By: Ollie Sears 05 July 2018
Buying freshly roasted coffee might not be new to many reading this blog post, and follows on logically from buying fresh food for eating at home.
Eating fresh food maximises the amount of flavour you’ll get from it. That same premise follows for drinking coffee – using fresh roasts of fresh harvests of high quality raw coffee.
One thing that less people consider though is the grinding of coffee, and how that impacts freshness. Long story short, grinding immediately before brewing is ideal. Anything else will sacrifice the ‘quantity’ of flavour within the coffee to some degree. The finer the coffee is ground, the quicker it will lose flavours and aromas.
Once you’ve established the premise for grinding fresh immediately before brewing, you reach the tricky subject of how to grind it. Do you use a mill? A flat burr grinder? A conical burr grinder? Will a pepper mill suffice? Can you use your blender? First let’s have a look at what makes a good grinder.
A good grinder for each person will be something different, in the same way that a good coffee for each person is something different. However, a good grinder should allow that person to consistently grind coffee evenly to the textures required for optimum brewing (with whatever devices are being used), while doing so quickly and conveniently (before coffee begins to lose aroma and flavour), and without costing too much for the budget available. Furthermore, the grinder should be aesthetically pleasing and relatively intuitive to use in order for it to be conducive to enjoying the coffee experience you are afforded with it.
We’ve mentioned “consistently grind[ing] evenly to the textures required” above. This small phrase opens up discussions that can span much further than we have the scope for in a single blog post, so if this is a topic that has been of burning interest to you for a while, please get in touch with me by email at ollie [@] northstarroast.com for further information such as studies from the SCA and various pieces of brewing research.
What we mean in general by the phrase above is that we need our grinder to minimise the nuisance of roasted coffee’s inherent volatility. Remember that coffee is of course an agricultural product, so coffee beans are not identical – even when they are speciality grade – and as such they will not all naturally grind in an identical way.
At low levels of coffee output, consistent grinding is not difficult to achieve. Hand grinders tend to be unreliable for consistent grind distribution, as we involuntarily ‘apply’ different forces and movements to hand grinders each time they are used, whereas a motor-operated grinder will use roughly the same force each time it is switched on. For the barista who wants to replicate a particular result each time, hand grinding will be a difficult way of achieving the goal. Our advice there is to choose any electric grinder to improve on the consistency of your results, rather than training yourself to be more robotic. Alternatively you could attach the body of your hand grinder to a vice or similar gripping device, and attach a drill to the lever attachment for the burrs to rotate them in a more uniform and stable fashion! Not the most artistic of morning coffee rituals, but it will be quicker, cheaper and much more consistent than your manual operation of a hand grinder!
Outside of stretching the operational procedure of your hand grinder, the most suitable way to improve your coffee quality at home is to invest in a grinder that can grind relatively quickly and evenly at the volumes you require. Towards the end of this post we’ll be listing some of the grinders that we can recommend. That will essentially be based on our experience of them, and their all-round capability to perform as a generally good grinder.
One of the main queries that comes up when grinder discussions get underway is what the different types of grinders mean to you as a user. Main differences between grinders are whether they are handheld or counter-top; electric or manually operated; blade or burr grinders; and within the field of burr grinders, whether they feature flat or conical burrs.
Blades are not usually very adjustable, and so are generally not so equipped to allow adequate control of a coffee recipe for any quality-seeking barista. At the very best we have been able to get an uneven, coarse grind from blades, but have never been able to replicate the same taste profile in the cup twice with blade grinding, across a number of different brands. Our advice on a quality front is to avoid blade grinding if you are pursuing high quality brewed coffee, as the blades tend to do a great job of shattering coffee, but not a great job of cutting it evenly down to your desired size.
The field of burr grinders is a much more suitable option for producing great coffee quality. Burrs are almost always adjustable to a reasonable degree, allowing you more precise recipe control than blade grinders. At higher price points, you gain access to step-less grinder control, allowing miniscule changes to grind texture for the utmost precision in grind control, within the range of movement that the burr set allows. However, that still does not mean that a step-less grinder will be fit for purpose. The main thing to consider with burr grinders is whether they suit the brewing you will be doing. If you make espresso or turkish coffee at home for example, you will want to find a grinder that is precise enough to reach very fine grind textures. Most will not do this, and certainly not for under £200. Looking at the big picture reveals why. The more variables you have in your brewing process, the more advanced and precise you need your grinder to be.
One thing to clear up before any discussion ensues, is that there is no difference in the flavour of coffee produced from flat or conical burrs. There is usually a difference in: user experience, ease of maintenance, programmability, retention of coffee, and the speed of grinding. However, the actual burrs and how they mechanically grind the coffee (when used to produce the same texture of coffee) do not cause a tastable difference in coffee’s flavour. What does this mean to you? It means you should shift your focus to the rest of the important stuff about grinding, not whether the burrs are flat or conical.
Important factors worth paying for with burr grinders: programmability; wide range of use (espresso + other capabilities); fast grinding, low retention of coffee, low amounts of static when grinding; easy maintenance.
A big factor in a grinder’s value to you will be its practicality. If it is relatively easy to clean and maintain it will be a huge plus, as cleaning your grinder is going to be very important if you are to be able to access high coffee quality in the cup with it. It’s safe to say that you won’t get very high coffee quality from a grinder unless you clean it regularly, so ensure that you are prepared to take on that responsibility if you are buying one, and aim to find a YouTube video of someone maintaining one if you would like to check this process out prior to purchasing yours.
See below for our recommendations and some niche grinding topics for discussion in future!
Low price point options (low coffee output only, great coffee quality accessible), in order of recommendation
Hand grinders – Rhinowares Compact Hand Grinder or Hario Hand Grinders
Electric grinder for everything but espresso – Wilfa Svart or Mahlkönig Vario W
Electric grinder for everything including espresso – Baratza Sette or Sage Smart Grinder Pro
Commercial, all-purpose grinders: these are impractical for short doses and quick usage, but allow very precise grinding and high quality brewing to be attained: Mahlkönig EK43, Mahlkönig Tanzania, Ditting KR804, Ditting KR1203, Ditting KR1403
Commercial grinders for espresso (medium price point) – Anfim Super Caimano OD Display Stepless; Fiorenzato F64EVO, Fiorenzato F64E, Mazzer Super Jolly, Mazzer Kony, Mazzer Major
Commercial grinders for espresso (high price point) – Mahlkönig K30 range; Mahlkönig Peak, Mythos One by Nuova Simonelli / Victoria Arduino; Mazzer Robur, Mazzer Kold
Looking for more detail on the nuances of grinding? Get in touch, Ollie’s email is listed above!
Looking to purchase one of the above? Let us know! We are a wholesale distributor with access to almost any grinder you could ask us for, so please do reach out to us on the email above!
Heat transfer to coffee during grinding / at high volumes; grinder ventilation (or cooling systems) and their effectiveness; burr materials; burr size; static creation; aftermarket accessories; advanced programmability; effectiveness of grinder at different bean densities and moisture contents; grinder safety shut-offs; grind-by-eight functionality and its effectiveness, and the list goes on… Want to be part of research into grinders? Let us know!
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