What style have you got?… Hand crank, flat burr, conical burr, etc… After selecting the best beans available, this really is the most important item for you to consider. A basic rule of thumb is that you should spend at least ½ to 2/3 of your budget on your grinder – I’m not kidding… This isn’t just about being ‘flashy’ or careless with your money for the sake of it. Well researched and considered purchases relative to your coffee equipment (specifically grinders for this article) are absolutely essential to provide the tools you need to turn out stunning coffee. The trick is to spend enough without going overboard…
What is the importance of a coffee grinder? Why spend the money? How much money? Which type of coffee grinder?… All important questions that need to be answered – but, in order to justify any such purchase – you need a thorough understanding to allow you to make an informed choice.
Why so much emphasis on the quality of the coffee grinder?… Basically, beans that are ground to identical particle size without being heated up at all in the process, being ground only immediately before the extraction – are the perfect option. This is not achievable with any grinder on the market today. All grinders grind particles of differing sizes and all will heat the grinds very slightly and beyond. What you need to realise is that out of all the coffee grinders within the market place, some edge quite a bit closer to this aim than others – and the resulting cup quality disparity between these grinders is incredible.
So, with this knowledge of what defines a perfectly ground bean – a coffee grinder ‘target’ is identified.
I firmly believe that even your average punter will be able to tell the difference between a brew created using a $100 grinder and one created using a $2,500 grinder. “So they should!” I hear you shout (figuratively speaking as voice doesn’t travel through websites too well)… For another $2,400 – the coffee should come out as liquid gold…. Well, perhaps it does – There is always a limit to how far each person will pursue a passion – and each person’s limits are different. Everyone starts somewhere in the world of coffee. Some may fall quickly out of it, but most will either be ambitious or they may grow to become ambitious in their endeavours to improve the taste of their cup of coffee.
A quick sidetrack… I found that I fell into a rut with coffee about 4 years into my studies and practice of learning how to brew. Whilst the coffees tasted nice and each had their own nuances, none were ‘doing it’ for me anymore. Luckily at this stage, I hadn’t grown into a full coffee snob (this has since been rectified – and then some…). I was prepared to go out and try shots at different cafes (more than I am now – another story…). I went into a café called Bar 9 (owned and operated by Ian Callahan – 2008 S.A. Barista Champ – amongst other achievements). I knew who he was and figured that if I was ever going to get my coffee ‘bug’ reinvigorated, this was a likely spot.
After chatting with him for a short time, he prepared me a ristretto from a Costa Rican single origin. It truly is hard to describe how different this shot tasted to any that I had consumed before it. It was like drinking a cup of tangy acidic fruit with a coffee aftertaste. Now, admittedly this may not have been a bean that would appeal to everyone – as many people tend to like the more traditional flavours of coffee – but, it appealed to me – so much so, that I told my wife that no matter what I did with my ‘setup’ at home (refers to my machine a grinder combo) – that I couldn’t hold a candle to what I had just tasted. I informed her that we needed to upgrade and I needed to start roasting…
Apart from delving me a massive dose of ‘upgrade-itis’, this single shot of amazement had now began my roasting journey. This was due to me accepting that even if I had the best setup, I would still be hamstrung by the quality of the roasted beans I was using…
Essentially, it was my starting point – the point where coffee changed from an interest into a passion.
So, back to topic – for you as the common punter (or fussy snob as the case may be (aka champion)) to take the plunge (or at least consider taking the plunge) in upgrading your equipment – you need motivation and/or inspiration. I don’t believe that by someone simply reading an article, they will feel willing to part with thousands of dollars because they were inspired by the theatre or storytelling of said article. I think that you need to find that ‘something’ that generates an emotion within (I know this sounds like an art-house script – sorry). It could be as simple as that drinking coffee with your partner is valuable shared time together – and time worthy of investing in. It may be that you have an insatiable hunger to get the most out of every bean you try. It may just be because you do actually have cash lying around, wondering where you should spend it (this last option is actually a fairytale…).
Whatever it is – YOU are the one needing a reason beyond these words….
So, how much of a motivator can I provide you with? I can give you a moderate understanding of the principles (and I do below) – but – this is a massive subject that has been bashed to death by all and sundry on the net. Make no bones about it – this is essential to great coffee – I would rate it as vitally important (once you have quality roasted beans that is). I can save you and myself a ton of time by directing those with a true passion and scientific analysis towards great coffee to this blog/website – ‘The Titan Grinder Project’. It goes into such depth and covers the science behind justifying any such expense – and it will answer a lot of questions you may have that the scope of my article doesn’t cover…
But, for those without 3 days of reading time, i’ll try and run through the foundations below to better acquaint you with all things that grind coffee.…
I suppose, in a sentence I could phrase it like this – toilet grinders create toilet coffee. I’ve run through below a basic list of the main styles of coffee grinders that are available today (including some of their pros and cons). I’ve put them in order of preference –
Mortar and Pestle – useless.
Hand crank – Great because they generally heat the grinds very little, very poor because they do not generally grind evenly – nor fine enough quite often.
Spice grinder – (looks like a mini blender with a small receptacle and flat steel blades that spin at the bottom – like the Ninja or Nutri-Bullet) – This style I wouldn’t rate as even very average (fairly useless to be honest – use it for spices and veggie/fruit juices) – they don’t heat up the grinds too much, but grind the beans to all sorts of particle sizes – which is useless for making great coffee.
Flat Burr grinder – (most common for domestic use) – A good economical option (although you can get expensive flash ones). They do tend to heat the grinds somewhat because they traditionally have a high rpm somewhere near 1400 (this is not the case for all). They also produce not too bad results relative to grind particle size uniformity (the more flash ones can produce great results). They usually have good control over grind fineness adjustment. But, as a general rule, they do take second billing to conical burr grinders. This being said, some larger diameter flat burr sets on specific grinders can hold their head up pretty high all on their own – the Mahlkonig ek43 has made quite a bit of headway since Matt Perger used one in several recent world barista campaigns. This is great, if you have a lazy $4k to spend on one…
Conical Burr grinder – (more generally a commercial option – and usually more expensive). Although you can get some cheaper (and usually nastier) home-use types. These are generally used in commercial applications. They will generally have slower turning burrs (doesn’t heat the grinds up nearly as much) and they grind to a fairly uniform particle size (when the correct amount of continuous slight pressure is applied to the beans that are being fed into the burrs). All grinders (including conical burr types) eventually heat up though due to conduction from the motor that drives them (as well as the friction created during the coffee grinding process) – most evident if they continuously grind through large volumes of beans all at once.
I mentioned earlier in this article about being fussy relative to reducing the heating of the grinds during the grinding process earlier. The reason for this is that as soon as coffee is ground, many of the lighter finer and more volatile oils begin to evaporate and/or degrade. The more the grinds are heated, the faster this process occurs. Oils contain flavours. This means that the loss of any such oils directly affects the flavours in the end product – and we don’t want that! In more serious cases, the heat can ‘pre-cook’ the beans, greatly accelerating the oil evaporation/degradation rate – pretty well removing any chance of obtaining a fantastic end product.
You see, only when you taste a perfectly roasted, ground and extracted coffee that you being to understand that which has been escaping you to that point in life.
Another point I made earlier was about the significance of the evenness of ground coffee particle sizes that come from the grinder – If you extract a shot of coffee from the grinds with the same amount of water for the same amount of time (which is how an extraction works) – Out of the different sized particles within the puck, a tiny particle will over extract (resulting in bitter tastes), a mid sized particle will extract perfectly (sweet taste) and a larger particle will under extract (sour taste). If all particle sizes are close to the same, you have a better chance of a super sweet and easily repeatable end product – it really is that simple.
This is where grinder choice becomes so important. If you had a coffee machine worth $10,000, it will be severely hamstrung by a poor quality grinder. The coffee process truly is at the whim of the weakest link in the chain from the quality of the coffee bean, to the roast, to the grinder and then to the machine. You really do need a quality grinder to give quality results in your cup. This is true to the point where you can get better results from a better grinder/poorer machine combo than vice-versa.
Most domestic machines will have some sort of grinder package on offer. With technology, these grinders are generally on the improve (which is good). Consumers believing that these ‘off the shelf’ packages allow them to produce the best quality coffee on offer is bad. Don’t get me wrong – these consumer machines and grinders are a fantastic thing – they are making home coffee production something achievable and accessible by nearly anyone who wants to make an effort. Consumers just need to understand that any such packages / machines have a lifespan. If you feel that you want more from your coffee – do some research and make a change. Coffee is special – keep it that way. Everyone needs a passion – and when the kids are screaming, coffee becomes a pretty obvious choice…
So, you’ve got a domestic setup and are looking to expand your coffee horizons. There are literally hundreds of grinders out there – which one?… Consider what you currently use (taking into account its burr size and style). It is generally accepted that a larger diameter burr set will yield better results. Don’t get caught up buying a much more expensive grinder that shares many similar characteristics with your current grinder – a huge waste of time and money…
The majority of grinders that you receive with a domestic machine will retail for near the $200 range (some a lot more). I must admit right here that I am a fan of the Mazzer brand of grinders (just so we’re clear…). A noticeable step up from your first grinder would be to a Mazzer Major. This has the largest diameter flat burr set in the Mazzer range. It is a larger grinder – but well worth accommodating. You can get hold of one for near $1,200 brand new if you look around – or – about $500 on eBay (or similar) if you’re patient. This is the smallest upgrade step that I would consider is worth taking – otherwise, don’t bother – you’ll be wasting your money. If you’re concerned about buying second-hand – this is the great thing about purchasing commercial equipment like this – these grinders have a gutsy motor that should nearly never wear out. The only real ‘wear point’ for such a grinder are the burr sets. These should run through well over a ton of beans before you would consider replacing them (because of the wide adjustment range on the Major) – and you can get a replacement set for about $80 – and wallah, you have basically a brand new grinder.
For most, the Major will be a great destination to settle on. For me, I had to step further…. I have a Mazzer Kony (a slower rotating, larger conical burr set grinder). It is magnificent for highlighting every detail within a roasted bean – which is just what I need. I truly can enjoy coffee with this grinder and cannot see myself upgrading anytime in the near future.
So, looking beyond my fixation with Mazzer grinders (accepting there are many other good brands out there); essentially (and in summation), what’s a perfect grinder – it must grind perfectly even. It should generally turn slower so that it doesn’t heat the grinds in the process. It must be infinitely adjustable (also known as ‘step-less’) to get the grind just right for maximum flavour and duration control of your extraction. It should be quiet and quick in its operation. It should be easy to service and clean in your home. It should be relatively cheap to buy and maintain. It should not be too big or cumbersome for a home bench top application. Ideally it will be inexpensive to purchase also – but we’ve all fallen down the rabbit hole at times too Alice….
I’ll let you know when I invent it…
(Just for info – if you include any sort of link back to your website without seeking approval, your comment will end up in the spam folder. I’m chasing constructive comments please. Cheers).