When people start getting serious about brewing coffee at home, one of the biggest mistakes they make is downplaying the importance of their bean grinder. I did it, too.
We obsess over ethically sourced beans and the purity of our water, use up all of our funds on fancy espresso machines and overpriced pour-over filters, and spend hours reading academic articles about extraction times. (Okay, maybe that last one is just me.)
The grinder often comes as a last thought. All we need is something that turns whole beans into grounds, right?
While buying pre-ground coffee is a cardinal sin, using the wrong grinder still counts as criminal neglect. Don’t be a criminal. The five tips below will help you pick out the best grinder for you and, as a result, exponentially improve the quality of your beverage.
1. Buy burr, not blade
Remember that you’re looking for a grinder, not a blender. When you’re making your post-workout smoothie, it doesn’t matter how consistently the celery gets chopped. When it comes to coffee, consistency is everything.
Consistency is the most important quality of the grind. Many people, myself included, believe that a consistent grind of the appropriate size is the single most crucial element of brewing coffee. It doesn’t matter how good your beans, water, and extraction are. If your grind is messed up, your resulting drink will be, too.
All this is to say that blade grinders will not give you a consistent grind. Don’t even think about them. Burr grinders are the only way to go. If someone gives you a blade grinder for Christmas, take it back.
Another significant disadvantage of blade grinders is that they can seriously alter the taste of your final product due to overheating. The heat resulting from the friction and speed of a blade grinder damages the beans. At best, it significantly reduces their aroma and flavor. More typically, you’ll end up with something that tastes sour and burned.
2. Don’t always trust the labels
In a world of fake news and airbrushed celebrities, product labels are just as suspicious. Watch out for false burrs marketed as real burr grinders.
Burrs should have sharp edges that cut the beans using opposing force, but fake burrs simply crush the beans until they break. Their motors are often inadequate, and the burrs themselves aren’t usually stable. The result is both an inconsistent grind and a machine that isn’t durable.
Save yourself the numerous hassles of a bad machine and think of your grinder as an investment. You may have to spend a little bit more up front, but purchasing a grinder that will produce better coffee and last for several years will cost a lot less in the long run. This leads to the next tip…
3. Don’t be afraid to spend more than you think you should
As a general rule, you should plan to spend as much on your first grinder as you would an entry-level espresso machine. Your total budget should allocate about 50% for the machine and 50% for the grinder. As the quality of your machine rises so should the quality of your grinder, but you can decrease the percent of your budget spent on one.
This prevents the problem some people find themselves in when they spend all their money on a great machine and realize they can’t afford a grinder to go with it. Have you ever tried to put whole beans into a portafilter? I have. It doesn’t work.
Even if you typically brew using less expensive equipment such as a French Press, Chemex, or Aeropress, don’t let the price of a high-quality grinder intimidate you. A good one can last for several years and hundreds of doses, adding just a few cents to the cost per cup. That’s a small price to pay for a vast improvement in taste.
4. Hand grinders can be just as good
If you are on a tight budget, one way to cut costs is to consider a hand grinder. Many hand grinders on the market these days combine beautiful design with practical technology. They’re a lot more portable — which is perfect for business trips, vacations, and office use — and they don’t require any electricity or motor maintenance. Plus, they can be a lot less expensive.
The biggest downside of a manual grinder is, of course, that it takes a lot more time and effort than an automatic machine. You can spend several minutes cranking the burrs for just one cup of coffee (and, sometimes, an aching hand to go with it). If you’re the type to get up late and rush to work, those few minutes could be used to brush your teeth or take a quick shower.
People might admire how thorough you are with your coffee, but they probably won’t appreciate you stinking up the office. With an automatic grinder, you have grounds ready in just a few seconds with one touch of a button.
I personally love how connected I feel to the entire brewing process when I grind by hand, and I only spent about $30 for a sleek grinder that includes everything I need. But if you’re grinding for more than one or two cups at a time or can’t spare the extra few minutes, following tip #3 and investing in an automatic machine, despite the additional cost, might be your best option.
5. Start out with a “stepped” grinder
Whether you decide to buy a manual grinder or an automatic grinder, consider starting out with one that is “stepped.” Stepping just refers to how you adjust the grind size. Stepped grinders have distinct “clicks” on the product which alter the grind from coarse to fine.
Stepless grinders have no “click” settings, so every adjustment can be very small, and the overall grind size can be tailored perfectly to your liking. While this does give you more control, trying to dial in an appropriate grind becomes a lot more difficult, especially if you’re switching between different brewing methods.
You should start with a stepped grinder because it will give you a better general idea of how you should size for each type of brew. When you’re grinding for a Chemex in the morning, a french press at the office, a drip machine at your parents’ house, and an espresso machine to make your kids fun lattes, it can be difficult to remember each setting and easy to mess it up. Click settings make things a lot simpler.
Dialing in a perfect grind is one of the most important parts of brewing great coffee, and it can only be done with a good grinder. Once you’ve started buying freshly roasted whole beans, using purified water, and grinding to just the right size, you will be well on your way to making some of the best coffee you’ve ever tasted.
|Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder
Featuring 40 individual grind settings, from fine to coarse.
Seriously, it doesn’t take much to become an awesome home barista. For more info on how you can start making café-quality beverages for yourself, check out these seven steps to getting started brewing coffee at home.