I am a coffee snob. My French press is my weapon of choice. But when I saw the Ninja Coffee Bar on sale (refurbished) for around $90 at Ollie’s and Woot, curiosity got the best of me. I had to try it out.
The Ninja Coffee Bar is … unconventional. It promises “better than a coffee house experience — at home” and delivers four different strengths: classic, rich, ice, and “special”. I decided to take advantage of the low price and run a comparison against my daily driver — a Cuisinart DGB-550BK — and against a French press.
Most coffee review sites I see focus on the high-end coffee makers like those from Technivorm. That’s fine; the Mochamaster is an outstanding piece of equipment. But I wanted to take a different approach: I wanted to see how an affordable, mainstream, everyday coffee maker holds up when presented with quality water and quality beans.
I loaded each coffee maker to the max with room-temperature bottled water. I used my normal amount of grounds in the Cuisinart and press. Because the carafe is a different size, I used Ninja’s recommended 5 scoops in theirs. Coffee beans came from one of my favorite local roasters (hint: they’re all my favorite).
The Ninja’s styling is certainly unconventional. You either love it or hate it. Between the light-up analog dial and the VFD display, it feels like being on the set of a 1980s made-for-TV sci-fi movie. And that’s not at all a bad thing! The dial has four positions to indicate how much coffee to brew. A flip-down stand (not shown) allows you to easily brew a single mug at a time. The buttons below select one of four levels of richness. I used “classic brew” for this test; the others allegedly produce stronger coffee.
The “Ice Brew” is especially interesting: fill the carafe with ice, and the coffeemaker will disable the warming pad and slowly drizzle super-concentrated coffee into the carafe. It’s not as good as overnight iced coffee, but what is?
The behavior of the Cuisinart was predictable. Aside from the built-in grinder (did I mention that the Ninja and press received the advantage of using the standalone burr grinder?), it quietly went about its business. But the Ninja roared to life and began belching steam in a manner befitting a 19th-century locomotive! The cycle began by pre-soaking the beans (more coffee makers need to do this), then holding back briefly, then making with the water. Unfortunately, the heavy dose of steam means that this absolutely, positively can not be placed underneath cupboards. Beast that it is, the Ninja needs to be free range.
Once the brew cycles were complete, the coffee was allowed to sit on the warmer for 15 minutes. Before you get out your pitchforks, remember that I said this was a real-world test. Most of us who live in the real world are going to program our coffee makers to fire up in the morning, which means the coffee will likely spend time on the warming plate. Traditionally, this hammers away at the flavor and can mangle an otherwise excellent cup of coffee. But one of the Ninja’s claims to fame is that it automatically adjusts the warming pad to mitigate this risk. I wanted to see how much of a difference this makes, so save your pitchforks for Keurig users.
Finally it was time for the showdown. Each sat in the cup for two minutes before consumption.
The verdict? Obviously, the French press ruled them all. That was expected; its sole purpose in the test was as a control.
The Cuisinart yielded an acceptable cup of joe. I know this from using the thing daily for the last seven years. It’s always produced a reliably good cup. The worst insult you could hurl at it would be to say it doesn’t stand up to the rich tones of a pourover, but then you’d be that guy who seriously just compared an automatic drip to a pourover. Don’t be that guy.
But the real point of this exercise was to put the Ninja through its paces. How would the much-hyped coffee machine perform? After ensuring a reasonable test with high-quality room-temperature water and fresh, outstanding beans, the end result was a disappointing cup of bitter coffee. This usually indicates that the temperature is too high. It’s also possible that the beans were ground too fine, but as the burr grinder was cleaned immediately before being used, this seems unlikely. Still, I’ll be putting it through its paces over the next few days. On my next batch, I’ll put my digital thermometer in the basket to find out exactly how much it’s scorching my coffee.
Unfortunately, even at $80, the Coffee Bar just isn’t worth it. It’s neat to look at, but it delivers coffee on par with something costing a fourth as much. All the extra features don’t count for much if the end product isn’t enjoyable.
If you’re looking for an above-average coffee maker, check out the SCAA’s list of certified machines. The KitchenAid KCM0801OB is among the cheapest on the list, and I can vouch for the excellent quality of the Bunn Velocity Brew. Best of all, both can be had for far less than the Coffee Bar.