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!
Choosing the Right Coffee Grinder
Coffee and its related contraptions tend to inspire the use of jargon and a lot of hyperbolic marketing claims. Here we've laid out a simple, step-by-step decision tree to help you cut through the confusion and find the best grinder that will suit your needs
Step 1: To Burr or Not to Burr
The most significant choice to make in choosing a coffee grinder is whether you're going to get a burr or a blade model. You can read more about the differences in these two technologies later in this article, but here are the basics: Burr grinders tend to cost more (most are at least $100, and some are significantly more than that) but produce much more consistent grinds that give you a better chance of getting a good extraction (ie: extracting all those attributes you like from your coffee beans). Blade grinders tend to be quite inexpensive (most sell at or near the $20 mark) and are also generally much smaller and more compact than their burr siblings. However, they also grind much more inconsistently, meaning you most likely won't get as good of an extraction, and there's a good chance you'll get very different extractions from cup to cup.
The bottom line here is whether or not you're willing to pay more for quality. If you want to be sure you're getting the most you can out of your coffee beans and don't mind paying a bit of a premium to do so, you should go with a burr model. If you're not too fussy about being able to control all of the brewing variables for your coffee and just want an inexpensive way to grind some of the fancier coffees that are only sold in whole beans (not pre-ground), a blade grinder might be a better choice.
Step 2: How Much do You Care About Grind Consistency?
If you just want to make sure your grinds are reasonably consistent, pretty much any burr grinder that we reviewed will do. If you're like us and want to really nerd out about your coffee and get as close to the ideal grind as possible, you'll want a top-quality burr grinder. Our grind consistency tests delved into every nook and cranny possible, looking at each machine's performance across a wide grind size range, within multiple brewing methods, and consistency between doses. If you're looking for the most consistent, high-quality grind possible, you can use our grind consistency scores as a guide.
Step 3: What's Your Preferred Brewing Method?
Different brewing methods require different grind sizes, with French press and espresso generally representing the coarse and fine ends of the spectrum, and pourover falling somewhere in the middle. Sometimes machines that do very well in one grind size do poorly in others. For example, one of our favorite grinders absolutely crushed our grind consistency testing for everything except course French Press grinds. This makes it a great choice for most coffee drinkers, but a poor choice if 90% of your coffee beans end up in a French press. We've been sure to note if any grinders have these kind of weak points in their reviews, so make sure to double check that your preferred brewing method doesn't fall into a grinder's list of limitations.
Step 4: Consider Cleanliness
Apart from the consistency of your grind, the first thing you'll likely notice about a grinder is how much you need to clean up after using it. Some models create a lot of static, causing grinds to stick to things and then spontaneously dump onto the counter. Others tend to hang onto grinds within the grind chute then seemingly wait until you've removed the grind cup to spill out. Some tend to miss the grind cup and shoot coffee shrapnel all about while grinding. Still others manage to negate most of these problems, leaving your morning routine as clean and tidy as possible.
We've closely examined all of these cleanliness attributes of each of our grinders through hundreds of rounds of use, so you can check out our cleanliness scores if you want to get an idea of how much and what type of a mess (or lack thereof) you can expect from each machine.
Step 5: Consider Ease of Use
Pretty much all grinders function in the same way: place grinds in hopper, grind into a grind cup, dump grinds from cup into brewing vessel. However, these machines use very different methods for choosing exactly how much coffee you want to grind. Some have built-in scales that let you choose your dosage by weight, some have timers that require you to figure out exactly how long it takes to grind your desired amount of beans, and others have preset cup settings that you can fine tune to your liking. Some models make it a bit easier to control all of these features than others.
Here again, we've relatively ranked each machine's ease of use based on our extensive experience using them. While we don't think any present too much of a learning curve, some are certainly better than others in terms of out-of-the-box intuitiveness.
Step 6: Is Noise a Factor?
We don't think most people really need to consider noise when shopping for a coffee grinder. In general you won't be running the grinder for more than a minute at a time, and even a really annoying noise is usually bearable for those short bursts (especially if it results in a better cup of coffee). However, if you have infants that are napping during your coffee time, or you're generally the first one awake in your house and thus grinding while others sleep, the sound emitted by your grinder becomes much more important.
We spent hours listening to each device and subjectively ranking both the annoyingness and volume of each model, as well as objectively measuring the volume with a decibel meter. You can see how the noise emitted by these machines compare in the noise scores we awarded to each.
Burr vs. Blade
We've already given you a very basic overview of the differences between blade and burr grinders, but here is the nitty gritty for those that want to know more.
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 a few of the most promising because they are so popular. These kinds 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.
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 lead to a less than ideal extraction as all the fine particles (with all their extra surface area) will get over extracted, while the larger chunks will be under extracted. Additionally, that ratio of fine to coarse particles is bound to be different every time you grind, meaning you're probably going to get a different cup of coffee every morning.
Because blade grinders inevitably grind in a somewhat random fashion, many people think you're better off getting pre-ground coffee rather than grinding fresh beans with a blade grinder, as in that case you're at least setting yourself up to get a more even extraction of the beans. Therefore, it's out general opinion that the main reason to get a blade model is to gain access to coffees that are only sold as whole beans on the cheap.
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 a much better extraction than their blade wielding cousins. However, most decent burr models carry price tags that reach into the triple digits. 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.
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. If you're looking to get the best possible expression of your coffee beans, and can stomach a higher price tag, a burr grinder is the clear choice.
We hope this article has helped you decide exactly what you want from a coffee grinder, and exactly how you can get it. For a full rundown of all the models we tested and how they fared, take a look at our full review. And if you want to nerd out about coffee even more, check out our how we test article. It delves into all the intricate tests we ran to find the best grinder for every situation.