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Thu Jan 3, 2013, 12:48 PM

Coffee 102: Grinders [View all]

This is the 2nd in a series of posts on the subject of coffee. The first may be found here.

Since pre-ground coffee has been widely available since the 50's, a grinder is really an optional device. However, if you want the best that coffee has to offer, you really need a grinder. That's not to say that pre-ground coffee is all bad, it's just that you're never going to get all the flavor the bean has to offer without a grinder. The reason is because coffee is made up of hundreds of flavor compounds and many of those are going to degrade over time. This will happen whether the coffee has been ground or not, but it just happens much faster once the beans have been ground and more surface area is exposed. Pod solutions like the Keurig and others attempt to slow down this process by sealing the grinds until they are ready to be used, but this is really only a partial solution. The best way is to use freshly roasted coffee (coffee roasted within a month or less if possible) and grind as close as possible before brewing. In this post I will explore the various options for grinding and the hardware needed to do it.

Grinders fall into one of two broad categories which are blade grinders and burr grinders. The blade grinder is not really a grinder at all. If you can imagine running cheese across a grater you will get cheese shavings that will differ in size depending on the grater used. The longer you grate the cheese the more shavings you get, but the size and consistency of the shavings will not change remarkably. This is what grinding does. Now imagine a rock being pounded with a hammer. The longer you pound the rock the finer the average size of the particles get, and what you inevitably wind up with is particles that are inconsistent in size and will vary from dust to much larger pieces. This is how a blade grinder works.

First I will speak to blade grinders. I really don't recommend them, but they are unquestionably cheaper and you may already have one in your home whether you realize it or not. The reason I don't recommend them is because if you examine the grinds produced by them under a microscope, you'll find very irregularly shaped chunks varying in size all the way to fine dust. The dust is going to overextract during the brewing process and the larger chunks are going to underextract. The end result is going to be coffee that has off flavors. I will say that having a grinder is generally better than no grinder at all, so if your budget doesn't allow for a burr grinder, by all means get one. If you ever decide to step up to a burr grinder, you can always use it as a spice grinder. I have one that I use for exactly that. If you have a blender you can also use that to grind your coffee. Vitamix, Blendtec, and other commercial blenders work the best, but most any blender will work. I have never tried using a food processor, but I suspect that would work as well. You can find blade grinders for around $20 or so, but for a little more the Kitchenaid blade grinder seems to be much better made than most. This is the one I have and I've had it for probably around 15 years now and it still works like new. Using a blade grinder is pretty simple. You just measure out the coffee you need, and continue to grind until you get to the coarseness you want. It just takes a few seconds.

The grinder type that I recommend is the burr grinder. There are several variations, but they all work on the same principle. You have a set of two burrs, both of which have blades carved into them. One stays stationary while the other rotates. The beans fall in between the burrs via gravity and as one of the burrs rotates the coffee is shaved with the grinds falling down usually into a storage container. For most of them, the size of the grounds can be selected by varying the distance between the two burrs. Somehow I have wound up with many different burr grinders which I have collected over the years.

Some burr grinders are electric and some are hand operated. Both fall into various degrees of quality both in their construction and in the quality of grounds they produce. It's hard to find a really good hand grinder these days. Most of them will do fairly well for drip coffee, French press, etc. If you want one that will do very fine grinding such as for espresso or Turkish coffee, you need a really good one (this is true for both hand and electric models). The Germans used to make some really good hand grinders, but even those aren't constructed all that well any more. The Japanese make some good ones that employ ceramic burrs. You can expect to pay at least $50 for a good hand grinder that's capable of grinding fine enough for Turkish coffee and you can also expect to get somewhat of a workout using one even for a single serving. The advantage to hand grinders is you don't need a connection to electricity and some of them are small enough to easily fit in a backpack. The one I like the best is made in Japan by Kyocera. I take mine camping and enjoy fresh coffee anywhere I have the means to heat water. The rest of the time I use it at work. They are simple to use. Most have a screw adjustment to vary the grind coarseness. You simply put the beans in the hopper and keep turning the crank until it's done.

Most people who want a good burr grinder are going to go for an electric model. Many that you find are cheap models in the $40-50 range. I tend to steer people away from these. They might be OK if you make coffee infrequently, but they don't really work all that well due to imprecise construction and they tend to wear out fairly quickly with everyday use. For general drip coffee and French press use, the one I recommend for most people is the Baratza Encore. It costs around $129 and it's a well made little grinder that is suited for everyday use and is made to last for many years. Below is the link to get one. I don't have any association with this retailer other than as a customer. Chris is a small retail and commercial seller of coffee equipment. Coffee geeks like me like him because he will take the time to personally answer your questions and he has a solid reputation for taking care of his customers.


If you want a grinder that is capable of grinding into the espresso/Turkish range, the Encore will work but Baratza makes the Virtuoso model which is better suited for that task. If you want more specific recommendations you can just call Chris and he will explain it to you in much greater detail.

The main electric grinder I have is the Mazzer Super Jolly. They are a commercial grade grinder and are quite expensive if you buy one new. I got mine surplus from a coffee shop, fixed it up and modified it to suit my own environment. It's really best suited as a dedicated espresso grinder and that's what I primarily use it for.

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Major Nikon Jan 2013 OP
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