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Burr Grinder Basics

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Beginners guide to grinders part one

Burr vs. Blade

So you want to buy a coffee grinder -- why not just grab any old thing on the shelf at the big box store? To kick off this guide, let’s first take a look at the lower level tiers of grinding devices. Most are familiar with blade grinders, which operate rather like a blender. A spinning blade whacks the coffee beans into pieces indiscriminately, resulting in an inconsistent grind. That inconsistency is a problem when brewing coffee, because the big pieces and tiny fines don’t extract the same way during brewing.

To offer an analogy, let’s say you want to dissolve some sugar in water. If you dump a teaspoon of granulated sugar into the water and stir it up, it shouldn’t take too long for it to fully dissolve. But if you use a sugar cube instead, it will take noticeably longer to fully break down and disappear. That’s partly because there is less surface area on the sugar cube, meaning the water has to work its way through the outer layers of sugar molecules before it can get to the inner ones. The smaller the sugar granules are, the easier it will be for them to dissolve in water. Coffee is going to behave similarly - the smaller the grinds, the more easily they will give up their flavors to the hot water you’re brewing with.

The hallmark of a good burr grinder is consistency at a broad range of grind sizes.

So what about that inconsistent grind is bad? If you’ve got a mix of small particles and big ones, you’ll have different rates of extraction. The small ones extract quickly, and the big ones slowly, just like the sugar cube. This wouldn’t be a problem if everything in coffee particles tasted great, but the fact is that you can over-extract coffee, and get some nasty bitter flavors out of it. Those small particles are going to over-extract while the big ones under-extract, and your coffee is going to taste downright wonky.

To avoid that wonkiness, you’re going to want coffee particles that are pretty similar in size, and that’s just what a burr grinder can do for you. All burr grinders use the same general principle: they use sharp cutting surfaces and precise adjustment to chop up the coffee in a more controlled manner, like a skilled chef using a sharp knife, resulting in more consistent grinds. Burrs can be flat, conical, or a hybrid of both, and typically come in either steel or ceramic. The two burrs of the set oppose each other so the beans will get stuck in between and cut from both sides. They are meant to be sharp, are far better performers than blades, and will offer a marked improvement in your coffee’s flavor.

Beware False Burrs

As with many consumer products, you need to beware the imitators and snake oil. On the market today are a number of grinders under $100 that profess to be burr mills, but are little better than blade grinders gone incognito.

False burrs are not sharp enough to create a very consistent grind, and should be avoided.

As mentioned before, burrs should have sharp opposing cutting surfaces. But false burrs only get half that equation right. Rather than cutting with sharp edges, false burrs bludgeon the beans with large teeth that are often paired up with rather wimpy motors. You’ll wind up with ground coffee, but the consistency won’t be very good, especially in the medium-to-coarse range. Those teeth add a good deal of wobble to the burrs themselves, because they don’t break up the coffee as easily as a sharp surface would, and the impact forces the burrs slightly out of alignment each time they make contact.

Flat steel burrs like these are quite sharp out of the box, making for a better overall grind than the dull false burr alternatives.

Generally speaking, most electric burr grinders under $100 will have false burrs, and your best bet is to look for machines with conical steel burrs if you’re on a tight budget. Conical burrs work just as well as flat, and if they’re made of steel you can bet they’ll be using sharp edges rather than chunky teeth, and your grind quality will be all the better.

Brewing on a Budget

The hard truth about burr grinders is that they tend to cost more than the more well-known blade models, and more than the false-burr imitators. The sky is apparently the limit when it comes to pricing, as even a $2300 grinder has found its way into more than a few kitchens owned by enthusiasts or baristas. But it is still possible to afford burr grinder quality on a tight budget, and anyone searching will do well to start with Baratza.

Covering the consumer grinder market from entry level to full-on professional, Baratza has been a boon to coffee lovers for over a decade. Their entry level grinder, the Encore, features conical steel burrs and 40 steps of adjustment, with a grind quality suitable for anyone brewing drip to french press. It won’t be the most precise machine when it comes to grinding for espresso, but we found it can still get the job done if needed. The plastic used in the body and some internal parts helps to trim away the bulk and cost, but coming in at 7 pounds, the Encore is still a weighty contender. Priced under $150, the Encore is one of the best bang-for-buck grinders around, delivering outstanding performance at a wallet-friendly price.

The Baratza Encore is a superb entry level conical burr grinder.

If perhaps you find yourself thinking that $100+ is a lot for a kitchen appliance, you wouldn’t be alone. Many consumers decide that paying $100 is outrageous for a coffee grinder, and the sentiment is easy to understand given that the vast majority of department store grinders fall below even $80. So what does an extra 50-60% in price get you? Again, real steel burrs like the Encore’s go a long way to providing better grind consistency, as well as a better cup of coffee. It’s also important to remember that those $50 or so can be looked on as an investment. If Baratza’s history is any indication, an Encore should last you longer than five years with good maintenance. Even if you’re grinding four days a week, that’s about 1043 uses - coming out to a bit over $0.12 per use. Most of us can agree: twelve cents is a small price to pay for a better cup of coffee.

Other models on the market in this range include the Capresso Infinity and Bodum Bistro, both conical steel burr grinders. Both can be found for under or around $100, and will give similar grind quality, but they do have their faults and neither has the stand-out service and support that Baratza offers. For that reason, Baratza remains a favorite of specialty coffee enthusiasts at just about any price point.

Grinding by Hand

If you are willing to forego an electric motor, hand grinders have come a long way in recent years and are worthy of a gander. Several models fall far under $50, while offering fairly good grind consistency and overall performance.

Hario makes both the Mini Mill and the Skerton, which use ceramic conical burrs that remain sharp for some time. They are both easy to adjust, and while they falter a bit in the coarse range, they are perfectly suitable for pour over brewing, and the Skerton can even be modified to be stepless for moderate espresso performance.

The Hario Skerton is a hand-cranked mill, great for brewing while traveling or on a tight budget.

Porlex also offers compact hand grinders that are similar to the Mini Mill, and travel rather well thanks to their steel bodies. Going beyond the $100 price range, you can begin to find even more intriguing hand mills, built for performance and precision. Orphan Espresso created their Lido and Pharos grinders around commercial steel burr sets, housing them in more affordable structures meant to appeal to the home enthusiast. By removing the motor and electronic components, a hand grinder has the ability to achieve a much better grind consistency, even better longevity, for a lower price -- at the expense of convenience, of course.

Grinders featured in this section:

Name Hario Mini Mill Hario Skerton Baratza Encore
Description This compact manual burr grinder is budget-friendly and ideal for a drip or Aeropress grind. Its small capacity makes it ideal for travel, and the ceramic burrs are both durable and easy to clean. A modest step up from the Mini Mill, the Skerton offers a larger capacity and a glass grinds container. The ideal grind range is similar, performing best at medium drip grinds. Espresso may be possible, but difficult to dial in due to the large adjustment steps. We often recommend the Encore as an entry-level electric burr grinder. Its 40 adjustment steps and conical steel burrs make for a versatile machine, and quite a bargain for the performance it delivers. Some have found it is capable of grinding for espresso, but we think it excels more when grinding for drip and french press.

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