You like the line at your favorite coffee shop? Ok, besides the cute barista, you can do better: start by grinding your own beans, then check back with Gear Patrol for other suggestions for stepping up to the big leagues. The journey from coffee hack to ambrosia connoisseur begins with freshly ground java in your French press, drip, or espresso machine. A quick primer, and then on to our picks:
Grinders are distinguished by consistency, range of granularity, and low-temperature, low-noise operation. Your baseline grinder generates higher temperatures and coarser, irregular grinds — and sounds like a small war. Fineness of grind is essential to pulling an espresso shot that has the characteristic “crema” and extracts the full, distinguishing essential oils that set apart good java from dreck (read the sidebar below for more on this). Consistency is also critical for replicating quality coffee, shot to shot.
Avoid spinning blades that chop your beans — you want a conical burr grinder that crushes and pulverizes the coffee to the required fineness (coarser for French press, the finest moondust for Turkish coffee, with espresso a few settings less fine). Low speed trumps high speed, as high temperatures generated in the latter change the flavor and character of the resulting grind. If the machine has a strong enough motor to power through the beans, reduction gears are unnecessary — for a less powerful motor, gearing turns high RPM into low speed torque. $150 is a price point where the requisite specs come together to produce the fineness necessary, without tasting-spoiling temps. The exact cost and specs are up to you — but here are ten great places to start (and very possibly end) your search.
Hario Coffee Hand Grinder
Most Economical: The Hario gets the job done — it turns beans into grinds, it’s cheap and it’s portable. However, it’s not going to meet the demands of espresso lovers or high volume consumers. While it has adjustable conical ceramic burrs and is dishwasher safe, the settings are not marked. It’s as slow or fast as your ability to turn the crank. Sure, you’ll get ground coffee suitable for a French Press or drip, anywhere, anytime. You’ll also get forearms like Popeye’s.
Breville Smart Grinder
Best Technology for the Money: Stepping up to the Breville not only saves you from askance looks at your forearms, it gives you ease of use (and cleaning). While you won’t have the full grinding range of other models here, you get 25 settings, automatic dosage, and airtight storage of your ground coffee — important for freshness. The feed shoot is likely to clog with finer grinds, but simple cleaning makes that a minor inconvenience. Along with an affordable price tag, that makes the Breville our “smart” pick for the neophyte brewer.
Gaggia MDF Coffee Grinder
Best for Cost-conscious Espresso Drinkers: Gaggia comes with a long legacy of excellence and renowned durability in the espresso regime. Their MDF grinder is a solid, reliable, stepped grinder that may outlast you. The 120W motor comes with reduction gears for lower speed, lower temperature grinding, and 34 settings to provide a good range of grinds. A pull-lever doser dispenses directly into espresso portafilters, though it makes dosing a slight challenge for home users who want to make other types of coffee. When this machine arrives in the box “dirty”, don’t fret — Gaggia test-drives each one before it ships.
Best Bang for your Buck: Baratza grinders are located at the beginning of the prosumer range, and the Virtuoso is your best option in the $200 region for everything from espresso to French press. While the deadman switch, which forces users to continuously press the “grind” button, might be annoying for drip brewers (and the small catch bin can be frustrating when filling a 12-cup coffee maker), the professional-grade conical burrs and powerful 480W DC motor turn at a relatively slow 450 RPM, which equals cool, tasty beans.
Best for Quiet Lovers: Savoring a warm cup in the solitude of a quiet morning before the rest of the animals stir goes out the window with the operation of industrial machinery. The Rocky will stir nary a mouse: this classic grinder and its heavy-duty motor is 50% quieter than most other low speed/reduction gear models. Fifty-five settings will match even the most particular barista; durability ensures you pass it down to your kids. Go with the doserless version — the doser model is not adjustable and difficult to clean.
Every type of brewing method requires a particular grind for best results. While finding the ideal setting — particularly on stepless grinders — eventually brews down to personal tastes, these general guidelines should help focus your highly caffeinated gaze in the right direction.
Coarse (also includes Extra Coarse)
Distinct and large particles are easily discernible.
Similar to: Heavily grained kosher salt.
Use with: Cold Brew (extra coarse), French Press, Cupping, Percolators.
Medium (also includes Medium Coarse and Medium Fine)
A gritty consistency, individual grinds can still be distinguished and separated by hand (though it’s not exactly easy).
Similar to: Sand.
Use with: Cafe Solo (Medium Coarse), Drip Brewers, Chemex (Medium Coarse), Pourover Cones (Medium Fine), Vacuum Pots/Siphon Brewers (Medium Fine).
Fine (also includes Extra Fine)
Very smooth to the touch, hard to see individual grinds with the naked eye, but they can still be felt.
Similar to: Slightly finer than granulated sugar, but not quite powder.
Use with: Espresso, some cone coffee makers.
The finest grind possible, feels like powder and no grains should be visible.
Similar to: Flour or talc powder.
Use with: Turkish.
Our guide continues on the next page