CR’s take: Our highest-rated drip brewer with an insulated, thermal carafe, the Ninja Bar Brewer CF085 has plenty to recommend it. CR’s testers find that it offers superb brew performance and is very easy to use. In our member surveys, Ninja drip coffee makers received an Excellent rating for owner satisfaction. (We don’t yet have enough data to judge reliability.) This model has a full suite of features, including an unusual over-ice brew mode for making iced coffee. Ninja claims its thermal carafe will keep coffee hot for 2 hours, and the machine comes with a milk frother and a standalone French-press brewer. These features come at a price, of course; the Ninja Bar Brewer is the second most expensive model on this list.
Let’s circle back to that extra-long brew time. There are two factors that didn’t make it an automatic “no” for us. The first is that the OXO On 12-Cup is programmable. Like our experts say, grinding coffee in advance isn’t going to make the most perfect cup of coffee. But the fact that you can program the machine’s “wake-up time” to start brewing and have coffee ready when you are takes the sting out of the wait.
There’s also no way to adjust the temperature of the water on the Bonavita, or tinker with any of the other variables some of our other top picks gave access to. And that’s the other downside to this excellent machine: What you get is what you get, and if you do want to experiment with the flavor of your coffee, it will depend entirely on the beans you buy and the size you grind them to. Good thing the coffee it brews right out of the box is so dang good.
Finally, the design and extra tools that the Breville machine comes with are impeccable. It includes a large drip tray to catch spilled coffee and milk and has a sensor that lets you know when the tray is too full. It also has a compartment under the drip tray that allows you to store the extra filters the machine comes with. It includes a hefty, stainless steel milk steaming jug and a tamper for pressing the expresso grounds down. Other machines' tampers are made of flimsy plastic that left loose grounds around the sides of the portafilter, but the Breville tamper is made of thick, durable plastic and metal. It's strong enough to actually work well at compacting the grounds, plus it's perfectly sized to fit the entire circumference of the portafilter, reaching all of the grounds and not leaving loose stragglers. There's also a magnetic slot on the machine where you can house the tamper. It can be used while it's attached to the top of the machine, or taken down for more leverage—this is an impressive extra design feature, since the many parts required in making espresso can make for clutter.
A refinement of the piston machine is the pump-driven machine, which was introduced in the Faema E61 in 1961, and has become the most popular design in commercial espresso bars. Instead of using manual force, a motor-driven pump provides the force necessary for espresso brewing. Espresso machines are made to accept water directly from a cold water line supply, common in commercial installations, or from a separate tank that must be filled with water by hand. The latter is more common with lower-volume commercial installations and domestic espresso machines. Due to the required high pumping pressure and precision flow control needed, the particular type of electric pumps typically used are known as solenoid-piston pumps. These pumps are classified as a positive displacement type (general category) of pump.
“Last night was a perfect test of the single-cup concept. I had already programmed and prepped my 3 a.m. standard coffee brew, however, I still wanted a cup of coffee. I switched over to the single cup and brewed my cup, then switched back and pressed the program button to ensure it would still brew the main pot at 3 a.m. Worked like a charm!! Before, I would have had to brew the entire eight cups that were ready, toss out most of it, and set up my morning brew all over again.”
It also automatically pre-infuses the coffee, allowing the grounds to vent their CO2 and “bloom.” Remember, only half of the machines we tested had this feature, and it proved to pay off in our taste tests. The four machines we recommend all pre-infuse. Only one coffee maker without it, the Hamilton Beach, performed well at all in our taste tests — but that guy was so cheap and flimsy, part of the brew basket broke during our testing. Sorry, Hamilton Beach.
Espresso machines can be intimidating. We wanted something that did not require reading a novel-sized manual, watching a lot of YouTube videos, or reading tons of articles about espresso pulling. Yes, making espresso does require some learning for the home brewer. That's part of the fun, but the machine shouldn't be discouraging and impossible to use out of the box.
All the machines we tested came with either insulated carafes or glass pots with built-in warmers. Both have pros and cons. Glass pots are typically easier to clean because they tend to have wider mouths, and the lack of internal insulation means that glass pots will have a greater interior volume relative to its exterior volume — basically, it’s easier to get your hand or dish sponge into a glass pot. On the other hand, glass pots are more fragile and have to be heated from a base plate. In our tests, those base plates could even raise the temperature of the coffee, like with the CuisinArt, which can make coffee taste burnt.
For many of us, the daily grind can't begin until we've had that first cup of piping hot coffee—so the right brewer is at the top of the list. The most basic coffee makers make at least a decent cup, but a little more money buys conveniences such as programmability, a thermal carafe to keep coffee hot longer, settings that let you adjust brew strength, and more.