Demystifying the Humble Coffee Grinder

As Ashley and I delve deeper into the world of specialty coffee (on the sales and manufacturing side anyways), one thing that ceases to amaze me is how mystical the coffee grinder seems to be.  I suppose it’s the same for everyone, though.  We all take for granted that we can go to a grocery store and either A) purchase ground coffee or B) buy bulk whole bean coffee and grind it on the spot.  And as with most things we forget that the coffee grinder itself was once a staple of the American household.  It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution when the food industry went through major changes did ground coffee even appear on store shelves.

This week, I’d like to explore the all-powerful coffee grinder.  We’ll take a look at why freshly ground coffee brings out the best in your cup and look at some options to get you started grinding your own beans at home.

The Stigma of Freshness

If you’ve followed our blogs in the past, you know our feelings and opinions of what fresh coffee truly is.  The stigma of freshness boils down to how we, personally, perceive freshness and what fresh really is.  To some, fresh is homemade, just-out-of-the-oven bread while to others it’s that first slice out of the packaged loaf.  With that said, coffee is no different.

coffee grinder

For some, fresh coffee is getting it from us 2 or 3 days after a roast.  To others, it’s cracking open the can of Folgers for the first time.  While all of these opinions are validated in their own righteousness, we take freshness to a different level.  Freshness, to us, is right off the roaster, just out of the grinder coffee.  Perhaps you feel the same or maybe you have a differing opinion.  Sometimes my personal standards of quality come out as a little snobbish, but it’s with good intentions: I want you to have the freshest, best coffee physically possible.  And I take great pride in that.

Ground Coffee: How Fresh is Fresh

Until recently, I honestly didn’t know that ground coffee was a ticking freshness time bomb.  I’ve always ground exactly the amount of coffee I need for a given brew, but I never took a minute to figure why I was grinding my coffee when I did.  I would think to myself, “Self, every legitimate cafe I’ve ever been to did it, so why shouldn’t I?”  That’s what got me started.

After only 15 minutes, ground coffee can lose up to 60% of its aromatic qualities.

It wasn’t until I read How to Make Coffee by Lani Kingston did I realize that after only 15 minutes, ground coffee can lose up to 60% of its aromatic qualities.  In other words, coffee begins to degrade almost immediately after grinding and can, in fact, lose many of the characteristics that make coffee what it is.  This is the precise reason why grinding coffee fresh is the way to go.  For many people, grinding coffee in the morning is as ritualistic as drinking the cup itself.

What Are My Options?

In essence, there are two types of coffee grinders on the market: blade grinders and burr grinders.  Blade grinders can be thought of as miniature blenders for whole coffee beans.  While they are effective, you cannot control the fineness nor consistency of the grind.  These are often extremely inexpensive (as little as $15 or $20), but don’t offer the degree of control we’d like to have to maximize extraction.

On the other hand, burr grinders are the king of coffee grinders.  Slightly more expensive but 100% better, burr grinders have two cylindrical or conical burrs that actually grind the coffee instead of blend it to pieces.  As a result, you can control the degree of your grind and really dial it in for the specific brewing methods you use on a regular basis.

Let’s take a look at some common grinders you might find suitable for getting started with grinding coffee at home.

Generic Blade Grinder

Look about anywhere and you can find an inexpensive blade grinder.  Take a look at this KRUPS Blade Grinder on Amazon.  While a blade grinder such as this will get the job done, I can’t (in good conscience) recommend anyone getting a blade grinder especially since a decent burr grinder is only a few dollars more.  Nevertheless, it’s not my job to sell you on a Baratza Encore, but to get you a grinder that will do the job.

Cuisinart DBM-8 Automatic Burr Grinder

If you’re looking to get a burr grinder without breaking the bank, take a look at the DBM-8.  For a little less than $50, you can have a pretty darn decent burr grinder to get you started.  We actually have one of these at home and it does a great job for basic pour over or French Press brews.  If you’re looking at getting into espresso, you might want to look for a better quality machine.

coffee grinder

The Cuisinart DBM-8. Photo Credit: Amazon.com

With approximately 20 different grind settings, this grinder will about get you wherever you need to go (aside from espresso, of course).  Everything is removable, so cleaning is a breeze, and the conical hopper helps keep beans feeding through the burrs.  (This is a nice feature to have as other burr grinder hoppers are curved and will often stop the flow of beans into the burrs.)

All-in-all this definitely isn’t a bad starting grinder.

Hario Skerton

Another personal favorite around our household is the Hario Skerton.  This burr grinder features ceramic burrs for more accurate and consistent grinds.  The grinder has virtually limitless adjustability options; however, it takes an experienced eye or at least a correctly calibrated electric burr grinder to dial it in the first time.

coffee grinder

Hario Skerton
Photo Credit: The Gadget Flow

We have one of these at home, and we use it quite often.  Sometimes, there’s nothing better than slowing life down a bit and using an old fashioned hand grinder.  It really does an outstanding job.  With no need for electricity, this grinder is capable of making long road trips and is a great camping companion.  Couple it with an AeroPress, and you’re good to go just about anywhere as long as you can get hot water.

Perhaps one of the only downfalls of the Skerton is its adjustability.  While simple, there really isn’t any way of knowing where the burrs are set within the grinder itself.  Only trial and error and an experienced eye can tell you what grind setting you’ve achieved.  With that said, we keep ours on a medium-fine setting that seems to do the trick for most of our brewing methods.

Baratza Coffee Grinders

Baratza is one of the big names in coffee grinders, and buying one will not leave you disappointed.  From the entry-level Baratza Encore to the top of the line Baratza Forte, you’re sure to find a grinder that will work for your specific needs.

coffee grinder

Baratza Encore
Photo Credit: Baratza

You’re likely reading this post saying, “Why the heck do I need a $130 coffee grinder?  All I want to do is get started.”  And you’re probably right; however, one of the benefits (as with all purchases) to buying more than you need is that you likely won’t ever have to upgrade no matter the situation you find yourself in.  With that said, the Encore may be exactly what you need to get started and go beyond.

If you brew several different types of coffee and desire the precision to make your coffee more than good (dare I say excellent), then a premium grinder is an excellent place to start.

Rancilio Rocky Coffee Grinder

If you know me at all, you know that I would love nothing more than to buy a full-on, beautiful Rocket Espresso Apartamento and pair it with an equally beautiful Rocket Espresso Fausto Grinder to make my ultimate home espresso setup.

Alas, we don’t swim in a house full of money.  With that said; however, the Rancilio Rocky would probably be my next choice in line.  While there are many machines out there that would give you far more fine tuning abilities than the Rocky, it’s been time-tested and home barista approved for years.  That means that parts are readily available, and the design has been proven to work.

coffee grinder

Rancilio Rocky Coffee Grinder
Photo Credit: Seattle Coffee Gear

With 55 different grind settings, the Rocky has plenty of room to play and can grind coffee for virtually any brew method.  Unlike many of the espresso-specific grinders, the Rocky maintains its versatility and allows you to grind coffee for whatever brew you choose.

Conclusion

Beyond a doubt, the number one way you can improve your coffee drinking experience is to emphasize freshness in your routine.  Getting freshly roasted coffee beans from a local roaster is the best thing to do, but adding a quality coffee grinder to enhance the freshness of your cup is a must for any serious coffee drinker.  Hopefully, by now we’ve been able to cover most of the basics for maintaining fresh coffee.  Coffee storage is obviously paramount, and we covered that in a separate blog post.

Aside from buying fresh coffee, storing it in a way to maximize freshness, and grinding coffee as you need it, there really isn’t much more to the freshness story.  Let us know in the comments below how you grind your coffee and how you prefer to maximize freshness in that area!

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