Ninja Coffee Bar review: Ninja coffee maker offers many ways to brew great coffee at an agreeable price
The Ninja brand of kitchen blenders is known for packing in features at a relatively low price. Euro-pro, the company behind Ninja, hopes to bring the same formula to drip coffee brewers. Its new $140 Ninja Coffee Bar sticks to this proven strategy. Hitting US shores first but with future plans for the UK market and costing much less than its gourmet competition, the machine still offers a ton of useful brewing modes plus the flexibility to handle various drink sizes at the flip of a switch.
Of course the Ninja Coffee Bar isn't flawless. Its lightweight plastic design feels cheap, and the brewer tends to overextract its grounds. That said, the sheer number of capabilities the Coffee Bar brings to the table goes a long way to offset its shortcomings. This is especially true if you seek a coffee maker that can tackle a variety of brewing styles, and for less than other premium drip products.
Molded from black plastic festooned with ridges, curves and highlights stamped in thin stainless steel, the Ninja Coffee Bar has a decidedly mass-market feel. Compared to sleek, stylish drip brewers from Technivorm and Ratio , this machine looks clunky. Hand-built from opulent materials such as wood, blown glass, and metal those pricey products also possess a sense of timeless durability which the Ninja frankly lacks. Of course the Ratio costs around $500. Still, I prefer the Ninja Coffee Bar's busy aesthetic to the Bunn Velocity Brew BT , which is clad in a spartan plastic shell.
On the other hand, standing 14.75 inches tall at 9.5 inches wide and 8.75 inches deep, the Coffee Bar is large and will certainly eat up lots of kitchen countertop space. The left side of the machine consists of a big filter basket which accepts standard No. 4 cone paper filters. Sitting below this is a glass carafe that in turn rests on a circular hot plate.
Positioned on the right side of the Coffee Bar is its cylindrical water tank. The tank walls are sculpted from clear plastic and equipped with indented handholds and distinctive horizontal ridges. This makes the removable reservoir a cinch to grip as well.Twisting the tank counterclockwise releases it from the coffeemaker while reversing the motion locks it into place. A half-circle lid on top of the reservoir flips open and reveals a wide mouth for easy filling.
Underneath the tank you'll find the Coffee Bar's long control panel. Aside from a digital clock and controls to operate programmable brewing functions, the panel houses buttons and dials to select multiple styles of drip java making. Additionally you'll find settings to adjust coffee brewing to the size of your intended coffee container (more on this topic later). There's a handy "drip stop" light here as well which illuminates when you flip a matching switch on the filter basket.
A most flexible brewer
In a similar approach to Breville's YouBrew machine, the Ninja Coffee Bar offers multiple brewing modes designed to suit your personal tastes and the style of beverage you prefer. For instance hitting a "classic brew" button tells the machine to create a drink with, "smooth and balanced flavor" or in other words basic drip.
Likewise the product manual promises that a key labeled "rich brew" will yield java that's "richer than classic brew but still smooth." The idea here is coffee that has enough flavor to stand up to milk, sugar, and other condiments.
The most potent option the Coffee Bar provides is a "specialty brew" mode which whips up concentrated coffee liquid that's made to form the building blocks of espresso-based specialty beverages like cappuccinos, flat whites and lattes. To that end, bundled with the Coffee Bar is a frother accessory built to manually aerate its contents into milk foam.
When the weather gets too hot to handle, the Ninja has a dedicated "over ice brew" function as well. Essentially you fill up the Coffee Bar's carafe to the brim with large ice cubes, add grounds and water as you would normally, and the machine will take care of the rest.
Coffee size and water smarts
Another boon to the Ninja Coffee bar's flexibility is its ability to control how much water it uses no matter what brewing mode you decide to activate. Indeed, a prominent knob in the center of the control panel allows you to choose between four coffee volume settings. These range from the standard full carafe (38 ounces), half carafe (19 ounces), down to travel mugs (14 ounces), and a single coffee cup (9.5 ounces).
Keep in mind that these volumes are what you can expect using "classic brew" mode. Moving to "rich brew" mode drops the amount of final brew liquid down a bit (35.5, 17.8, 13.2 and 8.8 ounces, respectively). The most concentrated "specialty brew" setting will yield drastically less liquid, between 10, 5, 4, and 3.1 ounces across the same spectrum of container size settings.
Classifying the information as a sensitive trade secret, Euro-Pro representatives wouldn't outline exactly how each of the Ninja Coffee Bar's brewing modes differ from each other. After putting the coffee maker through CNET Labs testing, however, I have a good idea what's inside the gadget's special sauce.
To eliminate as many variables as possible, I used the same full carafe setting to measure the results of all of the various brewing modes. And as instructed by the manual, I also stuck with an identical amount of ground coffee (2.3 ounces, medium grind of Costco House Blend) which is what I use as my default. Additionally for each test I filled the Coffee Bar's tank with 42 ounces of water. Keep in mind this is slightly above the maximum 38 ounces the machine automatically pulls during its "classic brew" mode..
After kicking the machine into "classic brew," the Coffee Bar's heating element fired up and within about 20 seconds very hot water began to drip over the coffee grounds. This continued for another 15 seconds or so then halted. The pause is by design and is in fact the Ninja's preinfusion action meant to saturate its grounds before the full brew cycle activates.
Next a steady flow of water rained down over the filter's contents. but I'd argue not quite fast enough.Thermocouple readings within the filter basket consistently recorded a slower than ideal temperature rise. Indeed no matter which brewing mode I selected, the temperature of the Coffee Bar's grounds didn't reach the magic 200 degrees Fahrenheit until well after the 3-minute mark.
According to the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), to create wonderful coffee, brewing temp should hit at least 197.6 degrees Fahrenheit within the first minute and not exceed 204.8 degrees. The Ninja's balance was off here too as the coffeemaker overcompensated by cranking up its brewing temperature to a scalding average of 208 degrees F (sometimes as high as 209 degrees F) by the end of the brewing process.
Still the Coffee Bar proved nimble enough, typically completing its brew cycle in about 6 minutes and 30 seconds.That's inside the SCAA guideline of 4 to 8 minutes of total brewing time.
Refractometer readings were in line with the Ninja's wild performance. "Classic brew" coffee I made hovered between TDS (total dissolved solids) percentages of 1.9 and 2 percent. That's much higher than the ideal TDS range of 1.15 and 1.35 percent and translates to a high extraction percentage of 30 percent (given a brewing water volume of 38 ounces). My tastebuds confirmed the data as "classic brew" coffee I sipped was strong, rich, with lots of deep flavor but backed up by a dry and bitter finish.
I preferred the coffee I made with the Ninja's "rich brew" function, which uses slightly less water (35.5 ounces). Due to the lower water volume, pots of "rich brew" still had an identical TDS percentage (1.9 to 2 percent) but a lower average extraction of 26.7 percent. It may not sound like much, but I found this brew much more drinkable with a richer flavor especially when I added milk.
To be completely fair when I brewed a pot of premium Henie Brothers Ethiopia Sidama beans in the Ninja, the result was spectacular. The machine was able to coax an amazing amount of berry brightness and sweet chocolate notes from this light roast (1.6 TDS percent). I suspect the Coffee Bar's high ultimate brew temperature is responsible.
Another pleasant surprise were my results taking the Coffee Bar's "specialty brew" mode for a spin. Pulling 10 ounces of water from the reservoir, java I created had a very high TDS of 4.7 percent. When accounting for the ratio of water to grounds, however, this translates to a low extraction percentage of 13.3 percent.
Regardless, when I poured in hot milk foam courtesy of the bundled milk frother (a heretical, microwaveable, and manual aeration gadget I know) I was treated to the Coffee Bar's best beverage yet. Powerful, concentrated, but silky smooth, my attempt at conjuring a flat white espresso style concoction was astonishingly tasty.
I even enjoyed the Coffee Bar's "over ice brew" setting which brews half the volume of joe, but into its glass pitcher you pack with ice cubes. With just a few cubes unmelted after brewing, I measured my iced coffee with a TDS percentage of 1.6. While lacking the sweetness of true cold brew, the dense cold coffee was still highly drinkable.
The Ninja Coffee Bar I tested (model CF080) came equipped with a hot plate for its glass carafe, too, something of a rarity in premium coffee makers. Designed to keep its contents hot for 2 hours without scorching them, I can confirm that coffee in the carafe stayed between 188.2 and 177.4 degrees (F) for 2 hours after brewing. Beyond that the hot plate shuts off and within a mere 30 minutes coffee in the carafe dropped below 150 degrees (what I consider the minimum temp for hot java).
After spending lots of quality time with the $140 Ninja Coffee Bar, I admit I'm impressed. The sheer number of options and brewing modes the coffeemaker offers is remarkable especially considering its reasonable price. In fact I can't think of any other true coffee brewer, that can serve tailormade drinks from cups all the way up to full carafes. Throw in the ability to whip up convincing espresso-based drinks and the Coffee Bar starts to have undeniable appeal.
Even so, the appliance's tendency to over extract its grounds is a huge deal breaker for those hunting for sheer coffee brewing prowess. To satisfy this urge you'll have to either settle for the no-frills Bunn Velocity Brew BT (available for as low as $130) or cough up the extra $50 for the superior $190 Bonavita BV1900TS .