The first single serve coffee maker was a human being, spooning a teaspoon of instant coffee into a cup and pouring in boiling water from a stovetop. It was not a great moment in history.
And it was a long, long time ago – 1881, in Paris, France. Alphonse Allais dried coffee beans with hot air and then crushed them into a powder with a mortar and pestle to give the world what it didn’t really ask for: Soluble coffee, ready in an instant, to tickle coffee drinkers’ palates with the burdensome flavor of axle grease.
For decades, coffee distributors attempted to improve on the process and hopefully improve the flavor. They went to work, commissioned their best teams, and came out with some new, trendy and must-have forms of instant coffee. There was fine ground, coarse ground, crystallized, freeze-dried, heat-dried, flaked, roasted, blended, filtered and vacuum-sealed, each iteration claiming to be breakthrough, revolutionary and ready to leave the others in the dust.
And for decades, coffee drinkers who bought into the whirlwind of clever marketing campaigns agreed: The new and improved instant coffee tasted somewhat better than axle grease.
Essentially, instant coffee never got a whole lot better – even though it did attract a pretty big following. The coffee companies allowed the research and development to plateau, and dropped much of their marketing. Instant coffee is still available today, but only in the jumbo box retailers with enough shelf room to store it – next to the kaleidoscope of flavors available in single-serve cups, K-cups, K-pods or pouches that are currently all the rage.
Regular coffee, ground from regular coffee beans, remains king of the coffee world. But the means of delivering piping hot coffee into cups has evolved over the decades.
The Evolution of Coffee Brewers
Biggin Pots – Siphon Pots – Espresso
Before there was Mr. Coffee, there was Mr. Biggin. As the story goes, an ingenious coffee lover named Biggin in 18th century Europe improved on the spread-bottom pots that were used to brew coffee. He conceived a device that would hold coffee grounds yet still allow water to pass through. Mr. Biggin added a filter – a sock. Let’s hope it was a new one.
His invention was commercially sold as the Biggin Pot. It wasn’t perfect. The coffee grounds had to be just the right size and amount to produce an acceptable brew of coffee that actually ended up in a mug for drinking. But, it was better than its predecessor, and in some parts of the third world, the sock-for-a-filter method is still in use today.
Not to be outdone, the French came up with the world’s first metal filter coffee pot in 1802, and a coffee pot that compressed the grounds between two metal discs in 1806. Some of these were ornate and stylish, and are collectors’ items today for their appearance more than for their role in coffee history.
Poor drainage, inconsistent coffee flavor and complicated brewing methods drove inventors to their shops, where they came up with such devices as the vacuum coffee maker (1830s). Also known as the siphon coffee maker, the device allowed heated water to rise to the top of the pot through a siphon and then mix with coffee grounds in the top half of an hourglass-shaped chamber. Some coffee aficionados prefer the siphon pot even now, even with so many modern devices available.
In 1903, Luigi Bezeera patented the world’s first espresso machine, improving on a design that had been around for the previous thirty years. The espresso machine heats water almost to the boiling point, forcing it to travel through what was called a “puck” of ground coffee, producing a very thick, strong tasting mixture that is an acquired taste.
Variations on the espresso machine are numerous, including types that heat cream and blend cream and coffee, the foundation of the now enormously popular cappuccinos and lattes.
The early coffee pots made coffee by mixing coffee grounds with boiling water and simmering, but the percolator, whose origin is attributed to a number of independent inventors in the early 19th century, took the process in a new direction.
In a percolator, the water rests in the bottom of the pot, comes to a boil – or very close to it – and rises through an aluminum tube in the center. The water then erupts out of the tube like Old Faithful and collides with the concave underside of a glass cap that splatters the water through a bed of coffee grounds. The water then returns to the bottom of the pot.
As long as the pot was acted upon by a heat source (usually a stove top), the percolation wouldrecycle repeatedly. Coffee strength was determined by how long the pot was on the stove, and how many times it would pass through the brew basket.
This was a popular method that was employed for well over a hundred years, and there are people still today who prefer a percolator to other methods.
Later improvements to the percolator included the freestanding percolator, which plugged in to an electric receptacle and provided its own heat source.
Before makers of kitchen appliances began improving on one another’s designs and giving their particular brand of coffee maker a unique name (like Mr. Coffee) all drip-method coffee makers were referred to as dripolators.
They are similar in function to percolators, but the dripolator works by admitting cold water from a plastic reservoir into a hose attached to a thin metal tube that acts as a heating chamber. The heated water moves under pressure into a spray head, and then onto the coffee grounds in a basket. The coffee passes through a filter and drips down into a glass carafe.
This resulted in a much-improved flavor, because the water only touched the coffee once during the brewing process. The dripolator quickly became the appliance of choice for coffee lovers everywhere, and became a highly sought-after commodity. There is no telling how many dripolators were packed in gift boxes with bows and ribbons and placed under Christmas trees during the height of their reign.
Joltin’ Joe Sells Joe
Mr. Coffee became the top-selling dripolator ever, thanks to the services of retired New York Yankee Joe Dimaggio, who was hired for a king’s ransom in 1973 to pitch the product in TV commercials. Dimaggio’s face and name recognition, in addition to his surprisingly suave, self-assured delivery, made television gold, and the company sold millions upon millions of Mr. Coffee machines as a result.
New Kid on the Block: The Single-Serve Coffee Machine
The dripolator – in all its variations, stylings and clever names – remains as one of the most popular coffee brewers on the market today, but it is being squeezed by some relative newcomers to the coffee maker industry.
The drip coffee maker’s biggest downfall is that while the first few cups that are poured from the carafe are smooth and flavorful, unused coffee that sits on the warming plate becomes over-strong, stale and bitter. The number of gallons of old drip-brewed coffee poured into kitchen sinks in homes and offices around the world is enormous.
The need for a quality coffee maker capable of rapidly making tasty coffee one cup at a time was the driving force behind the creation of the Keurig company and, eventually, its most famous product, the Keurig K-Cup machine, and various iterations beginning in the mid-1990s.
The Keurig K-Cup brewing system is designed to brew a single cup of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or any other hot beverage (just don’t put in a K-cup). The grounds are packed in a sealed “K-Cup” pod that has its own filter. A spray nozzle with a syringe-like tip pierces the foil seal and sends heated water through the coffee grounds and directly into the coffee drinker’s cup.
The process generally takes no more than two minutes – much quicker than brewing a whole carafe in a dripolator.
While the Keurig – so popular that just saying the name immediately identifies the product – is the most famous of the new wave of single-serve coffee makers, it does have its challengers, and they are no slouches when it comes to brewing a single hot cup of tasty coffee.
Each has some similarities with each other and can trace their heritage to the original drip-system coffee brewers, but they have a whole host of features that make them stand out. Any of them would make them good choices for a wide range of consumer depending on their preference. The features of each coffee maker have been highlighted for convenience.
The Best Single Serve Coffee Makers
These are not in order of preference, but rather represent the market’s best in single-serve coffee makers. So without further ado:
Best Feature – Can brew a whole carafe or a single cup.
Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether you want a single cup or a whole pot of coffee brewed with freshly ground coffee beans. With the K-Duo you don’t have to make a tough decision like this any more. Want a whole pot? You got it. Want a single cup of coffee? Done.
Not only does the K-Duo have Keurig’s reputation as one of the best manufacturers of coffee brewers behind it, it’s also just an excellent all-around coffee maker with a ton of notable features. Like most Keurig coffee machines, it has the strong brew option for making a bolder brew of coffee. It also has a programmable auto-brew option for those who like to “set it and forget it.”
For brewing a carafe, you have the option to brew from six to twelve cups. For a single cup of coffee, you have the option to brew from six to twelve ounces. The single-serve option can also fit up to an 8-inch tall travel coffee mug, great for those on the go.
You can also “pause and pour” if you don’t have time to wait for the whole carafe to brew and you want a fresh cup of ground coffee. The 60-ounce reservoir is also large enough to last you the whole workweek. And with its removable drip-tray, it’s an easy machine to clean.
This coffee machine is also compatible with the Keurig Gold Mesh Reusable Coffee Filter. And if you don’t want to spend money on K-cups, be sure to pick up this reusable K-cup that you can fill with your own coffee grounds.
Home & Farming Recommended K-Cup:
This is an excellent choice for a good all-around K-Cup. It’s not too expensive and has a nice well-rounded flavor that’s not too bitter. It’s also Fair Trade certified, kosher and certified organic by the USDA. You’re also helping people by buying Newman’s Own products as 100% of the profits go to charity.
Best Features – Water reservoir swivels to side or back to save counter space; Can use a wide variety of coffee pods or capsules, including K-cups
Like several of the single serve coffee makers on the list, this one uses K-Cups. However, unlike some of the others, this machine can also use several other coffee pods and capsules.
One remarkable feature of this machine is its fast boiling time. In 2-3 minutes the full tank of water is boiled and ready. If you want a quick 5 ounce cup, it only takes one minute, yes – one minute only.
The CHULUX has a one-button operation and a three-minute timer that shuts off the unit after three minutes if it is not in use. An 800-watt element provides plenty of heat for quick brewing.
It’s small and portable, and can easily be used at home or in the college dorm, office, or hotel room. Plus, it doesn’t take up much counter space. An illuminated brew switch might come in handy on those pre-dawn stumbles through the kitchen.
The built-in water tank holds 12 ounces of water and the stand can accommodate tall coffee cups, but with only a 12-ounce capacity, it might not be able to fully fill them.
Instructions for use are listed on the side of the water tank, but are hardly needed, given this unit’s simplicity of operation.
The plastics are BPA-free and the detachable accessories are dishwasher safe. To clean the water reservoir and the drip head, simply make a pot of ½ water and ½ vinegar, followed an hour or more later with a cup of plain water.
It also has one touch cleaning, so cleaning is as simple as brewing a cup of coffee.
Best Features – Filtered scoop for coffee; Winner of Good Housekeeping design award.
Hamilton Beach has been making quality kitchen appliances for decades, and has become one of the most trusted brands and has developed a quality line of single-serve coffee makers. While there are several other versions, this one represents the best value.
First off, it does not use K-Cups. It has a scoop, filtered at the bottom that allows the consumer to use ground coffee from cans or kitchen counter canisters. The coffee grounds are not transferred, but remain in the scoop during the brewing process.
Coffee strength is adjustable with a handy lever. It brews quickly, delivering eight ounces in a minute and a half, and can fill a 14 ounce travel mug (available separately) in under three minutes.
The unit has auto shut-off and easy-to-operate buttons.
The instructions contain details on how best to fill the scoop, which might indicate that some users have had less-than-desirable results. Essentially, the instruction cautions against overfilling the scoop and using coffee that has been ground too fine.
The stainless steel finish is attractive, earning the unit the 2012 Good Housekeeping Very Innovative Products Award by Good Housekeeping Research Institute. It’s also extremely easy to clean and maintain.
Best Features – Uses three K-cup sizes; 48-ounce reservoir
The Keurig K-Classic is the one most people think of when they think of the K-Cup and the Keurig. This is the “old standard” as far as single serve coffee makers go.
This classic single serve coffee maker has a 48-ounce water reservoir, meaning that you can brew up to eight cups of coffee without having to add water. When it is time to add water, the reservoir detaches from the unit and can be refilled at the kitchen sink.
Simple operation is the key, and speed is a real plus. Most brew strengths are complete in under a minute.
The drip tray can be removed to allow taller coffee cups to be filled, including travel mugs. The product display shows an insulated Keurig mug on the drip tray. It is available separately.
The unit’s keypad displays time and brew status. The Keurig Classic can be programmed to shut off after two hours of idleness.
If there’s one knock against the Keurig, it’s its tendency to develop calcium within the water delivery system. Routine maintenance can deflect this tendency for trouble-free operation.
The descaling process is similar to other single serve coffee makers. It involves dumping out the contents of the reservoir, and pouring in a cup that is ½ water and ½ vinegar and letting it cycle through as you would a cup of coffee, except there is no K-cup in place. Follow-up calls for a cup of plain water to be cycled through.
A telltale sign of calcium build-up is getting a stream of coffee that doesn’t completely fill the cup. If the scaling is particularly bad, you might get only half of what you expected.
Best Feature – Can brew a whole carafe or just one cup
This handy coffee maker captures the best of both worlds. Consumers can brew a single cup or a whole 12-cup carafe. This could be a great option for offices, where the demand for coffee diminishes after 10:00 a.m.. The first one in in the morning can make a full 12-cup carafe, and people who want refills – or first cups – after 10:00, or in the afternoon, or during those dreaded late nights at the office can use the single serve option.
Another handy feature is the programmable start time. The last one to leave the office can get the coffee maker ready for the next day with water and coffee, and set it to come on just as employees are arriving. The single serve option can also be programmed with a start time, which is great for waking up to the smell of coffee brewing. An auto-off feature takes out the “did I turn off the coffee pot?” worry.
It doesn’t use K-cups, but rather what Hamilton Beach calls “soft pods.” Soft pods are used for full carafes, and for single-serve, users can pour ground coffee directly into a filtered brew basket.
The exterior is easy-to-clean stainless steel.
6. Nespresso VertuoPlus Coffee and Espresso Machine by DeLonghi
Best Feature – Easy espresso-making
Remember, it’s espresso, not expresso. Some people get that wrong every time.
But they won’t go wrong if they get the Nespresso VertuoPlus. This little dynamo makes posh froth that any barista would be proud of.
It’s gone through a design change and is one of the more stylish models among our list of single serve coffee makers. But the beauty of this product is the way it works, using barcodes – yes, barcodes – to deliver consistent results for espresso or just regular ole’ coffee. The consumer does not have to adjust the settings for different types, sizes and strengths of the brew. The barcodes tell the machine all it needs to know.
It doesn’t use K-cups but its own capsule – hence the barcode – for a truly enjoyable brew at the touch of a button. It can brew a range of cup sizes from espresso (1.35 ounce) to double espresso (2.7 ounce) gran lungo (5 ounce), coffee (7.7 ounce) and alto (14 ounce). The machine ships with a welcome kit that includes an assortment of Vertuo capsules.
The VertuoPlus means business, too, with a 1300-watt heating element for fast brews when you’re in a hurry. The water is distributed via what they call a “centrifusion extraction,” which uses a spinning, inverted dome to blend water with ground coffee and churn up the famous foam that separates “real” coffee drinkers from wannabes.
The water tank is mounted on a swivel and can be oriented in whatever way best utilizes your kitchen counter space. It can rest to the left side of the coffee maker or swivel around to the back.
The VertuoPlus is bit high-end on the price, but for lovers of espresso and its froth, it’s a worthy investment.
Best Feature – Indicator shows how many cups remain in reservoir
Bridal registries frequently contain the brand name Cuisinart, because over the past few decades, the brand has established itself as a leader in the realm of kitchen countertop appliances. Most of Cuisinart’s fame comes from its slicing, dicing, chopping, stirring, blending whiz of a food processor. But the company’s lineup also includes toasters, toaster ovens, slow cookers, griddles, skillets, roasters and in this fine example, a single brew coffee maker.
One of the first things consumers might notice about this device is the “gas gauge” on the front with an E and an F and a needle that moves between the two. It’s not a gas gauge, of course, but an indicator of how much water remains in the reservoir. Completely full, it holds enough water for 12 5.5-ounce cups of coffee.
The user spoons ground coffee into a filtered basket and adjust the amount accordingly to achieve the preferred strength. An added benefit of most of the Cuisinart line is the charcoal filters that the water passes through before it reaches the coffee. The charcoal filter is replaceable.
Brew time and shut-off times are programmable.It has a clean cycle that operates with one button push.
Best Feature – Can brew a 12-cup carafe or 1-4 cups
It may not look like it, but this is – or rather, can be – a single cup coffee maker. Black and Decker comes to the rescue when some lonely office worker or family member cries out in anguish that they really need a cup of coffee but really don’t want to make a whole carafe.
This unit can brew an entire 12-cup carafe or as few as one cup with the same consistency in strength and flavor.
The selector level controls the brew strength and amounts in batches. The smallest batch is the 1-4 cup range.
The star of this product might very well be the carafe. It’s double-walled and vacuum sealed, and can hold coffee at the optimum temperature for hours. (There is an LCD readout on the front that indicates how long since the coffee was brewed.) Plus, it has a drip-proof pour spout and ergonomic handle.
Black and Decker is proud of its patented “Evenstream” shower head – which sounds more like it belongs in the bathroom, but is a remarkably efficient way to distribute the water through the coffee grounds, making sure that no coffee ground is left dry.
Best Feature – Brews a 12-ounce cup of coffee with one-touch start
None of this nonsense about 5 ounces being a cup of coffee! Monday morning at 6:35 requires quite a bit more than five dinky ounces of coffee. So, Hamilton Beach heard you and brings you the 12-ounce one cup pod brewer for your coffee chugging pleasure.
In keeping with the needs of a weekday morning rush, the Hamilton Beach features simple one-touch brew start and auto shut-off. The unit uses sealed coffee soft pods, or you can fill a filtered brew basket with your favorite ground coffee.
The brew basket can hold two soft pods, so if you want doubly-strong coffee, you can drop two into the basket.
One of the tidiest single serve coffee makers on our list, it sits quietly on any kitchen counter and stays out of the way.
Best Features – Portability, one-touch start, quick brew technology
This may come as close as any at being the one size fits all solution to single serve coffee maker needs. It accepts most single serve pods, including Realcups, K-cups and generic, fill-your-own K-pods.
They have upgraded the internal structure to include a wider mouth for filling the water reservoir – good for those times when you need a cup of coffee in order to make a cup of coffee. Elsewhere, this unit is lightweight, compact and unpretentious, making it a good travel companion that won’t ask, “Are we there yet?”
It will brew a 12-ounce cup of coffee in just under three minutes. While other single cup coffee makers can perform that task a little quicker, they can’t match the Aicok’s go-anywhere portability.
It has an automatic shut-off feature, a good feature for travelers who may have other things on their mind while on a long trip.
The manufacturer recommends running a cup of water through the system each morning before making the first cup of coffee. That seems a bit excessive, and compliance with that recommendation may be iffish, but that’s just one small negative in a basket full of positives.
Best Features – One of the largest reservoir coffee machines
If you’re going to consider Keurig as the gold standard among one cup coffee makers – and there’s ample reason to do so – then you have to accept that some of their models are little pricier than those of their competitors.
So it is with the Keurig K-Elite coffee maker. It’s not a bargain, but it is a great value to those who appreciate the features this beauty delivers.
First off, it’s versatile, with the ability to brew five different cup sizes, from four ounces to 12, and you can increase brew strength on any of those sizes with the strong brew button. The water reservoir is the largest of any of the coffee makers on our list.
Secondly, the water is double-filtered – once before going into the K-cup, and once before exiting the machine into the cup.
The drip tray is removable, which allows the acceptance of travel mugs and that extra tall mug your kid made for you in ceramics class.
A really nice feature is the ability of this unit to make iced coffee. The Keurig does not make ice, but when in ice coffee mode – activated by a button on the front of the console – the coffee maker selects the optimal size for the task at hand. The user simply positions a glass filled with ice on the drip tray, presses the appropriate button and the Keurig does the rest.
The console is much more than an on-and-off switchboard. It provides real data reminding the consumer of the brew status, time of day and the scheduling of maintenance such as regular descaling of calcium deposits. Doing this maintenance on a regular basis staves off a host of problems. Keurig reminds users to not overlook this practice.
The style is chic, and the dependability of this appliance is unmatched.
Best Features – Top rated single serve coffee maker by Consumer Reports
Don’t let the small size of the Nespresso fool you, this little coffee machine packs a powerful punch. Its 19 bar high pressure pump will have you brewing world class cups of coffee like a barista. It may not look like it either, but it also has a ton of features to rival even the most expensive coffee machines.
With the Nespresso capsule system, you don’t have to try very hard to brew the perfect cup of coffee. The capsules come in hermetically sealed containers and are selecting from among the most premium coffees in the world. There’s also a large variety of coffee types from single origin to ristretto to corto (for those who like a spicy cup of coffee). You can also get standard regular blends like light or dark roasts, and everything in-between.
One of the more notable features is its fast warm up time, as it only takes 25 seconds for it to reach temperature. It also automatically turns off in 9 minutes, saving energy. It’s also easy to use, with just the touch of a button you can brew either espresso or lungo. Its back light will also turn red to let you know when it’s time to fill up the reservoir again.
The compact design makes it great for putting almost anywhere in the kitchen as well. It also has a sleek look and amazing design for a coffee machine, as most machines usually look bulky and take up a lot of space.