Our Top Picks: Coffee Makers Under $150 That We Put to the Test
Our recommended choice is the Bonavita 8-Cup One-Touch Coffee Maker. This exceptional device not only offers user-friendly operation but also consistently produces outstanding coffee. You may be wondering if $150 is truly affordable. We believe it is a reasonable price for a device that you will utilize on a daily basis. Furthermore, it is significantly less expensive compared to other home brewers that can cost over $400. However, if the price is not feasible for you, we also recommend the Mr. Coffee 10-Cup Coffee Maker. It is priced at approximately and includes a thermal carafe.
As someone who has worked in the specialty coffee industry since 2010, primarily as a former barista, my routine used to consist of ensuring espresso and batch brewed coffee were precisely calibrated to satisfy customers. I would begin by pouring myself five ounces of coffee, replenishing my cup with each fresh batch.
However, my current situation as a remote worker has significantly altered my needs. I now only brew coffee once in the morning and no longer have the luxury of fine-tuning my recipe throughout the day. Therefore, I require a coffee maker that consistently delivers a satisfying cup without the need for constant adjustments. Finding such a brewer at an affordable price point can be quite challenging.
While Serious Eats last assessed and evaluated coffee brewers in 2018, it is important to acknowledge that coffee technology has evolved significantly in the past four years. As a result, we are re-evaluating coffee makers, including familiar favorites, updated versions of previously tested machines, and entirely new models. This review is divided into two main sections: the finest automatic drip coffee makers for those with a more generous budget, and the top models available for $150 or less.
Although the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) only includes one brewer under $150 on their list of recommended machines, there are still several outstanding options in the more affordable range. However, it is worth noting that there are also many subpar brewers available. In this discussion, I will specifically address what features to seek in a cost-effective brewer and how inferior models attempt to mask their deficiencies. But first, here’s a brief overview of the top models following our rigorous testing:
The Bonavita 8-Cup brewer holds the prestigious SCA certification and fulfills all the criteria of a fantastic coffee maker. It maintains a high brewing temperature, ensures even extraction of the coffee, and keeps the brewed coffee hot in its thermal carafe. (Editor's note: When we initially evaluated this model, we paid $150 for it. However, at the time of this update, the brewer's price has risen to approximately $190.)"
The Mr. Coffee 10-cup model in this price range proved to be a stellar brewer, satisfying the SCA's recommended brewing time of 4 to 8 minutes. Its user-friendly design and ability to produce excellently-extracted coffee set it apart from the competition.
To conduct our comprehensive evaluation, we devised several brew tests. In Brew Test One, we brewed a medium-dark roast coffee to assess the machine's brew time, its performance with a standard supermarket coffee, and the resulting flavor. Brew Test Two involved brewing a light roast coffee to gauge brew time, the machine's capability with a harder-to-extract bean, and the resulting flavor. After each brew test, we meticulously evaluated brew basket saturation to determine the quality of the brew bed extraction, an indicator of a well-crafted coffee maker. To measure the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the coffee, we utilized a refractometer, a tool that allows us to ascertain the amount of coffee ending up in the final cup. Employing a thermocouple, we tracked the water temperature of both the showerhead and the brew basket during the brewing process, focusing on the stability and temperature range. Additionally, we used an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the brewed coffee immediately after brewing, as well as after 30 minutes and an hour, to assess the heat retention of the carafe.
A crucial aspect of our evaluation was the user experience. We meticulously assessed the ease of setup, usage, and pouring for each coffee maker and carafe. Additionally, we gauged the ease of cleaning, analyzing factors that made one machine more convenient to clean than another. We also explored the preset functions that some of the models offered when necessary.
For perspective, I have been involved in the coffee industry since 2010. My initial foray into the world of coffee was as a barista at a high-volume shop where we were prohibited from altering the grinder's grind setting. I have since been involved in various capacities behind the bar until 2019, and I currently engage in coffee-related writing and conducting interviews for a coffee-centric podcast. I have authored Serious Eats reviews on espresso machines, French presses, cold brew makers, and milk frothers.
In monitoring the brewing temperature, I utilized thermocouples to track the temperature of the brew basket and the water exiting the machine's showerhead. Temperature plays a vital role in coffee extraction, with higher temperatures resulting in greater extraction. During brewing, I employed a thermocouple with two probes on each machine, attaching one probe as close as possible to the sprayhead to measure the water's temperature and another at the bottom of the brew bed.
While the bottom probe did not yield significant findings, I encountered challenges in precisely positioning the probe as most brew beds are enclosed. Therefore, I could not confirm the probe's exact location or if the water displaced it at any point. However, the top probe provided valuable insights into how the brewing temperature fluctuated over time and varied between models. Many of the lower-priced brewers initiated brewing with insufficiently hot water (around 170-180°F), but experienced a temperature spike towards the end of the brewing process. This inevitably resulted in over-extracted, bitter coffee. On the contrary, premium models excelled at maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the brewing cycle, typically within the range of 195 to 205°F. As a result, these models produced a delicately balanced, well-extracted coffee. Among our top choices, the Bonavita model swiftly reached its optimal temperature (around 196°F) and sustained it between 195-205°F throughout the entire brew cycle without any erratic temperature fluctuations or deviations.
Thermal carafes excel at maintaining a steaming hot temperature for coffee, in contrast to glass plate coffee makers that have a tendency to "cook" the coffee, resulting in a charred flavor experience.
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
I also performed an evaluation of the heat retention abilities of the carafes by measuring the temperature of the coffee immediately after brewing, after 30 minutes, and after an hour. Majority of the high-end machines were equipped with thermal carafes, whereas the lower-priced ones were divided between thermal carafes and glass carafes with a hotplate. What I discovered was that machines with a hotplate kept the coffee at a higher temperature (and in some cases, even made it hotter than its initial brew), but at the expense of taste. Over time, the coffee from a glass carafe on a hotplate developed a baked and bitter flavor. On the other hand, thermal carafes were capable of maintaining the hotness of the coffee without altering its flavor profile.
One method that I find effective in illustrating the process of coffee brewing is to envision a container filled with rocks. Now, picture pouring water over the rocks. Eventually, the water will find its way to the bottom of the container, but multiple factors influence how the water permeates through the rocks.
This metaphor is particularly useful in explaining grind size: water will trickle through smaller rocks (finer grind) at a slower pace than larger rocks (coarse grind). However, it can also be applied to understanding the functionality of a coffee brewer's showerhead. If you were to pour water from a single point, directly downward, only the rocks directly beneath that point would become soaked.
A properly designed showerhead acts as a tool for even water dispersion, ensuring that the entire brew bed receives equal moisture. This is crucial because you want the coffee grounds to be uniformly extracted. An indicator of a well-designed showerhead is a flat brew bed with no noticeable indentations or depressions when you open the brew basket after brewing.
Achieving this is more challenging than it may seem. Some showerheads have a narrow design, with most of the water holes concentrated in the center. As a result, the brew bed develops a prominent depression in the middle, and the grounds migrate towards the sides of the bed. Because the grounds are not evenly saturated, the coffee ends up being under-extracted.
On the other hand, some showerheads exert excessive force, piercing the top layer of grounds and creating channels through which water flows too rapidly, failing to extract sufficient flavor. Meanwhile, the remaining coffee becomes over-extracted and loses its balance.
Certain buttons or features on these machines prove to be remarkably beneficial. For instance, a "bloom" setting infuses the coffee beans with a small amount of hot water before brewing, allowing the release of carbon dioxide (which surrounds the coffee beans like a shield, making it more challenging to extract flavor). Other features are less impactful but harmless, such as the option to select the desired number of cups to brew. Initially, I found this confusing, but I later understood that these machines were aiming to slow down the water flow for smaller batches of coffee. Essentially, they decrease the speed at which the water pulses through the machine to increase the contact time between the grounds and the water.
However, some features seemed out of place, as if they were attempting to exploit users who may not comprehend the fundamentals of brewing by introducing unnecessary buttons. I encountered a similar phenomenon when reviewing espresso machines, where many models boasted the ability to pull shots at 14, 15, or 16 bars of pressure, despite 9 bars being the standard for most espresso machines.
I was particularly intrigued by coffee makers that claimed to brew "bolder" or "richer" coffee, a common feature on various models priced below $100, including those from Ninja, Braun, Cuisinart, and Black and Decker. With no existing reviews or information available online, I sought the opinion of my friend, Steve Rhinehart, e-commerce manager at Acaia and former brand manager at Prima Coffee Equipment. His hypothesis was that these features revolved around brewing time, as he believed the brewers extended their brew cycles to ensure prolonged contact between the water and grounds, although he couldn't be completely certain.
After conducting an experiment with the Braun BrewSense using the "bolder" option, I observed that the brewing time was indeed longer. It took 10 minutes and 46 seconds compared to the standard brewing cycle of nine minutes and 32 seconds. However, what may be perceived as a "bolder" flavor is actually excessive extraction. Technically, this coffee may be considered "stronger" due to the extended contact between water and grounds. But in this case, I would argue that strength does not necessarily equate to quality, and I would recommend avoiding these features. There are alternative ways to manipulate the strength of your coffee that can result in a delicious cup, such as adjusting the ratio of coffee to water or grinding the beans finer, which will be discussed further in the FAQ section.
In order for a coffee brewer to be considered great and affordable, it should meet certain criteria. Firstly, it should be capable of properly extracting coffee, providing an even brew bed, and keeping the coffee hot without overheating it. The best brewers are able to effectively heat water and maintain the temperature throughout the brewing process. Additionally, they should be able to make a full pot of coffee in less than eight minutes, have a thermal carafe, and feature an intuitive and user-friendly control panel. Ease of cleaning is also a crucial factor, with carafes that have wide openings being preferable to those with a tapered design that requires a bottle brush for scrubbing.
Things we liked:
Words cannot express the satisfaction of removing the brew basket from the coffee brewer and discovering a perfectly level bed of coffee grounds. The Bonavita consistently delivers this experience.
The model is incredibly straightforward to use, with only one button for powering on the machine. Holding down the button for five seconds activates a bloom cycle. The thermal carafe effectively keeps the coffee hot after brewing, and the minimalist design provides everything necessary for brewing excellent coffee, without any unnecessary frills.
When considering coffee makers in the $150 price range, the focus should be on where your money is being invested. With the Bonavita, the greatest attention and care have been given to the design of the showerhead and the water heating elements. The showerhead ensures the even saturation of all the coffee grounds, resulting in a clean and well-extracted brew each time. Both dark and lightly roasted coffees exhibited nuanced and fully developed flavors. Furthermore, the Bonavita maintained the water temperature above 195°F consistently throughout the brewing cycle, avoiding sudden spikes towards the end, which was a common issue with other brewers.
Out of all the affordable coffee brewers, the Bonavita was by far the fastest at brewing coffee. Along with our other recommended choice, it is the only brewer that meets SCA Gold Cup standards. This leads to a well-balanced cup of coffee without any lingering bitterness. The Bonavita is also remarkably easy to clean, thanks to its wide-mouth top that simplifies the process of scrubbing the thermal carafe. Additionally, its compact design ensures it can fit on any countertop while taking up minimal space.
Things we didn't like:
The lid on the Bonavita can be somewhat cumbersome and pouring from it can be challenging. You have to press a button to activate the pouring lip, which often results in dribbling. The Bonavita lacks additional features, such as a programmable start setting, which may be a dealbreaker for some. It also seems to have availability issues, with its price fluctuating, sometimes exceeding $150.
Current price: $150
- Thermal carafe: Yes
- Temperature decrease after one hour: 16°F
- Average brewing time: 4 minutes, 56 seconds
- Capacity: 8 cups
- SCA certified: Yes
- Programmable: No
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
Our Favorite Features: The Mr. Coffee emerged as the only other coffee maker in this price range capable of brewing a full pot in under seven minutes. The brew bed, conveniently accessible through a side panel that opens like a dresser drawer, remained uniformly flat, while the carafe successfully retained the heat of the coffee better than any other brewer. Although the flavor of the coffee was well-extracted, it did have a slightly watery quality, which could potentially be remedied by adjusting the fineness of the coffee grind. Additionally, the brewer is equipped with the option to schedule coffee brewing at a specific time and a timer to track how long the coffee has been sitting in the carafe.
What Didn't Impress Us: In terms of aesthetics, the Mr. Coffee falls short, as it appears somewhat bulky and tall. Cleaning the tapered top of the brewing carafe can also be more cumbersome.
- Thermal carafe: Yes
- Temperature decrease after one hour: 6°F
- Average brewing time: 4 minutes, 51 seconds
- Capacity: 10 cups
- SCA certified: No
- Programmable: Yes
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
- Braun BrewSense: This coffee maker was declared the winner in the budget-friendly category of our 2018 coffee maker testing. However, its glass carafe and hot plate tended to overheat the coffee, resulting in a brewing time of over eight minutes. The Mr. Coffee is priced approximately $20 lower than the Braun BrewSense.
- Braun BrewSense with Thermal Carafe: While this brewer addresses the previously mentioned issue with the standard Braun BrewSense by utilizing a thermal carafe, it still suffers from a lengthy brewing time.
- Ninja Programmable Brewer: The Ninja boasts numerous features, some more inconspicuous than others. Unfortunately, the hot plate actually increased the temperature of the coffee over time, resulting in a burnt and bitter taste.
- Cuisinart Programmable Coffee Brewer: The water temperature produced by this brewer became excessively hot, leading to a lackluster and uninspiring coffee flavor. Additionally, its absence of a thermal carafe caused the coffee to become excessively heated over time.
BLACK DECKER 12-Cup Thermal Coffeemaker: The flavor of the coffee produced by this machine was lacking depth, which is not surprising given that the temperature of the coffee immediately after brewing is lower compared to other machines. This suggests that the water never reaches the optimal temperature.
To assess these coffee makers, I utilized two different types of coffee filters based on the shape of each brewer: flat bottom filters and the #4 cone filters by Melitta. I personally used bleached filters because they were readily available, but if you prefer, you can opt for unbleached, brown filters. However, it should be noted that some people find that unbleached filters have a somewhat cardboard-like taste unless they are pre-wetted.
While I utilized a paper filter for each brewer, many of them also came with a mesh filter. The mesh filter is reusable but allows more coffee oils to pass through during brewing. This may be desirable for those who enjoy a heavy body similar to that of a French press. Conversely, a paper filter will produce a cleaner cup of coffee as it captures the majority of the coffee oils.
Without fail, customers at every cafe where I have worked have requested their coffee to be extremely hot. I once had a regular customer who would take a sip and then request that we use the steam wand from the espresso machine to warm up their coffee. Needless to say, we did not comply as this would pose a significant violation of health codes.
I have two recommendations for maintaining the temperature of your coffee. First, preheat the carafe. If you have the time, run a cycle with hot water only through your brewer to heat up the machine, including the carafe. Alternatively, you can heat water in a kettle and then use the hot water to preheat the carafe.
Second, preheat your mug, especially if you are using a ceramic mug. Ceramic absorbs a substantial amount of heat, so pouring hot coffee into a room temperature mug will rapidly decrease the temperature of your drink. Additionally, ceramic takes time to warm up, so I suggest allowing the hot water to sit in the mug for at least a minute, if not for the entire duration of the coffee brewing cycle.
Alternatively, you may want to consider reading my comprehensive review of temperature control mugs if you are in search of a mug that can keep your coffee hot for an extended period of time.
Here are some methods to make your coffee stronger:
- Adjust the coffee to water ratio: In my review, I used a ratio of 1:16, but if you desire a stronger cup, you can try ratios such as 1:15 or 1:14 to achieve a richer flavor.
- Grind the coffee finer: A finer grind slows down the flow of water, allowing for a more thorough extraction of flavors from the coffee grounds. However, be cautious not to make the grind too fine, as it may lead to a slow flow and potential overflow.
- Avoid pre-ground coffee: It surprises me how many individuals claim to enjoy a "strong brew" while using pre-ground coffee. The aroma and flavors of coffee rapidly diminish once it is ground, so you begin losing its qualities immediately after grinding. When purchasing pre-ground coffee from a grocery store, it is difficult to determine when the coffee was actually ground. While there may be a "best by" date printed on the packaging, it does not reveal the roast date, which can range from six months to two years prior.
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