“...[T]he craft of making really good brewed coffee with simple tools is immensely satisfying.”
—Blue Bottle Founder James Freeman
As minimalist as we strive to be, the unavoidable truth about coffee is that the right tools are needed to make a good cup. Of the tools required—scale, kettle, and grinder—we consider a proper grinder the necessary first step in improving the consistency and quality of your coffee.
Before you think this is just another gearhead debate, consider the nature of the coffee bean, which is incredibly dense with a hard exterior. Just as it takes an oyster knife to pry open the mollusk or a sharp axe to chop wood, so too does it take the right kind of blade to pulverize a coffee bean.
Why Your Grinder Matters
The issue at stake is an important one: Grind size affects the extraction process. In order to produce a beautifully focused cup, in which the coffee is perfectly extracted, the grinds need to be more or less the same size. In addition to uniformity, there’s a sweet spot for grind size that differs for each coffee. This variability is why there’s no one grind size that fits all coffee; the process of finding the right grind on any given day is something we call “dialing it in.”
Every morning, before our cafes open, baristas make several pour overs using coffee ground to slightly different sizes. The difference might not be apparent to the eye, but if the grind size isn’t quite right, the coffee could taste bitter, due to over-extraction, or sour, due to under-extraction.
While there are two styles of grinders on the market—blade and burr—only burr-style grinders have the mechanical capacity to grind coffee uniformly, so despite a more significant investment, burr-style grinders are what we recommend. Thankfully, the machines that we like are made well, will last a long time, and will definitely upgrade your coffee routine.
We asked around, wanting to hear from the trainers and baristas who have to grind coffee for every pour over and espresso they make. In addition to a few standard electric models, there were beloved hand-cranked grinders that ranked high, too, both in terms of portability and price.
Our one hint in shopping for a grinder is to consider your favored brew method. If espresso is your main focus, we’d recommend foregoing the hand-cranked models—and start saving your pocket change.
Our Favorite Models
For electric models, Baratza is the go-to maker, not just because of their refined designs and durability, but also in light of their responsible manufacturing practices. (They do all that they can to divert landfill waste, including the “unwise” business practice of making parts available for repair, even for obsolete models, allowing customers to fix an old machine, rather than buy an entire new one.)
This is a grinder for the new (or thrifty coffee) enthusiast who wants the accuracy and consistency of conical burrs. Forty micro-adjustments give the coffee brewer the control to find the right grind size for that particular coffee and brew method. This entry-level model is what we use in our headquarters. Think about that: a home model that makes countless cups a day for a bunch of coffee-obsessed people.
The Virtuoso is a step up from the Encore, in that there’s more uniformity in the micro and macro adjustments—which translates to an easier time finding the ideal setting. With its lower motor speed, the Virtuoso also makes for a faster grind time that's significantly quieter in the process.
One tip from a barista-turned-trainer at Blue Bottle is to check out the Esatto accessory. This fixture enables the Encore or Preciso to grind by weight. At $150, it's far less expensive than the models that come with this function built in.
Espresso—Where Precision Counts
The sky’s the limit in terms of how much you could spend for a high-quality espresso grinder. Like any other brew method, uniformity in grind size matters. The additional hurdle for espresso is due to the method itself, which uses hot water to extract densely packed coffee in a very short time period. Minute shifts in grind size radically alter the extraction.
A few espresso grinders we’d recommend checking out include two Baratza models: the Sette 270 and the Vario. There’s a steep difference in price, but the Vario has ceramic burrs, whereas the Sette has metal burrs. With constant use, the metal burrs will dull faster and for those who are very perceptive, may start to impart metallic flavor.
Outside of Baratza, Mazzer is a company that produces beautifully constructed professional-grade grinders, but their is envisioned for home use. Rancilio is a leading company that outfits cafes and homes alike. Their is made for the home, and would make any espresso enthusiast proud.
Hario and Porlex, two historic Japanese companies, make high-quality hand-cranked grinders that use ceramic burrs, which are incredibly sharp and built to last. The downside, as you may guess, is the manual labor incurred to make a cup of coffee. For the robust among us, this can add to the experience. For one Blue Bottler, it was just enough of a hindrance to prevent roommates from using all of his coffee.
The Porlex Mini is a favorite for its rubber grip and convenient size, perfect for travel or a camping trip. The standard Porlex is a good bet, too, with a little more room if you’re grinding for a four-cup French press.
You can’t go wrong with any model of Hario’s, but we love the the Hario Skerton for the elegant glass grinds compartment.
Navigating the world of coffee gear can be dizzying. Our hope is that we’ve given you enough information for you to improve your home routine in exactly the way that you see fit.
Not sure there’s a grinder for you? Our Perfectly Ground coffee handles the variables.