Choosing a coffee grinder
If you’re here, then you recognise that the key to getting great coffee reliably is to buy a grinder and grind your own fresh beans where possible. While buying a grinder doesn’t necessarily need to break the bank, the more money you spend can drastically affect the quality of your coffee experience, especially as you begin to get into the boiler style coffee machines.
Burrs & Blades
Blades Blade grinders chop the beans, just like a blender of food processor. Avoid these types of grinders unless you have a specific reason. These grinders produce a very inconsistent particle size which means its very hard to produce consistent results.
Flat Burr Flat burrs are found in the entry level range of electric grinders (and in many commercial grinders). They grind the beans between two opposed plates with teeth, pushing the beans out to the edge where they are collected and pushed out the hopper. The only issue with flat burrs is they take longer to grind the coffee and they are recognised as potentially “burning” the beans during the grinding process by heating them up as they are ground down. On lighter roasts this can be more pronounced.
Conical Burr This is the preferred burr style, it is a cone style burr inside a toothed collar. With this design the burrs “pull” the beans into the grind and gradually but very quickly break down the bean into a consistent particle size. The conical burr can be found in a wide variety of grinders from hand to high end, these should be your first choice where possible, but your choice may be affected by other considerations discussed below.
The low range does not denote quality, only price. There is quite a wide choice in this price bracket, the vast majority of those are hand grinders. If you’re buying an espresso machine I would skip this section and move straight to the mid range selection of grinders, it really isn’t worth your effort trying to get a grind fine enough for espresso out of any of these grinders.
There are quite a few good grinders in this selection, the bonus of a hand grinder is that they are truly portable, so you can take them on camping/hiking trips, and they are as easy to use as grinding out some pepper onto a steak. The Hario range of grinders are usually seen as the defacto standard, these grinders are Japanese made and typically feature ceramic conical burrs. They produce a reliable coarse to medium grind ideal for french press, pour over, and Aeropress and are the perfect choice for a grinder if you’re beginning out or you’re doing smaller doses of coffee. The Hario Skerton is regularly suggested as the go to grinder with many users happy with its results.
The electric grinders in the entry level are typically blade style grinders, these grinders are essentially small blenders with a fast rotating sharp blade to chop the beans. They usually begin their lives as spice grinders, and manufacturers eager to increase their market use spin to sell them as coffee grinders. Be assured though, while these certainly “grind” coffee, their results are always unremarkable at best. The particle size is usually widely varied, and as a result the taste produced is often quite bitter. If you can at all, avoid these types of grinders.
The mid range is where most home baristas will eventually aspire towards. In this range there is a good variety of equipment to choose from and you shouldn’t be at a loss for choice.
This range has quite a choice of grinders, from your home brands like Breville, Saeco, Kitchenaid and others which all produce acceptable results for the most part. Its when you get into the commercial brands like Rancilio, and Compak that you begin to see what coffee is all about. I deliberately left Mazzer out of this section because Mazzer’s cheapest grinder (the manual mini) is still above the $500 cut off, although if you have the pockets deep enough to stretch that far it would easily be considered the best of the mid range. The brand most will keep going back to is the Baratza range, be careful here and make sure you research the best grinder for your coffee style as the cheaper Baratza’s don’t handle an espresso grind very well (but are fantastic for coarse to medium grinds).
When choosing a mid range grinder, where possible visit a shop and ask if they have a demonstrator that you can use to see for yourself how easy it is to use, and also the quality of the grind itself. The key limitation with the mid range is that most are “stepped” grinders, often with a key and spring to lock the collar at set intervals. The limitation here, is that especially when you get to espresso grinds is that the step is too wide to dial in the grind perfectly and you’re always “in between” grind points. which can get very frustrating.
Features to look for:
- Flat Burr or Conical Burr – Conical Burr is better.
- Stepped Grind or Stepless Grind – Stepless Grind is better.
- Build quality – Less plastic is generally better, but not a rule.
- Artificial weight – Some grinders use large metal weights to weigh the machine down instead of using more metal in the grinder.
- Parts availability – The grinders at this level will need maintenance if you operate on a finer grind regularly.
- Warranty reliability – Spend some time on the internet and research which brands had warranty claim difficulties.
Brands to look out for:
The high end range shouldn’t be unattainable, in this area serious home baristas will want to take it to the next level and really focus on speed and particle size consistency.
This range is actually affordable if you’re a smart shopper. Spend some time in the auction websites, as well as the liquidation websites and public auctions and you could be rewarded with a cheap commercial grinder at the mid range price point. The most common grinder out there if you embark on this journey will be the Mazzer Super Jolly, a 68mm flat burr grinder used around the world extensively and usually paired with a two group machine. The Super Jolly is a great grinder to begin learning about grind quality for the serious home barista. The brand variety at this level is a pretty even playing field, its actually quite hard to make a wrong step here, the only real difference being the doser style.
There are three main types of dosers.
Manual The manual doser is simply put the portafilter under the chute, press and hold the button until you have enough. The limitation with this doser is that its hard to maintain consistency between doses as you’re guessing, or having to use a scale (back and forth) until you get it just right.
Dosing Chamber This is your “paddle” style doser, which is simply a case of grinding until a set level, and flip the lever to get your dose. The dose is usually adjustable (by moving the dose plate up or down) however the biggest limitation is that unless you’re a cafe and pushing through large volumes of coffee, you can wind up with stale grinds which ruins the experience quickly.
Electronic Dosing The electronic doser is usually just a timer that turns the machine on and off for you, the benefit here is that you don’t have a chamber storing grinds which means no stale grinds (except for what the chute holds) and you can dial in your doses to be reliable from day to day. While the biggest benefit is cafes, the home barista can also benefit from the electronic doser, and there are ways to turn your manual or paddle dosers to electric as well by buying electronic timer relays and retrofitting them inline with the power (either by external box, or hard fit into the grinder body). One such device is the Omron H5CX-A-N however when dealing with mains power it’s best left to professionals.
Brands to look out for: