Any grinder is better than having your coffee pre-ground at
the store. Pre-grinding is just a way of ensuring you get tasteless, stale coffee. This means that whether you buy low or high priced coffee, you’re losing out on about 40% of the taste either way – which means you’re overpaying by about 40%! Perhaps the earliest form of grinding anything, whether it be spices or coffee, was the simple mortar and pestle approach.
The item to be ground – or crushed as it were – was placed in the
bottom of a bowl, and the blunt end of a stick was used to crush
said item along the bowl’s bottom and sides. Following this –
and history tends to lead us down numerous paths – mechanical
means replaced the mortar and pestle. Manually operated, the
coffee (or, again, spice, wheat, corn… whatever) was placed
between a stationary and a moving disc. The movement of the one
disc atop the other created a grinding force. This is also known
as milling; a term we carry into the present.
Milling has become very efficient with the use of electrical
motors as opposed to horses, water, steam, or human-power. And
milling, as a process, is as common to the agricultural industry
as it is to coffee.
To understand the benefit of milling coffee, let us first compare it to another popular grinding technique, the blade-style coffee grinder. Available in practically every house wares store in the world, the blade-style grinder uses a small, universal electrical motor to spin two metal blades at very high speeds. When in contact with the coffee beans, the blades chop and crush the bean’s structure. Akin to the mortar and pestle for not creating a uniform grind, this method is quick and inexpensive. Many models of this type can be had for less than $20 US.
A step up, and the primary focus of this article, is the burr
style, or milling style coffee grinder. Like the wheat or corn
grinder, and essentially identical to commercial,
industrial-sized grinders, the burr grinder for today’s consumer
is available in a myriad of colors, features, materials, and
Why a burr grinder?
As mentioned above, the blade variant of coffee grinders allows
a varying particle size from the resultant grind. The leading
reason for the use of a burr grinder is the ability to produce a
uniform grind of the beans. A uniform grind is important for a
few different reasons. First, it provides an even surface area
for extraction during whatever brew process you may wish to use.
Second, for espresso, the uniform grind allows for even wetting
and even packing of the grounds.
Let us return above. An evenly ground coffee will provide for an even
extraction of the oils from the coffee. Ill-proportioned grind
will cause some of the coffee to over-extract, and some to
Over-extracted coffee will taste bitter and
Under-extracted will taste weak and thin.
Burr grinders, ideally and theoretically, pass an incoming bean
under (or in between) its burrs once. Whether it be for one
revolution or two, the bean, as it finishes its pass, is
completely crushed into identically-sized pieces. Blade-style
and mortar and pestle re-grind the coffee, which provides the
inconsistency mentioned above.
Make sure you’re buying and roasting quality coffee beans (you often get what you pay for), or your investment in a grinder will be moot. Whether it’s a quality single origin coffee from Honduras, Hawaii or Ethiopia or a blend from your favorite coffee roaster, grinding yourself goes a long way.
The Big Debate – Flat-Plate Burr Grinders vs. Conical Burr Grinders
Burr grinders are distinct by two forms. The first style has the
burrs that are plate-shaped and lie atop each other. In the
second model, the burrs are shaped like two mating cones; the
grinding teeth facing toward each burr set. The debate lies with
life expectancy of the burrs, grind consistency, and ease of
cleaning. To begin with, both variations are easy to clean so
long as the manufacturer designed the grinder to allow one of
the two burr sets to be removed. To my knowledge, every
manufacturer has done so. It is up to the owner to find the
appropriate cleaning tool used to get into the teeth’s grooves.
Incidentally, a stiff bristled brush like that of a toothbrush
works well. The debate flourishes here: does a conical burr-set
wear more but provide a greater grind consistency and slower
operating speed (due to prolonged contact between bean and
burr), or does the flat-plate burr-set provide greater
consistency and life because of its ability to operate at faster
speeds? You decide. There are arguments for and against both
parties. All in all, to the average consumer, this argument is
like the blowing of the wind. Meaningless.
You get what you pay for
I mentioned this above. And it is true, especially when you
figure in other factors to your potential purchase. These
factors are as follows:
- Does the machine come with a warranty? If so, how many years?
- May I try the machine first before committing to a purchase?
- Is the machine too loud?
- Is the machine easy to clean up? Does its spill or throw ground
coffee all over the place?
- Is there service available in my area? If so, how much extra and
how easy is it to obtain?
- Is the machine repairable by myself or a local appliance
Keep all of these questions in mind when and after you go
shopping. You’ll find distinct differences between each and
every model mentioned above. It is true that the higher you go,
the greater the quality of the machine – both in materials used
and end product. Consistency is still very much a driving
argument and consistency is best achieved when higher-quality
components and material are used.
These are the biggest questions you need to keep on your mind:
How much will you use this grinder and for what reasons? Do you
plan on only grinding for one style of coffee? Do you plan on
using it daily? Do you plan on using many different types of
If you can answer these questions, you can narrow down your
search very easily.
Another point that deserves attention is that many cheap coffee
grinders have a tendency to have some type of static problems.
Some of the more expensive models can also have these same
problems so, as with other considerations, be sure to try the
grinder before you buy.
There are now low cost burr grinders that have hit the market.
They can be had for as little as $20. If you are looking for an
economy grinder for drip pot coffee you may want to give one of
these some thought. One thing you should know about these low
cost grinders is that they typically use plastic burrs so they
will not hold up as long as a grinder that use steel burrs.
My admittedly biased personal recommendations:
I’m very happy with my Baratza Maestro. I have had it for several years and it works very well for any type of coffee grinding. It does a decent job of espresso but for a good espresso machine I’d recommend something a little higher end. The Baratza Maestro Plus gets fair reviews for an espresso grinder on a budget. The Mazzer Mini and Rancilio Rocky
have been the standard in espresso for a long time. I would probably stay away from blade grinders for coffee unless budget is your main consideration.