Few (no?) kitchen appliances are as necessary as the drip coffee maker. Coffee makers need to do one thing: extract that sweet, sweet caffeine out of ground coffee into a drinkable cup of joe. But it's how the coffee tastes that separates a $50 coffee maker with a $300 one. Here's how two coffee makers on both ends of the spectrum compare.
The Black+Decker DLX1050B, which sells for between $35 and $50 on Amazon, and Breville's Precision Brewer, $300, do the same thing — they heat up water, drip into a brew basket filled with coffee grounds and let the extracted coffee drip into the carafe. But there's a reason why only one of those machines is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America to brew a Gold Cup-standard coffee. The Breville is able to yield a brew with a coffee-to-water ratio of 55 grams to one liter using water heated between 195°F and 205°F in four to eight minutes. Additionally, the Precision Brewer doesn't skip the bloom, a step in the brewing process in which the coffee is saturated for a set amount of time to allow the grounds to release CO2. Without blooming, the gases will cause uneven extraction, which results in off-tasting coffee.
Cheaper machines, like Black+Decker's do less: water gets hot, showers over grounds and drips through until the water runs out. There's no telling what temperature the water is heated to, though the brand mentions an "optimal brewing temperature." When we tested out a comparable Black+Decker model, we found the coffee to be over-extracted (read: very bitter), the result of brewing with water that's too hot or water that mingles with the bed of coffee grounds too long.
The Black+Decker surprisingly has a programmable function, which means you can set the device to start brewing at a specific time. That means you can wake up and have a fresh pot of coffee ready to drink (assuming you lurch out of bed with your alarm clock).
In contrast, the Precision Brewer gives consumers the ability to customize brew recipes with varying bloom durations, water flow rates, water temperatures and more. The Precision Brewer can be set to brew a "Strong" cup, presumably altering the coffee-to-water ratio, as well as an "Over Ice" option, once again altering the brew recipe to take into consideration ice dilution.
The most obvious way to distinguish a cheap coffee maker from an expensive one is through design. The Black+Decker is made from a glossy, cheap-looking black plastic. It's practically the calling card for affordable coffee makers. The $300 brewer, and other similar models, feature more solid and durable stainless steel construction that looks particularly good on the kitchen counter.
The cheaper model uses a non-insulated glass carafe that needs to be warmed by a hot plate. Constant warming like that degrades coffee quicker, and the glass allows light to further deteriorate the brew. Thermal carafes, like the one that comes with the Breville, keep coffee hotter for longer, but this upside may mean you take longer to drink the coffee, allowing the brew to oxidize.
When buying a cheap coffee maker, you run the risk of dealing with drippy brew baskets, shoddy designs and overly bitter cups. If coffee is nothing more than a utility to get your body going for the day, then you may be fine with a cheap coffee maker.
On the other hand, premium coffee makers, the Breville Precision Brewer, are made for folks who are buying whole bean coffee and grinding it themselves. Plus, it's backed by the SCAA for nailing the Gold Cup standard.