Automatic for the people

The new wave of auto drip brewers promise a perfect cup of coffee at the touch of a button, but can they deliver? We put three through their paces

Automatic drip coffee makers have been around since the 1950s but came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, when they became a mainstay of office kitchens and cafés the world over. But while these mass-produced machines promised perfectly prepared coffee at the touch of a button, the reality was that passing boiling water through cheap, dark grounds and leaving the brew to sit and stew on a scalding hot plate for hours on end could only ever result in bad coffee.

The growth of the speciality coffee industry was in part a reaction to such undrinkable concoctions, and for a couple of decades the auto drip brewer fell out of fashion. Now, however, a combination of the newfound interest in the science behind brewing and an increasing love of convenience and automation means it’s making a comeback.

Some die-hard third-wave coffee gurus have even admitted to using an auto drip brewer at home. And let’s be honest here for a moment – even for the most militant coffee snob, hand brewing with a Chemex at 6.30am is an arduous task when all you want is a caffeine hit as soon as possible. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a machine that promises to brew your favourite Kenyan while you take a shower and acclimatise to the new day?

The grandaddy of the premium auto drip brewers is the Technivorm Moccamaster. The Dutch brand, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, transformed coffee drinkers’ expectations of what automatic brewers could achieve. The hand-built machines quickly bring the water to the correct temperature without boiling it and steep the coffee grounds for the optimal time, producing consistent results.

In response to the Moccamaster’s success, other manufacturers have upped their game and produced their own high-end machines. In fact, there are now so many available we thought it was time we put some of these models to the test, specifically the Ratio Eight, Hario Smart7 and Chemex Ottomatic.

None of these coffee makers are cheap, especially compared with the price of a pour-over cone and some filter papers, but with the increased cost comes more convenience and consistency. They all look great too, and would take pride of place on any kitchen counter.

Of course, aesthetics are only a small part of the equation. As we put our three chosen brewers through their paces, we wanted to see how long it took each machine to bring the water to the correct temperature, the amount of time it then took to brew the coffee, and the quality of the final drink. We also looked how intuitive each brewer was to use, and the durability of the accessories.

When it came to the coffee itself, we chose a Guatemalan Huehuetenango from The Barn and The Department of Brewology’s collaboration and a natural Ethiopian Kocherre from Quarter Horse Coffee in Birmingham. Each coffee was brewed in equal amounts and ratios in each of the brewers (30g coffee to 500ml water).

 

Ratio Eight

You’ll need a large counter top to accommodate this big old lump, but with heft comes quality. It’s made almost entirely from metal, glass and wood, and is hand-assembled in Portland, Oregon.

We love

The speed at which the Ratio brings water up to temperature and starts brewing – in our test it took 25 seconds from touching the start button to the first drips hitting the coffee grounds, dispensing all the water in three and a half minutes. The water is flash-heated to 94°C (within SCAE guidelines) so it’s more consistent through the brew cycle. A magnet in the bottom of the carafe prevents brewing unless it’s under the spray head, which is handy but does mean you can’t use a different carafe if the provided one breaks.

We don’t love

How water can splash out of the carafe as water is dumped on to the coffee bed. Another minus point is the carafe handle – with the machine’s sturdy wooden sides and the fact that you have to tip the fully laden carafe under the spray head, there’s a risk you may knock and break it. More problematic is the fact that the machine is still awaiting CE certification to allow it to be sold in Europe and is only available from US, so you’ll need a plug adaptor (a 220v version is available). However, the machine as a whole is big and built to last, although it comes at a price with very few extras.

Max capacity 40oz (1.18 litres)

Price $495-$595, ratiocoffee.com

Hario smart

We tested the pre-production model of the Smart7, although we understand Hario is working on a Bluetooth version that can work with a smartphone app.

We love

The size, which makes it perfect for almost any kitchen. It also works with any pour-over equipment, although it comes with a standard glass V60 and serving jug. There are a number of preprogrammed settings to simplify the process, as well as four programmable modes which allow you to can tweak everything from temperature to water volume, preinfusion and pour stages.

We don’t love

The position of the water tank. The flap on the water reservoir opens towards you, so you have to reach around to fill it or twist the machine. And while the machine’s infinite programmability will excite some, it’s also the biggest barrier to the home consumer, made more tricky by an interface that isn’t the most intuitive. Once you’ve grasped the logic, however, it’s easier to navigate.

The Smart7 was also the slowest of the brewers on test. The other two flash-heat water as it’s drained from the reservoir, but this machine heats all the water in the tank whether it’s being used or not. In our tests, it took a whopping four and a half minutes for the first water to hit the coffee, and took seven minutes to brew 500ml coffee. We also found that the brewer used more water than we programmed, as our 500ml test brews came around 50ml over.

Max capacity 700ml Price tbc – see hario.co.uk

Chemex Ottomatic

 

This offering from the darling of the speciality coffee world works in a similar fashion to the Ratio Eight brewing all the water in the tank, so you’ll need to measure it first. It comes with a six-cup carafe, but can be used with a five- or eight-cup Chemex.

We love

The addition of a timer plug is a simple hack that would allow you to wake up to freshly brewed coffee in the morning. It also has a beautiful wooden-collared carafe and a heated base. Like the Ratio Eight, it brews to SCAE guidelines of 92-96°C and the water is flash-heated, which means it hits the coffee grounds around 20 seconds from cold and at a consistent temperature.

We don’t love

That the Ottomatic doesn’t perform a typical preinfusion, unlike the Ratio Eight and Hario Smart7. This means the water just pauses for a few seconds during the brew cycle rather stopping for a preinfusion, which explains how it brews quicker than the Ratio Eight. Also, although the Ottomatic is available to buy in the UK, it comes fitted with an EU mains plug, which means you’ll need to use an adaptor.

Overall, the Ottomatic looks and feels a little bit cheaper than the Ratio Eight (which, to be fair, it is) and has fewer tricks than the Hario, but this is reflected in the price.

Max capacity: 40oz (1.18 litres)

Price: £280, hasbean.co.uk