some capacity until 2019 and I continue to write about coffee and interview folks for a coffee-centric podcast. I’ve written the Serious Eats reviews of espresso machines, French presses, cold brew makers, and milk frothers.
What We Learned
Temperature Stability Was Essential
Coffee extraction is affected by temperature, as higher temperatures will extract more from coffee. To track the brewing temperature, I used a thermocouple with two probes on each machine during brewing: one attached as closely as I could to the sprayhead to measure the temperature of the water coming out, and one at the bottom of the brew bed.
I didn’t learn a whole lot from the bottom probe, and I did have some issues getting this probe exactly where I wanted it (most of the brew beds are enclosed, so once a probe was attached I couldn’t confirm exactly where the probe was or if the water displaced the probe at any time). However, from the top probe, I found out a lot about how the brewing temperature changes over time and varies from model to model. Many of the cheaper brewers started brewing with water that wasn’t hot enough (around the 170-180°F range), but that would spike towards the end of the brew. This resulted in coffee that was over-extracted and bitter. Higher-end models were able to keep the temperature consistent throughout the brewing cycle, around 195 to 205°F, producing balanced, well-extracted coffee. Our top pick, the Bonavita, got up to temperature (around 196°F) quickly, and stayed between 195-205°F during the entire brew cycle without any weird temperature spikes or deviations.
I also measured the heat retention of the carafes, taking the temperature of the coffee right after brewing, after 30 minutes, and after an hour. Most of the higher-end machines came with thermal carafes, while the cheaper ones were split between thermal carafes and glass carafes with a hotplate. I found that machines with a hotplate kept coffee hotter (and in some cases, even made coffee hotter than it was right after brewing), but at the cost of flavor. Over time, the coffee from a glass carafe on a hotplate tasted baked and bitter. Thermal carafes were able to keep coffee hot without altering its flavor profile.
Why Showerhead Design Matters
One way I like to convey coffee brewing is to think of a container full of rocks. Now, imagine you pour water over the top of the rocks. Eventually, the water will end up at the bottom of the container, but a lot of factors can affect how that water moves through the rocks.
I usually use this metaphor to explain grind size: water will move through smaller rocks (a finer grind) more slowly than bigger rocks (a coarse grind). However, it also works to explain how the showerhead of a coffee brewer functions. If you poured water from one point, directly down, only the rocks directly below that point would get wet.
A well-designed showerhead acts as a water dispersion tool, making sure that the entire brew bed is evenly wet, which is important because you want your coffee grounds to be evenly extracted. You can tell a showerhead is well-designed when, after you’re done brewing, you open the brew basket and the brew bed is flat without any noticeable craters or deep depressions.
That’s harder to achieve than it sounds. Some of the showerheads seemed narrow in design, with many of the water holes concentrated in the middle. This resulted in a brew basket that had a noticeable crater in the middle and grounds creeping up the sides of the brew bed. Because the grounds weren’t evenly saturated, the coffee was under-extracted.
Some of the showerheads were too powerful, puncturing (if you will) the top of the grounds and creating channels where water passed through too quickly and without extracting enough flavor, while the rest of the coffee was displaced and over-extracted.
Analyzing The Coffee Makers’ Features
Some of the buttons or features on these machines were incredibly helpful. For example, a “bloom” setting saturates coffee beans with a bit of hot water, releasing carbon dioxide before brewing (carbon dioxide can act as a sort-of shield around coffee beans, making it harder to extract flavor). Some aren’t that useful, but are innocuous, like the fact that some brewers allow you to pick the number of cups you’d like to brew. This was initially confusing to me, however, I realized these machines are attempting to slow down the water flow for smaller batches of coffee. Essentially, they’re decreasing how quickly the water pulses or moves through the machine to increase the contact time of the grounds and the water.
But some features seemed out of place, like they hoped to take advantage of a user’s inability to understand the basics of brewing by adding buttons that weren’t helpful. When I wrote my review of espresso machines, I noted this phenomenon—a lot of the models boasted being able to pull shots at 14, 15, and 16+ bars of pressure, which is entirely unnecessary (most espresso machines apply about 9 bars of pressure when pulling shots).
I was particularly curious about coffee makers that boasted they could brew “bolder” or “richer” coffee, which showed up on a number of the sub-$100 models, including those from Ninja, Braun, Cuisinart, and Black + Decker. I did some research online and couldn’t find anyone who had tested or written about this. I then asked my friend, Steve Rhinehart, e-commerce manager at Acaia and former brand manager at Prima Coffee Equipment, what he thought about these features. He guessed it was an issue of time and thought the brewers were extending their brew cycles so that the water would stay in contact with the grounds longer, but he wasn’t 100% sure.
So, I did a run with the Braun BrewSense using the “bolder” setting and noticed that the brew time was indeed longer (10 minutes and 46 seconds versus the nine minutes and 32 seconds it took for a standard brewing cycle). However, what I think is being interpreted as a “bolder” flavor is actually over-extraction. So yes, technically, this coffee is “stronger” because water is staying in contact with the grounds for an increased amount of time. But in this case, I’d argue strong isn’t necessarily good and suggest avoiding these types of features. There are other ways you can manipulate the strength of your coffee to deliver a tasty cup—like adjusting your coffee-to-water ratio or grinding finer, which we’ll talk about more below in the FAQ section.
The Criteria: What We Look For in a Great Inexpensive Coffee Maker
A great, budget-friendly coffee brewer should give drinkers exactly what they need: a machine that can properly extract coffee, produce an even brew bed, and keep coffee hot over a long period of time without baking it. The best brewers were able to properly heat water and maintain temperature throughout the length of the brew cycle, made a full pot of coffee in under eight minutes, had a thermal carafe, and had a straightforward, easy-to-use control panel. A good coffee maker should be a cinch to clean, too, and carafes with wide openings are better than something tapered (which requires a bottle brush to scrub).
The Best Coffee Maker for $150: Bonavita 8-Cup One-Touch Coffee Maker
What we liked: I can’t describe how beautiful it is to pull out the brew basket of a coffee brewer and see a perfectly flat bed. And the Bonavita delivers every time.
The model could not be simpler to use. There’s one button to turn the machine on, and if you hold it down for five seconds, it will activate a bloom cycle. The thermal carafe keeps coffee hot after brewing, and its pared-down design means you get everything you need to brew excellent coffee and nothing more.
When you’re looking at machines in the $150 range, it’s really a question of where your money is going. With the Bonavita, all the attention and care are in the design of the showerhead and the water heating elements. The showerhead is made to saturate all the coffee grounds evenly, producing clean and well-extracted coffee during each brew cycle. Both the dark and lighter roasted coffees tasted nuanced and fully expressed. The Bonavita also kept water above 195°F throughout the entire brew cycle without spiking and getting really hot towards the end—which did happen a lot on the other brewers.
Out of all the inexpensive brewers, the Bonavita brewed coffee the fastest by far. Along with our other pick, it was the only brewer that could meet SCA Gold Cup standards, which resulted in a well-balanced drink that had no lingering bitterness. The Bonavita is a snap to clean, too, featuring a wide-mouth top that makes scrubbing the thermal carafe simple. Its compact design also means it’ll fit easily on any countertop and take up minimal space.
What we didn’t like: The lid on the Bonavita is a little awkward and can be difficult to pour from—you have to press a button to activate the pouring lip and it has a tendency to dribble a little. The Bonavita has no extra features (like a programmable start setting), which could be a dealbreaker for some. It seems to have supply issues, too, and its price fluctuates (sometimes above $150).
- Thermal carafe: Yes
- Temperature loss after one hour: 16°F
- Average brew time: Four minutes, 56 seconds
The Best Coffee Maker Under $100: Mr. Coffee 10-Cup Coffee Maker
What we liked: The Mr. Coffee was the only other brewer in this price range that brewed a full pot under seven minutes. The brew bed, which you access via a side panel that opens like a dresser drawer, was perfectly flat and the carafe kept coffee hotter than any other brewer. The coffee tasted well extracted, albeit a little thin, but I think that could be adjusted by grinding coffee a little finer. The brewer can be programmed to make coffee at a specified time and features a timer that tells you how long coffee has been sitting in the carafe.
What we didn’t like: This isn’t the prettiest brewer to look at. It’s a little clunky and tall, and the tapered top of the brewing carafe makes it more difficult to clean.
- Thermal carafe: Yes
- Temperature loss after one hour: 6°F
- Average brew time: Four minutes, 51 seconds
- Braun BrewSense: This was the winner of the budget-friendly category in our 2018 coffee maker testing, but the glass carafe and hot plate baked the coffee and it took over eight minutes to brew. The Mr. Coffee is also about $20 cheaper.
- Braun BrewSense with Thermal Carafe: Although this brewer solves the above complaint about the standard Braun BrewSense by switching to a thermal carafe, it still took too long to brew.
- Ninja Programmable Brewer: The Ninja has a lot of features (some innocuous, some unhelpful), but the hot plate actually made the coffee hotter than it was when it was first brewed, so the coffee tasted astringent and burnt over time.
- Cuisinart Programmable Coffee Brewer: The water on this brewer got really hot and the resulting coffee tasted flat and boring. It doesn’t have a thermal carafe, so the coffee tasted baked over time.
- Hamilton Beach Programmable Front-Fill Coffee Maker: The front-fill panel was a nice feature, but the showerhead was mostly concentrated on the center of the brew bed, creating a sunken portion in the middle and leading to uneven extraction.
- BLACK+DECKER 12-Cup Thermal Coffeemaker: The coffee from this brewer tasted flat, which makes sense: the temperature of the coffee immediately after brewing was lower than any other machine, implying that the water never got quite hot enough.
What kind of coffee filters do you need for brewing?
For this review, I used two different types of coffee filters, based on the shape of the brewer: flat bottom filters and the #4 cone filters, both from Melitta. I used bleached filters, mostly because that’s what I had at home, but you can use brown, unbleached filters if you prefer. Some folks report these unbleached filters have a bit of a cardboard taste unless you pre-wet them.
While I used a paper filter in each brewer, many of the brewers came with a mesh filter. The mesh filter is reusable, but will allow more coffee oils through as you brew. Some folks like this—if you’re into French press brewing, this is a good method to get that same heavy body in the cup. A paper filter will produce a cleaner cup since it catches most of the coffee oils.
How can I keep my coffee hotter?
Invariably, at every cafe I’ve worked at, folks have asked for their coffee to be piping hot. I had a regular customer who’d take a sip and ask us to use the steam wand from the espresso machine to warm their coffee—we obviously didn’t do this because that’d be a huge health code violation.
I have two tips for keeping coffee hot. One: preheat the carafe. If you have time, run a cycle with just hot water through your brewer and allow it to heat up the machine, including the carafe. You can also heat water in, say, a kettle and then use the hot water to preheat the carafe.
Two: preheat your mug, especially if you’re drinking out of a ceramic mug. Ceramic absorbs a lot of heat, so if you pour hot coffee into a room temperature mug, it’ll bring down the temperature of your drink quickly. Ceramic also takes a bit to warm up, so I usually let the hot water sit in the mug for at least a minute, if not for the duration of the coffee brewing cycle.
How can I make stronger coffee?
Here are some ways you can make your coffee stronger:
- Adjust the ratio of coffee to water: For this review, I used a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. If you’d like a stronger cup, try a 1:15 or 1:14 ratio and see if that gives you something richer.
- Grind finer: A finer grind means that the water will move through the coffee slower, extracting more from the brew bed. Be careful with this, though: if you go too fine, the water will move really slowly and might overflow the brew bed.
- Don’t use pre-ground coffee: I’m constantly surprised by how many people mention loving a “strong brew” but use pre-ground coffee. Coffee aromatics rapidly deteriorate the moment you grind coffee, so you start to lose flavor as soon as you put beans through a grinder. If you’re buying pre-ground coffee at the grocery store, there’s no telling when that coffee was ground. Most of these beans have a “best by” date, but not a roast date. “Best by” dates could be anywhere from six months to two years after roasting.