Well this is a first... a QuickShot review from the road as it where.
Recently. I've found myself on an extended leave from my home town of Vancouver and I was stuck for my morning coffee fix. I had an espresso machine with me along with a grinder (after all, I am the original CoffeeGeek!), but I missed my other coffee fix: drip coffee. Don't get me wrong - when I'm in a fix, I'll take espresso over drip coffee any day. But when I'm faced with multiple weeks away from all my kit and the CoffeeGeek labs with dozens of machines to pick from, variety starts a' callin'.
That said, I wasn't about to go out and drop a coupla hundred (Canadian dollars) on a Capresso MT500 or a Technivorm (and I doubt I could find either "off the shelf" in Ottawa!). No, my choice of machine was something I could pick up dirt cheap: a Black and Decker "Brew n' Go" single cup coffee maker.
I actually ended up buying two of these units. I spotted one variant at a thrift store: the DCM18S version called the Brew n' Go with a "stainless steel thermal mug" (and a limited time bonus second mug). This one I picked up for the very economical price of $17.63 (about $13.21 USD) which is not a bad price when you look at the box: a brewer, a permanent filter, a thermal mug and a second thermal mug bonus. In fact, the average price for this unit in the US is about $18 with one thermal mug.
The second unit was a more plain jane version, called the Cup at a Time (model DCM-7). This one was slightly smaller, white and though it had no included mug, it did have a permanent filter. This one was $9.99 Cdn ($7.48 USD), but to be fair, it was half price at Canadian Tire. The typical US price for this model is about $15 or less.
I bought two units so I could compare and contrast them, to see if they brewed the same. Mainly it was a test of the quality control that Black and Decker's chosen manufacturer had, but it was also a case of "wow, an auto drip coffee maker for $10!" that made me buy the second unit.
My testing tools were sparse. I had a needle thermometer on my personage (the kind you use for steaming milk); a far cry from the uber-expensive Fluke thermo-meter we use in the CG labs. I did have a Solis Maestro Plus grinder to use with the machines. Other than that, I had my wits, my limited palate, and my olfactory senses to use as judge and arbiter.
I also had some quality coffee to use - I was receiving regular "care packages" from my partner Vancouver and in those packages were a couple of pounds of coffee from Intelligentsia Coffee. I was able to test the machine with La Perla from Mexico, several Nicaraguans, a very tasty Tanzanian Peaberry and even some Black Cat espresso blend, which will do in a pinch on a drip brew machine.
Out of the Box
Products like these are designed to catch the eye on the store shelf in a Walmart or Target, so it makes sense that the Black and Decker products are all shiny with happy lucky go feely goodie (heh heh) graphics. The boxes don't actually say too much other than point out the obvious about the machines - permanent filters, on switch with a safety shut off after the brew, talk about the thermal carafe on the Brew n' Go model, that kind of stuff.
As an aside, I'm amazed at how little these products sold for. Considering the Canadian Tire-bought model was $10, I can't imagine how much the importer paid for this... maybe $5, $6 per unit, and they probably sold it to Canadian Tire for $9 or $9.50. Out of that $5 or $6, the manufacturer probably got $1.50 per unit if they were lucky... and the production costs for the box and shipping the thing from Asia eats up a chunk. Looking at the box, I bet it cost as much, if not more to produce than the machine itself.
But, back to the box. The machine is well packed, with a combination of cardboard form fitters and plenty of plastic. Mind you, there's not a helluva lot to break in these machines (or so I thought). They are about as basic as you can get in a drip coffee maker.
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| Brew 'N Go Deluxe |
OProbably the most expensive version of the 1 cup models, this one came with two steel thermal cups.
| Cup at a Time |
Here is the brewer that almost killed me, with its parts.
| The Packaging |
The packaging is pretty good considering the super cheap prices.
| View inside |
A look inside the Brew 'N Go model.
I cracked open the base on the thermal carafe version (there goes my warranty) to have a gander inside. What I saw was a rather beefy thermocoil system in a half moon configuration, with a very simple cutout switch and a thermal connector for shutting off the unit when no more water flows through the machine. The build is aluminium, but it draws 120V and 800watts of power, the same draw as some serious espresso machines (like the Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica recently reviewed on this site).
| Bottom Plate |
All the info about the machine, including where it's made: China.
| Thermoblock... sorta |
The horseshoe shaped heating block. Aluminum build, all dedicated to heating water.
| Another View |
Sorry for the blown out highlights. Here's another view of the guts.
Basically, what I saw inside impressed me. This was a lot more than a buck or two of parts involved. But not many people will crack open one of these machines, so let's have a gander on what they would see. I'll focus primarily on the Brew n' Go model, since it has the thermal cup.
When you lift the main lid on the unit, you see some interesting things. Inside is a filter basket and a permanent filter (Melitta #2 North American filters can also be used). The permanent filter is a white nylon mesh and black plastic affair, and it is small.
The dispersion screen above it looks very interesting - there's a wide dispersion pattern built into the lid with 8 holes. If the water flow is adequately directed to all these holes, this is impressive: I've seen $150 coffee brewers with piss-poor dispersion patterns for the filter basket water supply.
The reservoir kind of wraps around the filter area, and while there is a mark on the wall of the reservoir for the maximum fill area, it's darned near impossible to see on the black Brew n' Go unit under any light conditions. It's marginally easier to see on the off-white Cup at a Time model. Filled up, the reservoir holds about 14 ounces of water.
The thermal cup is advertised as a stainless steel thermal mug. I hate it when manufacturers do this when it's not technically true - at least not entirely. The cup has a stainless steel outer skin, but inside, it's all plastic. It's also not a vacuum thermal cup like Nissan products are - I'm guessing (without cutting one open) that it uses a physical insulation instead of a vacuum to retain heat. If the outside surface gets hot, I'll know this for a fact.
There's little in the way of frills on this machine. There is no pause and serve feature (why would you need one if you're brewing into one cup?), and there's not even an off button. The machine has a single slide switch that activates the heating element and starts the brew. Once the brew is completed, the bare bones thermometer trips the switch off (though the front switch doesn't move, the indicator light will turn off when this happens).
With the machine fully scoped out, it was time to actually test it.
I first started using the thermal carafe version. I carefully rinsed out all the parts that would touch liquid, as instructed by the multi-language product sheet that comes with the unit, then filled one of the enclosed mugs with water and poured it into the reservoir. The instructions said use 2.5 tablespoons of coffee, which I followed to the letter. I was using very fresh coffee - Intelligentsia La Perla roasted only four days before - which would lead to a problem I'll detail below.
I plugged the machine in, and to my surprise, the indicator light was on by default. I worried initially that this machine had a faulty control because the manual said you have to push down on the slide-switch to start the brew. Turns out this is just a quirk in the design - if you unplug it, and replug it, the machine thinks "time to brew!". Once the brew is done, the light and the machine indeed turn off (while remaining plugged in). To do the next brew, you slide the switch and the light will turn on again.
Within seconds, I saw the first dribbles of brewed coffee coming out of the spout, and that raised a concern - is this thing hot enough? But I let the brew complete, which took only 3 minutes or so, and I saw the satisfying wisps of heat rising from the cup and the bottom of the brew-spout on the 1 cup machine. I also saw some things happening in the filter area but I'll get back to that.
I grabbed the cup, and woah - the outside surface was HOT!. This may be a "thermal" cup, but it's thermal retention ability is pretty limited with that kind of heat loss through the side walls. Nissan products as an example are almost always cool to the touch, even if you have actively boiling water inside (I've tested this by putting a Nissan mug with water under a steam wand, and active-boiled the contents).
Next step was the taste test... yep, the coffee was hot enough! And the brew was promising. Not as rich or well rounded as I can get out of a Capresso MT500 or a manual brewer like a Chemex or my Hario drip coffee maker, but this first taste test gave me coffee I would consider acceptable.
| Bloomin' Bad |
Any kind of fresh coffee will cause this mess. Using a paper filter minimizes it a bit.
But, (see, I'm getting to the things happening in the filter area) there were also some grounds in the coffee. Not a good sign... I lifted the lid on the brewer, and discovered a mess. A big mess.
The ground coffee had bloomed quite a bit in the brewer; so much so that many of the grounds dumped over the side into the reservoir, and even down into the filter holder area of the brewer (and thus into my cup of brewed coffee). Not a good sign at all.
My first attempt to use the white Cup at a Time model almost resulted in me dying. No kidding. I did the same clean out of the unit and plugged it in and poured water into the reservoir. I turned my back to the machine for a moment to grab coffee I had just ground. Turning back to the Cup at a Time model, I touched the counter... where there was a huge puddle of water! And yes, I did get a shock. I freaked out a bit, and once I got my senses back I got a couple of rubber and wood spatulas out of the kitchen drawer and used them to pull the plug out of the socket.
Turns out this unit's reservoir plug (at the bottom of the reservoir - where the heater is fed the reservoir water) was damaged and not connected. That meant that any water I poured into the reservoir would flow directly into the guts (and electronics) of the machine. It also meant that water would have direct contact to exposed wiring. Zaaaaap.
I returned the unit to Canadian Tire, grumbling about the poor quality control and me almost dying. They weren't overly sympathetic. Maybe I should have threatened a lawsuit :)
I finally got a working Cup at a Time model (yes, I tested it first without it being plugged in) and continued to use the Brew n' Go thermal cup model for a couple of weeks.
The bloom in the filter basket is a serious problem that can be overcome, but frankly, a better design would eliminate the problem (or you could always use super stale, old coffee, and it won't be a problem). First, I've diagnosed the permanent filter basket as being part of the problem. If you use a paper filter in the machine, there's about 15 to 20% more "space" in the filter area for coffee to sit and brew, and blooming problems are minimized. But if you use the permanent filter, one way to overcome the problem requires some hands-on work.
Basically, you start the brew and about one minute in, you lift the lid so brewing water isn't flowing into the filter any longer - it's flowing back into the reservoir. Stir the brewing coffee with a chopstick or something so the level of liquid lowers, then put the lid back down to continue the brew. Repeat this several times - peek to see how high the level of liquid is and if its touching the dispersion screen, stop the water flow, stir, then put the lid back down.
Not an elegant fix, but it helps keep grounds from flowing into the reservoir or outside of the permanent filter.
Using Melitta #1 or #2 filters (#2 is BIG for this filter basket) alleviates the problem somewhat, but I still saw grounds overflowing at times. More expensive machines have design characteristics to deal with excessive bloom - they usually have a "channel" built into the filter basket assembly to allow overflow to go into the carafe, not into the water reservoir. This inexpensive machine features no such design.
I will say this. The machine certainly brews hot enough. In fact, one side effect of my "bloom fix" above is that the last stages of the brew is too hot - hot water in the reservoir going through the heater again results in brewing water that flashes steam as it comes out of the dispersion screen for the last 30 seconds or so of the brew.
But the key here is, it does brew hot enough even if you don't have the bloom problem. There's a real lesson here. Most consumer auto drip coffee makers use the same element to heat brewing water and keep a glass carafe hot (the hot plate). Machine manufacturers try to strike a balance between getting brew water hot enough, but keeping the hot plate cool enough so that it doesn't entirely bake brewed coffee. Unfortunately, the balance never seems to work.
When a coffee brewer has a dedicated heating system for brew water (and a separate heating system for the carafe) then brewing water can be properly handled - the best brewing temperatures come from these systems that have heaters used exclusively for brewing water... even the $10 ones.
What's ironic about this is that, as far as I know, you will have to go up to a $100 machine like the KitchenAid Ultra or higher to find an auto drip with two heating systems... most Brauns, Krups, Proctor Silex and other models have one heating system that see dual use - even the uber expensive, kitted out with electronics models that will tell time for you and babysit your kids.
| Fits most cups |
The Brew 'N Go fits most cups and mugs.
When it comes to brewing I was half expecting the small amount of grinds used, when combined with the short brewing times to result in a watered down and weak cup of coffee, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality in the cup. I wouldn't call it stellar. It doesn't compete with a well made pot of press pot or a vacuum brewed coffee. But I've had much worse coffee from auto drip brewers costing seven times as much. That's saying something. This is a QuickShot review so I won't go into too much detail or analysis about why the cuppa is so good but I will offer this.
Brewing temperatures play a huge role in how balanced and refined the finished cup of coffee will be. This machine proves it. A 2.5 minute brewing time isn't nearly as much a hindrance as I thought it would be. The small volume of grinds isn't either, particularly because there is a good solid steep time in the basket. And I think the dispersion screen pattern (which I did discover works well - water flows from all the holes evenly) plays a big role in ensuring all the coffee grounds are well saturated.
A lot of good stuff from this. Especially in the cup.
I haven't talked much about actual temperatures in this article, and its because I didn't have good tools available to measure. But measure I did. I saw temperatures up to 202F in the brewing basket, which was pretty darned good.
I measured using a needle thermometer that goes to 240F. I would prep the needletherm by immersing it in water that was about 175F (recently off the boil from a kettle). When it came time to measure the brewing slurry, I'd quickly lift the lid and put the heated therm inside the filter basket and give it 10 seconds to reach its reading. At 30 seconds into a brew I was getting above 192F, and at 2 minutes into the brew I was peaking at 202F or thereabouts.
But given the inaccuracies of the needle therm, don't take these as gospel. Just take them as "close"
Lastly, the Cup at a Time model I'm happy to say didn't kill me (the replacement model) and brewed almost identical to the Brew n' Go model - and exhibited the same problems overcoming fresh coffee. Not much more to say there.
So, for years I've been saying the cheapo (less than $30) auto drip coffee makers ain't worth even considering, and now I have to eat some of those words. These two brewers, despite their flaws (and the potential for giving you a huge zap) actually brewed a decent cup of coffee.
- Temperatures were in the ballpark of being ideal
- Dedicated heating system for brew water is a huge plus - and it looks well built.
- Saturation of the grounds was complete
- Brewing time, which I thought would be a negative, turned out to be "neutral". I would like to see a longer brewing time, possibly four minutes, but you make do with what you're given.
- Thermal coffee cup does keep the coffee warm longer, but not as long as better quality thermal vacuum cups.
- The white "Cup at a Time" model is very small and would fit anywhere; the Bren n'Go model is taller but still very small
The machine has some negatives - I almost want to write these off because of the cost, but here we go:
- The machine is clearly not designed with fresh coffee (and the bloom associated with it) - grounds in the reservoir and in your cup is a real issue.
- Finding Melitta #1 cone filters is extremely hard - the #2 filter will sort of fit, but it's tight and you have to finesse it into the basket.
- The permanent filter is nice, but reduces the space in the filter area, exacerbating the bloom problem.
- QC isn't the greatest - a machine that could electrocute you is a real problem
- I said above the brewing time is okay. But a longer brewing time would a) aid in the bloom problem (slower water flow slows down overflow) and b) would extract better from the coffee.
All in all, I give a "recommended" for this brewer if you want something for your office desk or for a remote location - at the price, it's a decent piece of kit and has a distinct advantage over $50 and $70 brewers from other famous name brands - all its heat is thrown at brewing water, not keeping a carafe hot. I rate this product a 6.5 out of 10 for overall brew quality, and an 8 out of 10 for value.