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Stepping Up Your Grinder Game

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Beginners guide to grinders part two

Now that we've covered the basics of buying a burr grinder, what comes next? Whether you are looking to upgrade from your current grinder, or you'd rather jump a few rungs up the ladder for your first grinder, your options are myriad.

Taking the Next Step

If you’re looking for something beyond entry level, say $200-500 or above, your options are expansive. Finding the perfect grinder will depend mainly on your budget and what you plan to use it for, but rest assured that there’s something out there for everybody.

If you plan on doing primarily brewed coffee, either in the form of single cups or small batches, most lower-budget grinders should meet your needs just fine. Again, Baratza is a fine place to start looking, and their Virtuoso and Preciso grinders are the perfect step up from a starter grinder. Upgraded burrs, sturdier burr mounts, more powerful motors, and copious adjustment steps that are even more precise are all features of the higher end models.

Want even more performance? The Forté BG is Baratza’s top of the line brewing grinder, featuring flat steel burrs, weight- and time-based dosing, over 400 steps of adjustment, a robust metal body, and fantastic grind consistency. The price falls closer to $1,000 than $100, but you get a lot of grinder for your money (and it won’t hog up your counterspace).

Thinking about espresso somewhere down the line? Baratza’s Preciso, Vario, and Forté are all great full-range grinders capable of fine-tuning for espresso, but there are a few other brands out there as well. The Rancilio Rocky is an old standby that is frequently accompanied by the description, “built like a tank.” It’s meant as an espresso grinder, but its medium-range grind quality is suitable for brewed coffee as well. Priced between the Preciso and Vario, the Rocky has a longer-standing reputation for quality of both grind and build, but really any of these options will be a great pick.

Baratza's Preciso has a range of over 400 steps, making it a great choice for both brewed coffee and espresso at home.

Want to go all the way? It’s not unheard of to find a commercial grinder in a home setting. If you’re a home roaster, you may have figured out by now that a light duty commercial batch grinder would pay for itself in convenience rather quickly. A Mahlkonig Kenia paired with an understanding spouse (it’s got a footprint like a sasquatch) will not only work wonders for your own at-home brews, but it can whip up a bag of freshly-ground, freshly-home-roasted goodness in no time. Your friends and family will be delighted, even as you wax lyrical about the wonders of grinding at home and refer them to a certain blog to set them off on the right foot.

If your coffers runneth over, or you simply won’t settle for anything but the best, then the Mahlkonig EK43 is the apple of your eye. Currently the darling of the specialty coffee industry, the EK43 was intended as a bulk spice grinder, and coffee has only been a more recent application for the machine. With just shy of two horsepower, the EK’s 98mm burrs will rip through a pound of beans in under a minute. But this beast also has near-unrivaled grind consistency, and precise grind control capable of both great brewed coffee and great espresso. Bundle that up with miniscule grind retention, and you’ve got one heck of a grinder. The high price tag may make most people sweat, but all the same it has a high bang for buck ratio.

Especially for Espresso

We couldn’t write about selecting a grinder without devoting an entire section to espresso alone. You see, espresso is a very unique method of extracting coffee, and as such demands a bit more of a grinder than many other methods. With espresso, your mistakes and misses are amplified all the more, cranked to eleven. The grinder is often touted as being as important as the machine when it comes to espresso, and some will even assert that it is the most crucial factor in espresso brewing. Sounds dramatic, right?

A Mazzer Mini was designed for commercial use, but is small enough for most kitchen counters. Your espresso will thank you for the upgrade!

There’s good reason to invest in a higher quality grinder when it comes to espresso, and a lot of that is based on some fairly technical science. For those of us without degrees in physics, the layman’s version comes down to water tending to take the path of least resistance whenever it is flowing over or through something. In espresso brewing, you are forcing water through a cake of coffee at around 130 psi of pressure, and only for a few seconds. Under that pressure, your water will stop at nothing to exploit the weak points in your coffee puck. Much of the outcome will rely on your barista superpowers and skill in creating a level, compact cake of grounds, but a good deal also depends on the quality of the grind your grinder can produce.

One of the most important things to note about espresso grinders in general is that they tend to run more expensive than their counterparts designed for brewed coffee, generally because that price comes along with higher quality. Espresso itself can be an expensive hobby, but one place you should not skimp is on a capable grinder. Common advice states that around 50% of your espresso budget should go to the grinder when assembling your first espresso set-up, a rule of thumb worth heeding. While you need not spend over $1,000 on a grinder alone if you don’t wish to, you do have to pay a little more than usual to play when it comes to espresso.

Grind consistency is crucial to creating an even and well-formed puck, so a grinder can make or break your espresso even before water hits coffee.

Just as we discussed before with grind uniformity being paramount to getting a tasty cup of coffee, it’s also the cornerstone to a good espresso extraction. Uniformly-sized particles are going to sit more nicely together when compacted in a basket, forming a fairly well-structured obstacle course for your water to navigate. Lose that uniformity, and you’ll end up with lots of gaps that allow the water to escape through quite easily, resulting in a fast, weak, and unappealing shot. What could have been a velvety and sweet shot to sip on can all too easily become a thin and bitter cup of dreck, unless your grind consistency is in line.

Clearly, uniformity is an especially desirable characteristic in an espresso grinder, so what comes next? As it happens, espresso can be pretty picky about grind size (cranked to eleven, remember), and many grinders are simply not up to the task of adjusting in fine enough increments to get a good shot. Stepless grinders are often touted as the crème de la crème for espresso purposes, as they offer an essentially infinite amount of grind settings. There are no enumerated increments, just smooth and continuous adjustment.

It’s as if you are Goldilocks, except you can’t actually reach that bowl of just-right porridge.

Stepped grinders, featuring numbered or lettered settings and distinct clicks or gaps between them, aren’t to be ruled out entirely. Going the stepped route will suffice as long as you have plenty of very small steps at your disposal. The risk with stepped grinders is that an ideal espresso setting may fall between settings, leaving you high and dry with a sour and thin shot at one spot, a bitter and slow shot at the next, and perfection somewhere in between. It’s as if you are Goldilocks, except you can’t actually reach that bowl of just-right porridge.

The Baratza Vario features ceramic burrs, which are designed to excel anywhere from espresso to drip.

We’ve already touched on a few espresso-capable grinders in the sub-$1,000 range: Baratza’s Preciso, Vario, and Forté, as well as Rancilio’s Rocky. These are all great choices for your first espresso grinder, and while they are not stepless, they have very fine steps which allow you to fully dial in your espresso’s syrupy coffee goodness. If you’re feeling a bit fancy, or you’ve been saving up your pocket change long enough to afford a more expensive model, the next step is to consider small commercial grinders for your home.

While Mazzer’s line of time-tested Italian espresso grinders may seem more at home in a café with a barista at the helm, far be it from espresso enthusiasts to let that stop them. Mazzer’s Mini and Super Jolly are no strangers to residential kitchens, as they offer commercial performance for under $1,000. With bigger, knife-sharp flat burrs, they can spit out espresso doses in seconds, and their cast steel casings will last a lifetime. High-quality and more than durable, the only real drawback is that they don’t exactly look at home sitting next to a toaster oven, and the Super Jolly in particular may not quite fit under your average kitchen cabinet. But if function matters more than form, a Mazzer is a surefire winner for espresso.

Mahlkonig's K30 Vario espresso grinder has all the right features for competition - or for the avid home user.

Want even more espresso performance with the quality to match? Look no further than the Mahlkonig K30 Vario. This little guy is the official espresso grinder for the United States Barista Championship for a very good reason. In addition to top-notch build quality and reliability, it also features precise timed dosing, which is adjusted on the fly as easily as the grind setting is (read: very easily!). You can dial in your preferred grind and dose in mere minutes, and then adjust in micro-increments over time to keep those perfect shots flowing. Coming in at over $1,600, you would be right to demand that it’s all worth the cost, and you would also be quite pleased with your investment. The K30 Vario is a machine whose value is not easily matched, to say the least.

Outside the products we've discussed, there are still more great options for making espresso at almost any budget. Just be sure to look for the key features of great grind consistency, very fine adjustment, and a manufacturer with a reputation for great quality. This ensures that whichever grinder you choose, you'll still be up to your elbows in great-tasting espresso and your equipment will last you a good long time. If you play your cards right and invest wisely in your grinder, you'll be well on your way to barista stardom in no time at all.

Grinders featured in this section:

Name Baratza Encore Baratza Virtuoso Baratza Preciso Rancilio Rocky
Description 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. The Virtuoso adds upgraded burrs and an overall better grind consistency over the Encore. It lacks the fine adjustment of its big brother, the Preciso, so it isn’t recommended for espresso. But it will be a knockout performer for your other home coffee brewing needs. Baratza’s Preciso is a standout for home espresso on a budget. With 440 steps of adjustment, you can fine-tune a tasty espresso, or grind up a batch of beans for your Chemex in the same session. Rocky and Silvia make a perfect pair. Rancilio’s time-tested home espresso grinder is still going strong today. Build like a tank and designed to put fine-tuned espresso performance in the home, you can’t go wrong with a Rocky as your first espresso grinder.
Name Baratza Vario Mazzer Mini Mazzer Super Jolly Baratza Forté
Description Baratza’s original espresso-focused grinder is still a showstopper. Its ceramic burrs remain sharp longer than steel, and over 200 adjustment steps make dialing in your coffee a breeze. Let’s not forget the programmable timed doses as well, perfect for storing profiles if you like to keep multiple coffees on hand. A full commercial grinder that’s compact enough for your kitchen counter. 64 mm steel burrs with stepless adjustment, wrapped up in a solid cast metal body - your shots have never tasted better. Boasting almost twice the grinding speed of the Mini, the Super Jolly takes your espresso performance up a notch. If you aren’t already slinging shots for guests at your home espresso parties, it won’t take long for you to start once you’ve got a Super Jolly. Commercial performance in a home-friendly package. The Forté features touchscreen controls, a rugged metal body, incredible grind quality, and comes in either an All Purpose (AP) and Brew Grinder (BG) model. This is a grinder any pro would be happy to have at home.
Name Mahlkonig Kenia Mahlkonig K30 Vario Mahlkonig EK43
Description Designed for retail use, the Mahlkonig Kenia offers full-range adjustment for both single doses and whole bags of coffee. This is a great option for the home roaster who gives their wares to friends and family as gifts in addition to brewing up all kinds of fresh coffee at home. Practicing to be the next United States Barista Champion? Then you’ll need the performance of the official competition grinder. Dialing in has never been easier, with quick and simple stepless adjustment, programmable timed dosing, and on-the-fly timer adjustment to the tenth of a second. Minimal grind retention also means your shots are consistently tasty. If you aren’t satisfied by anything but the best, then the EK43 is your go-to grinder. Its 98 mm burrs, beefy 1.75 hp motor, and range of adjustment from Turkish to french press, not to mention unmatched grind uniformity easily make it the darling of the coffee industry. It won’t fit under your average kitchen cabinets, but you’re not an average coffee drinker.

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Where do the Commercial Units rank with these? Grindmaster, Bunn Ect..

Most commercial batch grinders like that will have very good grind consistency, but will also cost a bit more and take up more counter space. Still, sometimes you can find a great deal - Bunn G series grinders can sometimes be found lightly used for $200 or less in the US. With good, sharp burrs, those grinders will last years and years and will perform very well at a wide range of settings. They're not often practical for the home user, but certainly are worth considering for the enthusiast with ample room for coffee equipment.

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