Why You Need a Coffee Grinder
Coffee beans don't brew themselves. One of the most essential steps in releasing their awesomeness into your daily wake up juice is to bust them up into little pieces. I'm sure this has really hit home for you if you've ever been gifted a pound of whole bean coffee and didn't have the proper equipment to grind it with. And sometimes a great specialty coffee may not be available pre-ground. Bummer. Maybe you've even found yourself poaching a grocery store grinder, getting your coffee grounds coated with the flavoring of every mocha, coconut, vanilla, and butterscotch cookie flavored bean that's been through the community grinder. The biggest benefit of owning a personal coffee grinder is that it empowers you to grind and brew whatever beans you're most stoked on, whenever you need.
Another big benefit—fresh ground coffee makes better brew. Yes, you can get coffee pre-ground and save yourself some money and elbow grease. There are also coffee "pods" that you can pop into a press-button machine for instant brown liquid each morning. But we're going to assume that you didn't get to this article in search of the status quo!
We don't just want you to find the right grinder, we want you to get the best possible results from it. But the coffee grinder world is actually a little strange. For example: "cups" are not really metric 8 ounce cups when referred to by grinders or other equipment in the coffee industry, and typically the "coarse" setting on a grinder makes lousy French press coffee. Weird, right? But we're here to help. In this article we'll be discussing which coffee grinding equipment will best fit your needs, but littered throughout we'll also have a few pro tips to get you grinding coffee like a boss. By the time we're done, you'll be stoked on the coffee you're making.
Types of Grinders
Blade Vs Burr Grinder
Blade grinders can be pretty handy. We didn't review a lot of blade grinders because the top grinders in the market tend to be burr models. However we did test two of these (the Krups Fast Touch and the Epica Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder) because they are so popular. These kind of grinders have a unique set of benefits—they're very affordable and they're small. This comes in handy when you want to save counter space or take your coffee grinder on a trip. On the other hand, blade grinders are often assumed to produce inferior coffee when compared to burr grinders. However, our tests show that this is not always the case. So depending on your needs, your budget, and also considering that there are some really weaksauce burr grinders out there, a burr grinder may not always be a superior choice.
Blade grinders have a compartment with a spinning blade on the bottom. Throw your coffee in there, put the cap on, and press a button to start. Stop grinding when you think you have a decent grind size for your purposes. The blade grinder explodes your coffee of choice so that you can extract its wonderful flavor during brewing. However, the downside of these grinders is that they lack precision. This is partly because there is some guesswork in determining how long you should grind. But also, as all these beans in the grinding compartment are being whacked apart, some are broken repeatedly while others take less of a beating. The result is a mix of different grind sizes. This can limit the quality of your brew because the "fines" or powdery coffee can easily yield a bitter taste and the "boulders" won't give up much of their flavor. (Side note: blade grinders aren't recommended for use with espresso machines because the pulverized coffee powder they produce cause cloggage during brewing.)
The taste quality that blade grinders produce is indeed limited, but of the two blade grinders we tested, the flavor quality was still "okay." We recommend the Mira Electric because it was a lot easier to use. It didn't win any awards for making the "world's best cup of coffee," but the Mira did win a Best Buy Awared for being such a functional unit with a list price of only $22.
Burr grinders offer a whole different set of benefits. They allow you to select a specific and repeatable grind size, they can store coffee in their hopper, and they usually give you an option of how much coffee to grind out. For the most part burr grinders also give you better tasting coffee. However, for a decent one you will have to fork out at least $100. If you have the cash to spend, don't need something travel-friendly, and have counter space where you can keep one of these, then we definitely recommend a burr grinder rather than a blade (with a few exceptions, discussed below).
Burr grinders function by crushing coffee between the edges of two rotating burrs. The coffee is stored in a hopper and falls into the grind chamber after passing through the gap between the burrs. The user can adjust how "tight" or "loose" this gap is to select a different grind size. This typically gives a more consistent grind than the "press 'n' guess" blade design that repeatedly shatters coffee beans until you choose to stop it. This is the big reason that burr grinders are assumed to be superior to blade grinders. But this is another "pretty much true" statement. Although the KitchenAid Burr and Cuisinart Supreme Grind are burr style grinders, they performed much more poorly (2-3 points lower) in our taste tests than both of our blade grinder options. We don't recommend the KitchenAid or the Supreme Grind because they cost more than a blade grinder and offer fewer benefits overall. If you're trying to save a few bucks, we recommend the Best Buy Award winner, the Capresso Infinity, as an affordable and high quality burr option.
First Pro Tip: Key Factors in Coffee Taste
Here are factors that contribute to a great cup of coffee:
- Quality of coffee used
- Cleanliness of brewing device
- Freshness of coffee
- Grind size and quality
- Flavor extraction
- Coffee to water ratio
- Brew method
Can you guess which factor makes up the greatest percentage of a cup of coffee's wonderful flavor? All of the above. Every one of these factors can make or break your brew. A perfectly ground, freshly brewed, impeccably extracted cup of freshly roasted, carbonized black death is still going to taste like death. Or how about using excellent coffee in an old funky machine or with a terribly fine grind? You'll still get stale, dingy, off flavors and that dirty, bitter, dragon-breath mouthfeel dominating the cup. If you've ever wondered why manual brewing (discussed later) is all the rage these days, this pretty much says it all—variable control is key for making a killer good cup.
Taste is Kind of a Big Deal
This is one of the biggest factors to consider in selecting the right coffee grinder. And better taste doesn't always require more elbow grease or come with a bigger price tag. The Editors' Choice Award winner, the OXO On Barista Brain, was the easiest grinder to use and wasn't the most expensive grinder we tested.
Different Grinders, Different Taste
We found that different grinders produce different quality of taste and even highlight different aspects of the coffee's flavor profile. Do you want to spend more for best taste and get the OXO On Barista Brain? The OXO scored highest for quality of taste because we used a complex and bodied blend to get a big picture of what flavors would shine through with each grinder and the OXO did a first class job of bringing all these flavors into the brew. Do you want something punchy and pronounced like the cup that the Bodum Bistro produces, or do you want something of the same quality that's a little more rounded like the Capresso Infinity gives you? Check out the quality of taste scores and each coffee grinder's product review to get an idea of what sort of flavor characteristics each of these machines will highlight in your coffee.
Pro Tip: Dialing in the Grind
No matter which grinder you choose, your most important task is to dial in the grind. The aroma of fresh ground coffee is incredible, and when you get the perfect grind setting you're essentially capturing all the goodness of that aroma so you can drink it. When coffee beans are cracked and ground, all their complex volatile flavor compounds are released, and you can use hot water to extract these wonderful flavors into your favorite mug. A good grinder should help you do exactly that and help you do so with as little inconvenience as possible. With a good coffee grinder at your disposal you can easily make average coffee taste good and the specialty stuff can taste awesome.
Our How We Test article explains how careful we were to make sure that each machine produced its best possible brew. If it was bitter, we loosened the grind. If it was weak or sour, we tightened the grind. We kept clicking away on the grind settings until we nailed it. All our scores for quality of taste reference the end results of this trial and error process. You could very well select a grinder with a taste score of 9 like the OXO On Barista Brain and yet not experience the "full flavored" cup that we raved about in its review if you use a less than ideal grind setting.
Understanding Extraction — The "Sweet Spot"
Extraction is the most essential concept to making an awesome cup. The general idea of extraction is that there are yummy flavors in the coffee that you want to pull into your brewing water. There are several factors that increase extraction, including but not limited to higher water temperature, more exposed surface area of the coffee, and a longer time during which the coffee and water hang out together. If you "under-extract" or don't extract enough flavor from the coffee, you end up with weak, sour, watery coffee that lacks depth and body.
On the other hand if the coffee is brewed too hot, too long, or is ground too fine, exposing too much of the coffee beans' surface area, the coffee can be "over-extracted." After you extract all the yummy flavors you start pulling out bitter flavors that overshadow and destroy the deliciousness of the coffee and dry out your mouth. What does over-extraction taste like? Try grinding some coffee into powder, using a finer setting on your grinder, put some of it in your hand, then lick it. Now try to get that taste out of your mouth. There's a lot of amazing and delicious flavor in roasted coffee, but no one wants that much flavor.
So the key to making a good coffee is extracting all the goodness of the coffee into your brew without overdoing it. When you nail it, the brew basically tastes as good as the ground coffee smells.
The Right Grind Size for Your Brew
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts for determining the perfect grind size for your brewing situation. Each brew method requires a different grind size to yield optimal extraction. French press coffee requires a grind that's more coarse than drip. And when brewing drip coffee, different batch sizes require a different grind size as well; a single cup pour-over will want a smaller grind than a 12-cup batch of auto drip. But coffee grinders don't have perfectly specified grind settings for each particular brewing scenario. They only have a spectrum of options and sometimes indicate a recommended range for different brew styles. Not only that, but every grinder's settings are different than their competitors'—sometimes a lot different. To find the right grind size for your brew you'll have to perform a few brewing experiments.
Let's Do This Thing
So let's dial in your grind. Research the recommended grind size for your brew method, brew up a batch, then sip away to see what you think about the taste. Is it watery or sour? First, make sure you're using a decent ratio (as discussed later in this article), and if so, grind finer. Does it have a lingering bitterness or dry out your mouth? Grind more coarse. Keep all your other brewing variables the same, only changing the grind size. Try loosening it or tightening it significantly at first and then in smaller increments until you close in on the "sweet spot." You can do an experiment once a day along with your coffee making routine, or you can just blast away like we did and do multiple experiments all at once. You can pick up some tricks by reading about how we dialed in each grinder in our How We Tested article.
Blade grinder users: you'll want to check the manual for recommended grind times and experiment with different lengths of time grinding (rather than the grind settings that burr machines have) for your best brew. Grind sizes on a blade model will generally feel more coarse than optimal results on a burr grinder. Keep in mind that the amount of coffee you use will also influence how the blade grinder chops your coffee so try to keep this variable consistent as you're dialing in your preferred grind.
Pro Tip: Grind Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Don't hesitate to experiment using grind settings that seem to stray from the recommended range for your brewing method. You might find that you get your best drip coffee on a "fine" setting rather than a "medium" setting, and so on. Out of the 11 grinders that we tested, only the Breville Smart Grinder Pro, the Capresso Infinity, and the Cuisinart Deluxe Grind actually produced their best cup of coffee within the recommended grind settings. But this isn't the norm. Aside from these three grinders, every grinder we tested gave us better results for both French press and drip on a tighter setting than recommended.
Preferred Brew Method - French Press or Drip
Can certain grinders be more ideal for a preferred brew method? Yes. Not only do different ways of brewing coffee require different grind sizes, but different brew methods will give you different results in the cup. This is why we performed a taste test with each grinder for both drip style and French press coffee. We were surprised to find that some grinders performed better in a particular brew method, and others yielded a tie between their French and drip scores. In this section we're going to give you the spray on what kind of cup to expect from each brew method and which grinders performed best for French and drip.
French Press Coffee
French press coffee is easy to make. It's the classic "just add water" brew method, and in many cases it can help you make a better brew than most coffee machines on the market. This is because you can control every brewing variable—water temperature, brew time, and so on. Add hot water to your coffee, let it soak for 3-5 minutes, and pour it out when you think you've captured your desired level of extraction. The French press uses what we call an "infusion" method for extraction, which means that the coffee is soaked in water to get coffee flavor into the brew. It then uses a metal filter to strain out the brew from the grounds, which allows some "sediment" or fine particles of coffee into your cup. This gives the cup a thick, hefty mouthfeel but somewhat less clarity of flavor and sweetness. This works really nicely for sweet, bodied, chocolaty coffees and not so much for clean, light, and bright roasts.
We found that by our definition of the "full flavored cup," French press consistently performed more poorly than drip. The taste difference wasn't extreme but it was enough to notice; in most cases the scoring for French press was one point lower than drip. However, we did find some interesting exceptions. First off was the Bodum Bistro, whose brand name is often well known because of the classic Chambord French presses that they manufacture. The Bodum's pronounced and full bodied French press scored an 8, a full point more than its drip score of 7.
Other grinders that yielded good results for French press include the OXO, which scored a 9 in the taste test, making an excellent drip and an equally impressive French press. The Cuisinart Deluxe Grind, scored an 8 for both brew methods, and the Capresso Infinity scored double 7s. The Breville and the Baratza Virtuoso both make better drip than French, but still busted out a 7 for their French press, which we consider a "good" cup of coffee. These are our top recommendations for French press people, with the OXO as the top performer and the Bodum as first runner up.
On the other hand, drip coffee, or "permeation" methods are a little more dynamic than "infusion" coffee. The main reason is that unlike with the French press where you can end the brew time at will, with a drip brew, the porosity of the grind size determines how fast or slow the water drains through the coffee. This affects how long the water dwells with the coffee, which affects the extraction level. So in short, a smaller grind size will drain slower and brew up more (and possibly too much) flavor and a larger grind size will drain faster and extract less flavor. Once you dial in the grind size, the amount of time it takes for the water to drain through your coffee particles should be just long enough to brew out all their deliciousness—not too short and not too long.
The amount of coffee being brewed also affects the drain time, which changes the way the coffee tastes. So you may want to make your grind size slightly coarser if you double your coffee recipe. Brew up a batch, see what you think about the taste, then adjust if needed for your next brew.
Pro Tip: Manual Brewing
We used manual brew methods for all of our tests so that we could oversee everything from brewing temperature to brew time. That's the game changer with manual brewing—it gives you more control. Rather than pressing a button and not really knowing how a machine will make your coffee, you take the mystery out of what factors are making your coffee taste the way it does. You can simply adjust your brewing process rather than having to compensate for issues like a machine that doesn't spray water evenly over the coffee or overheats the brewing water. Also, manual brewers are typically less expensive and much easier to clean than a machine. After an initial learning curve, manual brewing can become easy and routine. It may not be the best option for everybody, or you may only want to do it on weekends, but we recommend picking it up if you can because it gives you more control over your brewing and makes darn good coffee.
Because manual brewing recipes typically weigh out coffee by the gram, we recommend the OXO On Barista Brain. The OXO has a setting that allows you to select how many grams of coffee to dose out with a dial and then start grinding with the push of a button.
Pro Tip: A Word on Coffee Freshness
There is almost as much anecdotal advice about the right time to drink your coffee as there are fad diets, and as a result many people resort to behaviors that are really just coffee freshness superstitions. But understanding the overall concept is more important than the specific method you use.
Before coffee is roasted it can maintain substantial freshness for about a year, but after it's roasted into its drinkable state the new aromas and flavors decline more quickly. The roasting process can be about 10-16 minutes, depending on the degree of roast and flavor profile the roaster wants to achieve. During this process, the coffee undergoes dramatic changes to its chemical makeup—acids transform, sugars caramelize, etc. Most would assume that the absolute freshest and therefore most flavorful coffee possible would be brewed immediately after roasting. However, after roasting the chemical changes within the coffee don't immediately stop. Body, sweetness, and complexity continue to develop over the following week—lighter roasts taste better with a little more wait, darker roasts with less. Coffee can actually be "too fresh;" some flavor notes may not show up until after the first few days.
To keep it fresh, coffee should be kept in an airtight container placed in a cool dark place like a kitchen cabinet, your grinder hopper if it's not sitting in the sun, or even your underwear drawer—just not in a refrigerator or freezer. And the less breathing room there is in the container the better, because the coffee will exchange gasses with its surrounding environment. Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the roasting process, also helps keep coffee fresh. During the first week or so after roasting, the coffee "degasses" carbon dioxide, which creates a sort of force field that keeps oxygen from entering and staling the flavor in the bean. Once the coffee has finished degassing it is more vulnerable to staling, which is dramatically expedited once it is ground.
Once coffee flavor reaches its peak, it slowly ebbs away as it stales. Our advice: find a coffee that you really like from a local roaster and buy it as fresh as possible. If you can't find something local there are also online companies that ship coffee super fresh, even the day of roast. Brew the coffee over the next several weeks and see how long it takes for it to fall out of your favor. Some say it takes two weeks before coffee is no longer "fresh," but it is not uncommon for coffee flavor to reach its peak just before two weeks and be enjoyable for much longer. The only way to find out how fresh you want your coffee is to experience the difference yourself. Find a roaster that discloses their roast date on the bag (a practice called "open dating") and shell out for as much coffee as it takes to perform your own crash course on coffee freshness.
Ease of Use
An excellent grinder will go to great lengths to make brewing coffee a lot easier. Happily, we found a strong correlation between the quality of taste scores and the ease of use scores of the grinders we tested.
Complicated controls, like those on the Breville Smart Grinder Pro, don't make it easier to brew coffee. Simple and intuitive controls do the job. However, if a grinder's controls are too simple, you will have to perform more steps to grind your coffee. For example, with a blade grinder like the Krups Fast Touch you need to measure out your coffee yourself and hold down the button until you have the grind size you're aiming for. On the other hand, all burr grinders have a grind size selection and several models we tested also allow you to select the dose of coffee you want to be ground.
The dosing feature on a grinder saves you time and energy by performing another step of your coffee making regimen. There are a few different types of dosing options on the grinders we tested.
The Digital Display
This is ideal. Just press a button or turn a dial until the amount of coffee is simply and clearly presented on a display. Both the OXO and the Cuisinart Deluxe have this feature, which heavily influenced their top scores in ease of use. The OXO earned a 10 because it doses out your "cups" by weight and even provides the option of choosing how many grams you'd like to grind.
The Breville also doses using a digital display. However, we don't recommend this machine over the OXO or Cuisinart Deluxe because its controls are more difficult to navigate and it's more expensive.
The Timer Dial
A handful of grinders we tested use this feature, such as the Virtuoso, Capresso, and Bodum (pictured below). Some indicate how many "cups" to be ground, others indicate how many seconds, and yet others give no indication and require more playing with to discover how much coffee each setting will spit out. These grinders require a little adapting to in order to properly wield their timer dial. Bust out some tablespoons or measuring cups and trying different settings to make sense of what they will give you in real world application. Keep in mind that a burr grinder will go through coffee faster on a coarse setting than on a fine one.
Measuring the Dose Yourself
Some burr grinders don't have a dosing feature and some people simply prefer to not use an existing one. In this case you can measure out coffee into the machine on a per use basis and grind until the hopper is empty. This isn't the most accurate method, but it works. Another option is to use a machine with a manual option or pulse feature of some kind, remove the grind chamber and grind directly into a measuring container until you have as much coffee as you need. If this is your dosing preference we recommend the OXO, Cuisinart Deluxe, the Capresso Infinity, and both Baratza machines because they have a manual option.
Pro Tip: "Cups" Aren't Really Cups
When ranking ease of use, we favored grinders that reference cups rather than seconds on their dosing feature. This is because "cups" gives you a measurement reference, whereas how many people know how many seconds worth of coffee they need to get their brewing done? However, while the "cups" measurement is more intuitive, there's a weird little catch. When coffee equipment refers to "cups" it's not referring to an 8 ounce cup. A "cup" in coffee equipment speak is roughly 4 ounces. As a reference point, a typical small size at a café is 12 ounces. So in coffee equipment speak, 3 "cups" makes a small coffee, NOT 3 servings. Keep this in mind and you can avoid making watery brew.
Pro Tip: The Right Water to Coffee Ratio
The amount of coffee you dose out for your brew will affect how strong the flavor of your coffee is. We used a ratio of 14:1 water to coffee in our experiments. This ratio gave us a concentration of flavor that was strong enough to show a clear distinction between each grinder's brewing results, yet not too powerful. This is about an ounce of water per 2 grams of coffee (this is really easy to apply with the OXO's ability to select and dose exact grams of coffee). This also comes out to about 3 tablespoons of ground coffee per 8 ounce cup of water. You can use our ratio as a starting point and tweak it until you get your preferred concentration of flavor and caffeine. Do not assume that your coffee machine will brew full flavored coffee if you fill the water and coffee compartments to their max—usually that gives you a weaksauce cup of liquid.
It's up to you to determine how noise sensitive your brewing environment is and how quiet a grinder you need to keep things civil. The OXO locked in our Editors' Choice Award but it may not be a good fit for a noise sensitive environment. However, there are great grinders that are also peaceful. The Cuisinart Deluxe is one of the best grinders we tested and also our Top Pick for Quietest Grinder. The Capresso Infinity is another mellow unit and also has a great price, winning our Best Buy award. If you're looking at getting a blade grinder like the Mira Electric, they aren't quiet, but they are portable if you need to operate them in a different room while the baby sleeps.
You will want to consider how messy a grinder is to get an idea of how much time and energy it will want from you. We recommend any of the award winning burr grinders (the OXO, Cuisinart Deluxe, and the Capresso), which are great machines that also have the benefit of minimizing cleanup times. Another thing to consider is that cleanliness can change the way your coffee tastes. Coffee residue, whether it's coffee powder or oils, can get stale and smelly. Generally light to medium roasts have the potential to create more powdery residue, but darker roasts are stinkier because the oils on the surface of the bean coat whatever they touch, then oxidize and degrade, creating a dingy "old coffee maker" smell. None of the burr grinders we tested needed to be frequently cleaned for this reason except for the Cuisinart Supreme (NOT to be confused with the Cuisinart Deluxe), which was so messy in every regard that we would not recommend it to anyone. As far as blade grinders go, we found the Krups Fast Touch was easily caked with residue and was also time consuming and difficult to keep clean, whereas the Mira's grinding compartment stayed cleaner and was able to be removed, rinsed and wiped out after each use.
Get Your Grind On
Click back to our Electric Coffee Grinders page to select your weapon of choice and start making better coffee than you ever have before. Best of luck from the TechGearLab team!