Coffee Grinder – Which one??


Coffee Grinder.

Photo Credit: Keith Davenport

So I was in need of a coffee grinder, and I was amazed at what a difficult decision it is to decide which one I should get. I was also amazed by how much money I found I was going to have to invest, just on something with a motor and a couple of chunks of metal to grind coffee beans. It would appear that I completely underestimated the importance of the grinder!

In this post I’ll share with you what I’ve learned, in the hope that it will help you to figure out what kind of grinder you might want to go for, and specifically which brand and model you may want to choose depending on your budget and requirements. In short, I spent ages digging, and I’ve tried to put the result of that into one post so that other people in the same position don’t have to invest quite as much time and effort.

I’ve been a coffee lover for years, but as you’ll know if you’ve read some of my other posts, towards the end of last year I started getting more interested in coffee, to the point that rather than just brewing in a cafetiere using pre-ground beans, I started to develop a thirst for knowledge about my favourite drink, including different brewing processes, where this brilliant stuff comes from, this history behind it and so on; that’s how coffee blog came about.

Latte Art - I did that!

I did that! It’s a long way from the blobs and abstract shapes I was making only a few weeks ago!

Over a period of only a few months I’ve gone from being like most people who enjoy coffee, using just one brewing process at home, and just picking up ground coffee beans while I’m in the local supermarket – to someone who uses aeropress, V60, Cafetiere and espresso machine, and who enjoys single estate coffees, brewed with attention to detail – I can even do Latte art… I wouldn’t have expected that a few months ago; I’ve started making a transition from everyday coffee drinker, to home Barista – and that, I certainly didn’t expect.

I say “started”, because the journey isn’t over by any means, I’m literally just starting out. Only recently I was still buying ground beans – any self-confessed coffee snob, coffee geek or home Barista (and pro Barista) will be shaking their head at me, at the notion of not grinding my own beans – but we all have to start somewhere. I have been made to realise lately just how important the grind is, especially so I think with espresso, but it’s important with all brewing processes, and I’d not previously given credit to just how important it is.

So fair enough, I realise now that if I want to make the best possible coffee I can at home, I need to grind the stuff myself just prior to brewing, and really it’s pointless getting everything else right including purchasing amazing beans if I’m not going to grind them fresh – but then I started researching electronic grinder, and I was like “what the froth?” (Yes I probably said something slightly stronger than that). My surprise was at how expensive they tend to be, and how much conflicting opinion there is about which ones to go for, especially the conflicting opinion about some of the lesser expensive options.

Hario Skerton Hand Coffee Grinder.

I got myself a Hario Skerton Coffee Grinder in the meantime.

I bought a Hario Skerton hand-operated grinder – as they’re under £20 and the general consensus from reading the various reviews on other coffee blogs and forums was that they’re a decent hand grinder unlike most they’re capable of working well for most brewing processes including espresso, so I thought I’d just get one of those in the meantime while I tried to figure out which electric one to buy.

I’m impressed with the Skerton for such a low price, and I would recommend it if you want to be able to grind by hand while you take the time to decide which electronic one to go for, or while you save some money. Admittedly it’s a pain in the backside having to grind by hand, and it takes a good minute or so to grind enough for one cup, but it does the job well enough. My only criticism really is that the adjustment isn’t very fine, and it seems there’s only really two settings which will work at all for espresso, I’d like to be able to go just slightly finer with the grind but I can’t due to the way it works, so it’s not ideal – but for £20 as a back up hand grinder, I’m not really complaining that much.

But being serious – I need an electric one, I can’t be faffing about hand grinding every time I want to make a coffee, it’s just a pain, so I began researching, and there were quite a few which appear to be regarded as good grinders – with some difference of opinion on certain machines depending on who you listen to.

Manual coffee grinder hack with Hario Skerton.Although, I did come up with a cunning coffee hack in the meantime! I took the silver screw off the top of the Hario Skerton, and attached my cordless drill just as I’d attach it to a drill bit (the screw is the perfect size) – and it works a treat! Do beware if you do this, the chances are you’ll chew up the thread a bit so the top screw won’t go on quite right after, and you have to be careful to do it slowly especially when using a high powered drill! If you wanted to do it properly, instead of just hashing it like I did, you’d add a nut and then use a socket attachment, but that was too much like hard work for me, so I just attached the drill to the screw as I would with a drill bit.

I’m not suggesting that anyone else does this, I’m just sharing what I did, because I couldn’t be bothered doing it manually ;-). If you’re wondering why I’ve left the handle on, it’s so I can keep an eye on how fast I’m doing it. Without that on there I think it’s really easy to go far too quickly which I have a feeling will probably bugger it up.

This isn’t a long term solution though, I only used this for a few days while I was waiting for my electric grinder to arrive, which I’ll discuss shortly. I did feel rather proud of myself for figuring out a way to use a manual grinder without too much effort, I must admit!

Anyway enough about my laziness, and back to discussing grinders ;-).

The first thing I struggled with was figuring out which kind of grinder to get, I was reading terms like doser or doserless, blade or burr, conical or flat, and so on, so I’ll explain these first.

Blade or Burr?

Blade grinder.

Blades, often used in cheaper grinders. Photo Credit: eBay.

Burr grinder top view.

Burr Grinder – Image Credit: CoffeeGeek.com

You’ll notice that there are some really cheap electric machines which are sold as grinders, and usually if you delve a bit deeper you’ll see that they use blades, not burrs.

Blades cannot grind, they can only slice – so if it has blades, it’s not a grinder, it’s a slicer. Slicing at coffee beans isn’t what we want to be doing, we want to grind them, and this is what Burrs do. Using blade grinder can also statically charge the grounds, making them stick to everything and causing a mess.

You also have little control over how coarse or fine the grind is with blades, you can only do it via timing, and as a result the consistency of the grind size isn’t great. OK you can get them for about £20, and they’re small and portable, so maybe as a back up travel grinder or something for cafetiere or drip, but don’t expect great coffee if you’re using a blade grinder. If you want decent coffee you need a burr grinder.

Flat Burr Vs. Conical Burr?

Flat Grinder Burrs.

Flat Burrs. Image Credit: prima-coffee.com

Conical Burrs.

Conical Burrs. Image Credit: espressoparts.com

You’ll also find that some grinders are advertised as having conical burrs, and some as having flat burrs. Flat burrs work with two burr plates one on top of the other, and the beans are caught in between. Conical burrs work with one inside the other, so the grinding is done vertically rather than horizontally as with flat burr grinders.

From what I’ve been able to see, both flat and burr are used in very well-respected commercial grinders, so it’s not a case that one is particularly superior to the other. There are some Baristas who state that they prefer one over the other, and there are some theories that it depends on what kind of coffee machine you’re using, for instance for espresso some are of the opinion that conical works better with pump espresso machines while flat burrs work better with lever machines, but it all seems to be about personal preference. I think that if you’re just starting out when it comes to home grinding, you don’t need to worry all that much about whether to go for a flat burr machine or conical.

Stepped or Stepless?

Stepped Adjustment on a Mazzer Mini Grinder.

The stepped adjustment on a Mazzer grinder. Photo credit: Clive coffee grinder comparison

Stepless worm drive on a Macap Grinder.

The stepless worm drive adjustment on a Macap grinder. Photo credit: Clive coffee grinder comparison.

Another thing you will notice is that some grinders are labelled as “Stepped” and some as “Stepless”, and this refers to the way the grind size is adjusted. Stepped grinders have a number of settings with references, so you can take note of what setting you have for a particular bean and a particular brew process, whereas stepless don’t have points of reference. Stepless give you the ability to fine tune more, to “dial in” to the bean, and are better suited to folks who are going to be grinding only for one process. If you’re not sure what dialing in means by the way, it just means tweaking the grind to get the perfect extraction, as all beans are different so it’s not a “one size suits all” scenario, you need to dial in each time you put different beans into your grinder.

If you’re only using one brewing process, then it won’t be quite as important to you to have the points of reference that stepped provide, and it may be more important to you to have the ability to fine tune,  for this reason many people who’re only grinding for espresso for instance, decide on stepless vs. stepped, to give them more ability to fine tune their grind.

If you need to be able to switch from espresso to aeropress, to cafetiere for example, as I would (as I use various brewing processes), then you’d be better off with stepped, to allow you to get much closer to being dialed in to each bean for the specific brewing process, other wise you will probably find it a bit of a nightmare to switch from one brewing process to another, especially from one extreme to the other – espresso to cafetiere.

Doser or Doserless?

Rancilio Rocky Doser and Doserless.

The Rancillio Rocky grinder which is available either doser or doserless. Photo Credit Amazon

You’ll see that some grinders are dosing, or “dosers” and some are advertised as non-dosing or doserless. A dosing grinder grinds the beans into the doser, which has triangular segments, and pulling the dosing handle spins the plate to release one dose each time. You may recall having seen a barista in a coffee shop grinding and then pulling a handle a few times to put the coffee into the portafilter, this is how a doser is used. Doserless on the other hand grinds directly into the portafilter, or whatever receptacle you grind into.

So with a doserless you grind on demand, and with a doser you fill up the doser, and then use it as you need it.

A doserless grinder is generally more suited to home use and smaller volume use, whereas doser grinders are better suited to commercial use. The reason for this is that the doser is designed so that you can grind a number of doses in one, and then use them as you need them – in a home environment, with a doser you’re probably going to end up grinding more coffee than you need, which will then be  sitting in there going stale.

In a busy coffee shop then this works fine as the ground coffee isn’t likely to ever be sitting in the doser for a long time going stale, and it speeds up production. For home use though, unless you’re entertaining a house full of guests, the chances are that you’ll not usually be requiring enough ground coffee to use what is sitting in the doser waiting to be used, so there’s a chance of wasted coffee or stale coffee, both of which is bad! Also dosers are more suited for single brew type use – if you want to swap and change fairly regularly from espresso to drip or cafetiere, then any grinds you have sitting in the doser waiting to be used will need to be used or discarded first.

I decided that doserless is right for me anyway.

So now you know a bit more about the various grinder terminologies and options – next thing to look at is brands.

The main grinder brands.

Mazzer super jolly grinder.

The Mazzer Super Jolly grinder.

The names which kept popping up in my searching, was Mazzer, Macap, Cunill, Baratza, Rancilio, Sage / Breville, Eureka, Mahlkonig & Ascaso. There are also some of these brands re-branded (for instance as far as I can tell the La Spaziale grinders are re-badged Macap models).

At the top of the pile in terms of cost and it would seem in terms of how well-respected they are throughout the home barista and pro barista community, would appear to be Mazzer and Macap. Both of these brands appear to be amazing grinders, they’re professional machines that you will see in many coffee shops, and they’re serious bits of kit, with an equally serious price tag.

Eureka grinders appear to also be a great brand,  with a wide range of spanning the mid to upper price range. Mahlkonig look good, and appear to be around the middle of the price range generally speaking, and it’s a similar affair with Cunill. Baratza have grinder models in the entry level and mid level, and Rancilio, Ascaso and Sage / Breville (The Breville we know in the UK are a different firm, which is why they go by the “Sage by Heston Blumenthal” brand here) seem to dominate the entry level.

Keep in mind I’m only talking here about the grinder brands that I have gathered a positive opinion about during my research, there are several other brands, and just because I’m not talking about them doesn’t mean they’re no good – these are just the ones that kept coming up time and time again when I was researching which grinder to go for.

If I had the budget, I would be looking towards the top of the range at something like a Mazzer Mini, or a Mazzer Super Jolly, or Macap M4d. I don’t have pockets that large though, and the other thing that isn’t particularly large is my kitchen, and the top of the range grinders tend to be on the large size, especially with the big bean hoppers. So both in terms of size and cost, I’m looking at something a bit smaller.

So for me, the decision was between the Rancilio Rocky Doserless, the Sage Smart Grinder Pro, the Ascaso i-1 and the  Baratza encore.. These are the entry level grinders which I gathered from the various other reviews are good enough quality for making great coffee, and that will work well for most brew methods.

Baratza encore

Baratza Encore Coffee Grinder.

This is the lowest priced grinder among the ones I was looking at, at around £140 (although the Sage smart grinder pro is on special offer at the moment which puts it currently at the same price).

It’s been around for a while, and from what I can gather it’s a very good grinder for the money, there are some very good user reviews to be found online, just read some of the Amazon reviews – and the coffee geek reviews.

It’s a doserless stepped grinder with 40 settings, and although some people say that to begin with out of the box it might not grind quite as fine as you’d like for some beans for espresso, the general advice from people who’ve had one for a while is to just wait a while before trying to make any adjustments, as after a bit of use it naturally adjusts finer apparently. There’s a review by Seattle coffee gear in which it grinds super fine, almost Turkish grind.

It has 40mm conical burrs, they’re hardened steel but not stainless, there are a couple of comments about little spots of rust on the burrs when taking it out of the box, but that these disappear after a bit of use.

From what I’ve read I get the impression that this grinder performs better for finer grinding for espresso than it does for coarser grinding for cafetiere, there are various comments from users stating that the grind size is a bit inconsistent when grinding at a coarse setting – having said that though, I think this is generally the case with most grinders, that the particle size tends to get less consistent the more coarse the grind.

The hopper capacity is 250g, which is plenty big enough for home use I think, as most people will probably be using 250g bags of beans. For a grinder at this price, this seems like good value for money, it’s fairly compact, it seems like a reliable machine, it looks quite nice, it’s has stepped adjustment and looks simple to use.

Ascaso i-1

Ascaso i1 grinder.

The next in the price range is the Ascaso i-1. I like the look of the Ascaso grinders, and there are two which I was initially interested in, the I1 and also the I2, but the i-1 seems to have much better user reviews than the i-2.

There is a huge detailed review of these grinders over at coffeegeek, and also at Bellabarista. Basically as far as I can tell from this and from many other user reviews, they seem to be a really good grinder for the money. They’re available doser and doserless, and various options in terms of colours and finish. They use a flat burr, 54mm.

The only thing that put me off is the stepless adjustment, it appears that they take some real effort to dial in initially, and if you’re using various brew methods as I do, its going to be a bit of a pain using the stepless adjustment – it takes around 20 turns of the knob apparently to get from espresso to cafetiere grind!

I have read some reviews which state that there have been problems such as chutes and hoppers needing replacing, but a lot of these are older reviews to be fair, and I see that the hopper is now advertised as unbreakable.

The bean hopper on the I1 is 600g, which seems a bit excessive, most bags of beans are 225 or 250g, but they’re still fairly compact even with the big hopper. Some of the colours are quite pretty looking too, and I think they look really flash for the cash. I’m really tempted by this machine too, but it’s just the stepless adjustment that I don’t think would be right for me given that I’ll be grinding for various brew methods.

 

Sage Smart Grinder Pro

Sage Smart Grinder Pro.

The Sage Smart Grinder Pro.

Towards the top of the entry level price range, is the very cool looking Sage By Heston Blumenthal Smart Grinder Pro.

Sage (known as Breville worldwide, they’re called Sage here due to a branding issue) make some nice looking gear, and their smart grinder pro is no exception, I think it looks gorgeous.

As you may have seen, Sage sent me the Oracle espresso machine to use for a week a few months back, that’s a cracking machine – and this grinder is more or less the same grinder from the oracle machine, but as a dedicated grinder. I was very impressed by the oracle, so naturally I’m interested by the smart grinder pro.

Initially I saw some mixed reviews on the blogs, forums and YouTube, but then I realised I was looking at really old reviews of the smart grinder, as opposed to the “Pro”, and some are from several years ago. When I purposely looked at only more recently reviews, of the “pro” model, I discovered that it’s difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about it!

It has a 450g (one pound) bean hopper, stainless steel conical burrs, and it features stepped adjustment, and a unique feature which combines digital and manual adjustment to provide 70 different grind settings, which seems very impressive. The hopper locks into place, and it won’t grind without it being locked in, which is a safety feature, and also when it’s unlocked it also means you can lift up the hopper without coffee beans going all over the place.

You adjust the grind with the knob on the side, and as you move it you will see the pointer moving on the digital display, into the required range. For instance if you want espresso, you just turn it until the pointer gets to espresso, and then at that point you can fine tune to dial in. These features really impressed me, as someone who wants to be able to easily switch between various brew methods. As well as the digital adjustment, there is more fine tuning available with another 10 manual points around the upper burr.

The smart grinder pro also has really clever dose settings, that allow you to select how many cups or shots you’re grinding for. If you’re grinding for espresso, you can tell it how many shots to grind for, if you’re grinding for – or if you’re using a cafetiere or a V60 for instance you can tell it how many cups you’re making, and it will grind the according quantity.

You can grind into your portafilter for espresso (it comes with two sizes of portafilter holder) or into the grinds cup that comes with the machine, or directly into a V60 with filter, or directly into other types of filters.  There’s a pause button which means you can pause the grind while you level the grounds, or whatever the case may be, and then press it again to continue the grind.

It seems fairly quick, and fairly quiet, and it looks really nice. The RRP is £199, but at the moment it’s on offer on Amazon for just £140, which put’s it currently in joint first with the Encore in terms of the lowest cost grinder I’m considering.

Rancilio Rocky

Rancilio Rocky Doserless Coffee Grinder.

The most expensive of the bunch I’m considering, is the Rancilio Rocky, Doserless version. I actually nearly bought this grinder before I started researching, as a couple of people I’d spoken to had recommended it as a good entry level grinder for the home Barista.

The main reason I just didn’t buy one of these without researching is that at around £250 it’s more than I had budgeted for a grinder, but to be fair at that point I hadn’t quite realised just how important the grinder is to the whole equation.

They do a doser model of the rocky too, but as I said earlier I don’t think a doser is right for me. Maybe occasionally if we have guests and “Kev’s Cafe” is particularly busy, I might wish I’d gone for a doser, but the vast majority of the time I just wouldn’t be grinding enough to make it worthwhile – and I don’t want to waste good coffee beans!

Rancilio are a well known Italian brand, and the combination of the Rancilio Rocky grinder and the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine appears to be a very popular choice as a startup setup for home espresso.

It uses flat stainless steel burrs, 50mm stainless steel. It’s a stepped grinder, and has a 300 gram bean hopper.

With regards buying in the UK and warranty, just double check with whoever you’re buying it from as to what the warranty terms are and how it’s handled. From what I can tell, there is no appointed distributor as such in the UK for this product, so the warranty is going to be directly with the company you purchase it from rather than being directly with the manufacturer.

I really like the look of the Rocky, but the thing that puts me off is the adjustment. If you’re adjusting to make it grind finer, you need to adjust it while it’s grinding, and to do that you have to have to hold two buttons while turning the hopper in order to adjust – it’s a two person job really, it looks like a real faff to try to do this yourself, and I can see a lot of coffee being wasted while adjusting, which I’m not keen on. It surprises me that they can’t put these buttons that need to be pressed simultaneously, closer together, so you don’t need two pairs of hands to do it!

Also I’ve read that the adjustment steps are quite big, and that once you’re into the espresso grind, each step equates to about 4 seconds difference in extraction time. Having said that, I’ve also read that you can modify the rocky it to be stepless – but I’d rather just get one for now that I can use as-is out of the box.

Buying a used premium grinder

Another thing I was considering doing was buying something like a Mazzer or Macap grinder second hand. They do crop up quite regularly, see recently sold listings to see what kind of price these machines have sold for recently.

I’d looked into that option, and it seems that these grinders last a long time, so it seemed like a good idea. The burrs might need replacing especially if they’ve seen commercial use for quite a while, but that doesn’t look like too much of an expense.

Mazzer grinders seem to really hold their value used. There is the occasional bargain, but most seem to fetch a price which is way out of my budget. Macap grinders though do at times seem to go for a song, some ex commercially used Macap grinders close at not much above the £100 mark – I’m not sure why this is, but most of them tend to be Dosers, which I don’t want. There are other commercial grinders that crop up on eBay too, some of them are really valuable machines, but quite often they seem to fetch a fairly respectable price.

There are sometimes Mazzer and Macap (and other brands) that are re-branded under different names, so if you do a bit of research you can sometimes find a bargain that way.

Here are some pre-done searches, if you click these you’ll be able to see what’s available now on eBay, ending soonest, UK only.

Used Mazzer Grinder

Used Macap Grinder

Used grinder (look for any that look like re-branded versions of pricey machines).

I couldn’t find any used doserless grinders that were ending anywhere near the amount I was wanting to spend, so I decided against it – I might have found one if I had been more patient.

So, which grinder did I go for?

I decided against both the ascaso i-1 because of the stepless adjustment, if I was only using it for espresso then I may have gone for this one, but for using for different brew methods I decided that this would make it a bit of a pain to use. So the choice then became between the Rancilio Rocky, the Sage smart grinder Pro and the Baratza Encore.

The winner is…. (drum roll please)

The Sage Smart Grinder Pro

Sage Smart Grinder Pro.

The Sage Smart Grinder Pro.

There are quite a few reasons I’ve decided on this grinder.

Firstly, the adjustment just seems so much more user friendly and innovative than the other grinders, especially when it comes to going in between different brewing techniques. The digital controls seem really nice to use, from all the videos I’ve watched, and the features they’ve added over the past few years seem really clever, and not just clever for the sake of it, but cleverness that equates to a better user experience. Being able to turn the grind size dial and see exactly where I’m going from cafetiere to espresso, being able to pause the grind while I level out the grinds, the ability to set how many cups or shots I’m grinding for, it’s just really clever.

Another big part of the decision was support and warranty. With some of the other grinders (and it’s the same with many brands of espresso machines) the warranty is with the supplier, and there’s main contact in the UK for support.

For example there isn’t a Rancilio UK (as far as I’m aware, anywway) or an Ascaso UK, or a Baratza UK, there are just various suppliers importing them and retailing them, and they’re responsible for the support. If you buy a machine from a particular company, and they go out of business, or turn out to be a nightmare for support, it’s unlikely that another supplier is going to offer you support, since they didn’t sell you the machine.

With sage, all of the machines are shipped from Sage appliances UK, and all support is directly with them – I like that, it gives me the peace of mind that if there is any kind of a problem, I can go directly to the manufacturer for support.

Aesthetics are another reason behind my decision, as I really like the way they look. It’s not the most important thing, I’d certainly choose function over style, but I can’t help but be attracted by the looks of this shiny machine – maybe I was a Magpie in a previous life? ;-). Being stainless steel, it will look good next to my Gaggia classic, and it’s nice and compact too so I won’t be stealing too much worktop space, which is good since we don’t have enough as it is.

I like the fact that it’s really easy to remove the bean hopper without getting beans all over the place, and that it comes with portafilter holders which are easily removable so that you can grind into the grinds tub that comes with it (which has a lid, which is handy) and directly into the V60 or into other filters.

In terms of the performance of the grinder itself, as far as I can see from all of the reviews I’ve been reading (once I was careful to check I was reading reviews of the newer model, the smart grinder pro, and not the older “smart grinder”), it performs really well at all grind settings from cafetiere to espresso.

Last but no means least one of the reasons for my decision, was price. If it was going to cost me £199, then actually I think I would probably have still chosen this grinder in the end for the sake of £50 or £60, but I would have contemplated the Baratza Encore a bit more I think, and I may have also spent time looking more on eBay for used Macap and Mazzer grinders.

So there we go – my new grinder, the Sage smart grinder pro. I will of course create a proper in depth user review of this grinder once I’ve had a bit of time to get used to it.

I hope this post helps if you were in a similar position to me, in that you were trying to figure out which coffee grinder to go for.

Life is like a box of chocolates, so follow me on twitter, and facebook, and that’s all I have to say about that.

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