There’s something about making a cup of coffee that riles people up. Somehow, each debate breeds its own sub-debates — brewer vs. pour over. Hario vs. Chemex. Medium grind vs. coarse grind, and so on.
The truth of the matter is this: the path to your ideal cup of coffee is laden with choices, and each choice has its own tradeoffs and sacrifices. The well-to-do coffee folk of the world will debate which of these choices is most important to the resulting cup, but likely few will defend the humble grinder. Of course, we know coffee is much, much better freshly ground and grinders come in all shapes and sizes. James McLaughlin, President and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee says there are two things every prospective coffee grinder owner must be aware of.
“First, it’s more important you get a burr grinder than anything else,” he says. “Blade grinders make for pretty sub-par cups of coffee. Then you can get into hand grinders versus machine grinders.”
Inconsistently ground beans — grinds that are too varied in size — cause poor extraction of your coffee grinds, McLaughlin says. In a nutshell: it’ll taste very sour and very bitter.
Marcus Boni, Head of Coffee at Trade, uses a machine burr grinder. It’s faster, typically easier to dial in a consistent grind and doesn’t require stretching before use. But Boni is more than your typical coffee guy (his résumé has names like Bonavita, Intelligentsia and the Specialty Coffee Association on it). And seeing as a premium home grinding machine, such the Baratza Virtuoso, can run north of $200, Boni concedes it’s a decision not made in a vacuum. “Just make sure it’s using a burr made of ceramic or steel, it can adjust grind settings and it will get the job done just fine,” Boni says.
Hand grinders are typically far more affordable as well, with the two staple hand grinders — Hario’s Skerton grinder and Porlex’s stainless steel mini grinder — both running well under $100 (Boni jokes “they also won’t wake up everyone in your house”). The other benefit with hand grinders is that they’re small enough to comfortably fit in a kitchen drawer or be tossed in your luggage.
To McLaughlin, this means brew preference should be taken into account when deciding. “I’d say [hand coffee grinders] are much better for cold brew and French press than they are home brewer or espresso,” he says. “Any method where coarse to very coarse grind settings are welcome will make the hand grinder a bit more approachable, grinding on a really fine setting takes a lot more time on a hand grinder.”
Where the hand grinder falters, however, is speed and volume — grinding enough beans for more than two people will take around 8 to 10 minutes, and even longer if you’ve dialed your grinder into a finer setting. Most hand grinders aren’t large enough to accommodate the beans you’d need for three or four full cups.
Regardless of attributes and abilities, though, both experts say the best grinder is the one you’ll use — electric, manual, pricey or cheap. And that coffee gear is a weirdly personal choice.
“Recommending anything to coffee people is a bit of a hazard,” Boni says. “Most people are making coffee at a particularly fragile time of the day. Suggesting they may be doing something less than ideal is tricky.”
The Specialty Coffee Association does not pull punches when testing the coffee makers that eventually wind up in your kitchen.