Buying Guide to Coffee and Espresso Grinders

Mazzer Mini Electronic Coffee Griner How To Select The Right Coffee Grinder For You

Coffee grinders are arguably the most important piece of equipment that you can buy that will exponentially increase your coffee enjoyment no matter what form of brewing techniques that you use and is absolutely critical for good espresso shots.   A quality machine will ensure you get an even extraction of flavors and aromas every time you grind up a fresh batch of coffee beans.

Blade and Burr Grinders

There are two basic types of grinders available; these include blade and burr grinders.  Blade grinders are generally sold in departments stores or the likes of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Although less expensive, these blade equipped units are not fit to grind coffee and here's why:  they use a spinning blade to slice up the beans in the best of circumstances, and usually crush them in most situations, leaving the grinds in a ragged mess and in various sized chunks.  They key to good coffee is consistency.  Consistency in the grind size, brewing temperatures, tamping techniques (for espresso), and myriad of other variables.  

The next type is referred to as a burr grinder and these use a series of abrasive disks, cones or balls called burrs to evenly flake or shave the beans rather than tearing, crushing and compressing them like the blade versions.  This is the kind of coffee grinder that you need to buy.  Anything else is a waste of money unless you are looking for a spice grinder.  You may hear that these are expensive.  What would you say if I told you that you could find a decent quality burr grinder for as little as a $129?  We'll get to that a little later.    

Conical vs Flat Burrs

There two primary subgroups of burr grinders and the first of these are those with conical or coned shaped burrs.  Conical burrs (as seen in the picture on the left) are found on a myriad of levels of grinders from the bargain best bang for the buck class of machines with cheaper motors that use gear reduction to the much more expensive direct drive units (don't understand those terms?  Don't worry, we'll get to them in a moment).  Due to their design, conical burrs have a larger surface area than the flat variety for any given diameter and thus are able to quickly shed heat.    

The second type is a flat burr (shown on the right) that use a flat disk with a series of teeth carved into that rides against a grinding stone or plate.  These are generally found in mid range to higher price machines.  These are usually a larger diameter than there conical counterparts and thus are able to shed heat equally as well by making their surface area bigger through a brute size increase.

 Which is better?  The debate rages on across the various internet forums.  Some claim that the conical burr grinders are "easier" to dial in and produce fluffier grounds for use in espresso machines.  Others claim that there is a distinct difference in the taste in favor of one or the other with the conical burrs having a more brighter taste that tend to enhance citrus and "fruity" qualities while flat burrs tend to enhance sweetness and cocoa and caramel tastes.  I believe that the rest of the qualities of the machine -in particular the size of the burr (bigger is better) and the tolerances that went into is manufacturing make more of a difference than its shape. 

Size and Material of Burrs - Steel vs Ceramic

Burrs are generally made of either high quality stainless steel or ceramic; both budget and high end and commercial coffee grinders have one or the other and sometime both as an option.  Neither one of them is better but they do have a few different qualities.  

Steel Burrs - Pros Steel Burrs - Cons Ceramic Burrs - Pros Ceramic Burrs - Cons

Once again, in my opinion burr material has little to do with the final output of the grind.  It is all in the profile and the way the burr was designed - i.e. Baratza's optional steel flat burrs designed for the Vario and Forte have a profile designed exclusively for french press and pour over brewing methods.  The ability to remain sharp and their ability to survive an impact is the key take away when examining burr construction.

Grinders featuring Ceramic Burrs are the Baratza Forte, Baratza Vario, Baratza Vario-W, Baratza Preciso, Baratza Virtuoso, and Baratza Encore.  

Stepped vs Stepless

All coffee grinders adjust the grind size by moving the burrs closer and further away from the grinding plate. There two different designs that accomplish this and these are referred to as stepped and stepless.  Stepped Coffee Grinders, normally found on budget machines, are adjusted by using a lever or knob to set it to various factory pre-determined grind sizes.   The downside to this is that they don’t offer infinite adjustments – in other words you are locked in to a certain number of “steps.”  On cheaper models this may be as few as 10 and on more expensive models as many as 40 primary steps.  This is not a huge deal if brewing for french press, pour overs, and automatic drip as these methods do not require exact grind sizes to create excellent coffee.  It does matter a great deal for espresso brewing as any slight change in particle size can greatly influence the flavor. 

However, in the last few years, Baratza has introduced several models featuring micro-adjustments.  Basically there are two controls – one of which controls large steps and the other which controls the micro-steps effectively giving the applicable models the same range of adjustments as the stepless varieties. 

The Baratza Preciso features a control ring that controls its 40 macro steps and an adjustment lever that controls 11 additional micro steps for a total range of 440 steps. 

Micro and Macro Controls on the Baratza Preciso

The Bratza Vario and Vario-W models feature two control levers that adjust for 10 macro and 23 micro steps (230 settings total) and the Forte model includes an additional 6 micro steps (total of 260 settings). 

Micro and Macro Controls on the Baratza Vario

There are several upsides to stepped coffee grinders.  Most are easily switchable for different types of brewing methods and the barista can easily switch from rough grinding for french roast to fine grinding for espresso - click here for all coffee grinders that easily grind coarse or fine.  Moreover, stepped models are also easily repeatable.  They can be quickly and easily returned to various settings. 

Other units that are stepped include the Rancilio Rocky DoserlessRocky with Doser, and the MACAP M4 Doserless Grinders.

Stepless Coffee Grinders, however, are able to be adjusted to a infinite range between their grind points.  Normally found on units designed for espresso brewing, these machines are able to dial in that espresso grind to the exact right specification as determined by the barista.  As vary slight variations in grind can have a huge impact on taste, this feature is very important to professional coffee bars and many home espresso enthusiasts.  These units operate either by a worm gear mechanism (shown on the left - courtesy of Wikipedia)  for fine adjustments, such as almost all of the MACAP Grinders, or through resistive collars that create enough friction to allow the settings to remain stable during operation but are loose enough that they can be manually moved through the adjustment range - Mazzer and Compak use such a system.  Stepless units can be set up for grinding french press, pour over, and drip brewing methods but since range adjustments are so fine and are more narrow, they are best suited towards espresso applications for which they were designed and for which they positively shine.  

Doser vs Doserless vs Bins

Coffee grinders use three different methods to collect coffee (and some even feature a combination)- these include Dosers, Doserless, and Bins.  I'm going to give you the pros and cons of each type but just remember these are generalities and the better models may overcome some or all of the negatives through better design and construction.  Moreover, electronic dosing controls also have a large influence on machine dosing performance and will be covered in the next section.  

Doserless

The doserless varieties are designed to dispense ground coffee directly into an espresso machine portafilter basket (what is this?) or into a bag (usually very large industrial models). 

Doserless Advantages and Pros Include:

Doserless Disadvantages and Cons Includes:

Examples of Doserless Grinders  
Compak K3 Touch Mahlkonig Vario Mazzer Mini Electric Compak K8 Fresh
Compak K3 Touch Espresso Grinder Mahlkonig K30 Vario Espresso Grinder Mazzer Mini Electric Espresso Grinder Compak K8 Touch Espresso Grinder
 Dosers

The competing design is the doser type.  This engineering has existed since at least the 1930s and is still effective today.  These units feature a bin that coffee falls into and the user must "twang" a lever to release the appropriate amount of coffee grinds.  In this regard, you get what you pay for with the better doser designs being found on the more expensive grinders. 

Doser Advantages and Pros Include:

Doser Disadvantages and Cons include:

Examples of Doser Grinders  
Compak K10 Pro Barista MACAP M4 Stepless Mazzer Mini Rancilio Rocky w/ Doser
Compak K10 Pro Barrista Espresso Grinder Mazzer Mini Espresso Grinder Rancilio Rocky Coffee Grinder
Grinders with Bins

Baratza is one of the few manufacturers whose products have a internal bin.  These operate similar to dosers except the coffee grinds fall into the bin and there is no mechanism for dosing the grinds built into the container.  However, most the Baratzas (with the exception of the Vario-W) feature portaholder devices that attach in place of the bin allowing the use to dose directly into a portafilter.  To read more about Baratza Grinders click here.

Electronic Dosing and Grinding on Demand

Useful for espresso brewing, some grinders feature a "grind on demand" technology in which a the user selects the size of shot he or she want to brew (i.e. single, double, etc) and the machine grinds just enough coffee to fill the portability to the correct amount based on either weight or time. 

For example, the Malkonig K30 Vario Single and Twin Grinders features digitally programmed grinding profiles to include timed grinding, grind coarseness, and exact proportioning.   The portafilter is filled automatically according to the settings as soon it is inserted.  The MACAP M7 Digitial and the Compak Touch series including the K3 Touch, K8 Fresh, and K10 Fresh all feature similar technology while the Mazzer Electronic/Electric series permits electronic dosing based on time.  We'd be remised if we didn't mention the two Baratzas that dispense via weight based on a built in scale - these include the Forte and the Vario-W with the Forte also being able to alternatively dispense via time as well.  The Baratza Esatto Scale Attachment is also available separately and allows for weight based dispensing for Baratza's conical burr models

Motor and Gearbox/Transmission Considerations

There are three basic motor and gearbox designs that one needs to consider before purchasing a coffee grinder; these are "high speed," high speed with gear reduction, and low speed direct drive. 

High Speed

High speed grinders are generally the cheapest of the bunch both in terms of monetary outlay and in construction.  Found on all blade based machines and the lowest end burr grinders, this category is driven by a cheap high speed electric motor.  Pros:  this makes it cheaper.  Cons:  high speed units have a tendency to heat up quickly so it is better if you grind the coffee beans using short bursts of power.  However, this also increases the amount of ‘stop/ start’ cycles that the grinder has to perform and this will create more wear and tear on the machines parts - ultimately leading to the premature death of the unit.  These are for light duty use only and it is advisable to avoid this type if you want a product that will last more than a couple of years.  An example of this type is the Gaggia MM.

High Speed with Gear Reduction

High Speed with Gear Reduction Grinders are usually a much better product than the straight high speed variety.  They still have high speed motors except most of them are DC powered instead of AC powered leading to much longer lives.  These feature a gearbox that utilzes the speed of the DC motor coupled with gear reduction to slow the speed of the burrs down while increasing torque.   In addition this type of machine is generally quieter, have less of static build up in their bins or dosers, and there is much less heat exposed to the beans.  The Gaggia MDF and Baratza PrecisoBaratza Virtuoso, and Baratza Encore models feature gear reduction technology.  

Direct Drive

Direct Drive Coffee Grinders make up the remainder of the offerings and are generally found in prosumer, professional and industrial machines.  These feature heavy duty, low speed, high torque motors that drive the grinder either with a belt or attached directly to the burrs through a driveline.  The turn the burrs through sheer power.  These are the quietest of all grinders, very durable, and are high quality outfits.  These units transfer almost no heat to the coffee and minimize the chances of static occurring within the grinds.  All of the Mazzers, Compaks, MACAPs, and the Baratza Forte are direct drive.  Prosumer versions include the Rancilio Rocky Grinders with doser and without dosers and the Baratza Vario and Vario-W models.  

Other Important Factors You Should Consider When Purchasing A Coffee Grinder

Storage Capacity and Physical Size.  It is important to know how often you are going to use your coffee grinder as most will have different size bean capacities in the hopper. For example, a busy café would be best suited to buying a larger machine which has a larger capacity to hold more beans.  Some grinders feature optional small or large hoppers or hopper extensions so that one may adjust the amount of coffee it can hold.  Inversely, the larger the hopper that harder it is to fit under cabinets and the more room it may take up on the counter – important considerations for home kitchens but not so much of an issue for a coffee bar. 

Are You Grinding for Espresso, Coffee, or both?  If you are grinding exclusively for espresso, then it is recommended to purchase a dedicated espresso grinder as the particles that that they produce are very consistent and a barista can dial them in to exact grind needed for the type of beans, bean roast level, and even for temperature and humidity considerations. 

An adjustable coffee grinder works well if you are grinding for a chunky French press, medium drip, powdery Turkish, or even espresso. The only downside to these multipurpose machines is you can't generally maintain the same consistency as a dedicated espresso grinder, although most of the Baratza Coffee Grinder Models have considerably narrowed this gap in the last several years.  Generally, with these you get what you pay for with the more expensive models having better and longer lasting burrs, better consistency, and more adjustments to the grind coarseness.   

Regardless of which style of grinder you choose, always buy the best you can reasonably afford.  The coffee grind contributes to about 50-60% of the taste and should be tailored to the brewing method, bean variety and oil levels, roast level, and other variables.  

Remember from the beginning that I promised a suitable burr grinder for only $129?  The Baratza Encore should fill the needs of most casual coffee drinkers with the exception of those that often prepare large pots of automatic drip and it doesn't grind quite fine enough for some espresso machines.  However, for what it is, it is a heck of a bargain.  

Shop for Coffee Grinders now.

 Related Guides and Articles

Cup And Brew's Basics of Coffee Grinding and Bean Storage

Cup And Brew's Guide to Baratza Coffee Grinders

The 7 Best Coffee Grinders for the Home

Cup And Brew's Introduction to Espresso Machines - Advice and Recommendations

The Basics of Espresso Brewing

Cup And Brew's Guide to Portafilters

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