Someone once said that “Your choice of grinder is at least at as important as your choice of espresso machine”. Wise person.
The simple fact is that you cannot make good espresso without a quality burr grinder. Indeed, I would argue you cannot make ANY kind of good coffee without a decent burr grinder!
So why the big deal about a device that just turns whole coffee beans into really small bits of coffee bean? It’s a big deal because key issues to good coffee (assuming good quality, fresh roasted beans) is freshness and correct level of fineness/coarseness of the ground coffee.
For the purpose of this discussion, we are talking about burr grinders (flat or conical). The blade type of spice grinders are NOT suitable for coffee. Ever!
Roasted coffee is quite a volatile substance. To keep it simple, it stales really quickly. Whole beans, properly packed and stored will last 3+ weeks post-roast before losing much of their special qualities. Ground coffee – even if properly packed and stored – loses much of that freshness in a matter of hours – or even minutes if not packed well. That doesn’t mean the coffee goes bad, but rather that many of the special, but often fleeting flavours and tastes that characterise a really great coffee are gone. It may still taste ‘ok’, but it won’t be ‘great’.
So a grinder is vital to be able to grind on demand and maximise the flavour locked in those beans!
The other big reason to have a decent coffee grinder on hand is that each brewing method requires its own level of grind fineness. That is especially true of espresso, where the particle size should be as uniform as possible, and quite fine. At the other end of the scale, plunger coffee requires a coarse grind. Too fine, and the brew is bitter, and the plunger hard to push down. All tied up with extraction rates and the like – a topic for another blog post!
Another factor here is how fresh coffee changes as it ages. Particularly for espresso, small adjustments should be made to keep the shot on target as the days pass, and even with changes in the humidity.
So, what grinder?
The good news is, getting a decent grinder is not as expensive as it used to be.
If you are not sure of your commitment to the world of coffee yet, you can start with a quality hand grinder, such those made by Kyocera, Hario and Porlex These do a great job for less than $80. They do take time and effort (especially for espresso grinding), but if your daily needs are modest, these are terrific, and they are easy to take with you to the office or on holiday.
But if hand grinding is not your thing, electric grinders are the go, and the sky is limit on what you can spend on a whizz-bang grinder! Fortunately, there are a couple of electric models well within reach of home users.
The pick of the crop at the moment is the Breville Smartgrinder BCG800. This is well designed grinder built on a base used by several other entry-level grinders. But the difference here is that the Breville uses some clever technology to automatically adjust the dose whenever you change the grind. Choose between ‘cups’ for French press (plunger) or Filter, and ‘shots’ for Espresso to get the right dose for your needs. Once you have worked out your personal tastes, it needs little adjusting. It’s not perfect, but it is a genuine bargain for entry level users, or as a second grinder for the seriously committed.
An alternative, but not so versatile are the Sunbeam range of home grinders based around the EM0480. Around the same price as the Breville, but without the electronic goodies.
Moving up from that, there are grinder like the venerable Rancillio Rocky in the $400 range – an adequate grinder, but relatively poor value these days.
Next step up introduces grinder like the Mahlkönig Vario. This is the domestic baby in the range of impressive commercial grinder made by Mahlkönig. Using ceramic burrs and a unique grind adjustment system that allows rapid and accurate grinder changes, this machine has a tiny footprint and excellent grind consistency. One of these is currently residing in the Ministry Grounds kitchen, and is in daily use for a range of grind types.
If a conventional grinder with a doser is more your thing, then this price range gets you close to the legendary Mazzer Mini.
Which bring us to one last question:
Doser or doserless grinder?
This is becoming less of an issue for home users as fewer domestic grinders come with a doser. The doser is that container mounted on the grinder that holds a substantial quantity of ground coffee. Designed for espresso use in cafes, a lever ‘doses’ shots of ground coffee into the portafilter – that familiar ‘clack-clack’ sound you hear as the barista does their job.
They are designed to hold ground coffee for brief periods so the barista isn’t held up by grinder speed. Dosers really don’t have much of a place in the home and most home coffee enthusiasts are far better off grinding directly into the portafilter or a container for filter brewing.
So don’t hold back! For the best taste from your freshly roasted coffee, grab a good grinder and get into the daily grind!