Monthly Archives: March 2008

Cost of a free stapler

Wise Bread told me how to get a free Swingline stapler. It’s not Milton’s red stapler but I did have my eye on staplers at the store, so I was interested.

The survey starts with an email address and at some point they’ll collect your mailing address. There was no link to a privacy policy so I went looking and found one after about two minutes. It said they will email me, send me literature, and share my info with other companies.

I pictured myself shredding sheafs of junk mail while grumbling at my shiny new stapler. How much would my free stapler cost me? If I can get ACCO to take me off their sharing and promo lists, not much. I took the survey.

Baratza Virtuoso review

The search, continued

Remember last week’s rant about the Saeco Titan? I promised to try a better burr grinder and here I pick up where I left off. Last night I returned to Williams Sonoma to spend $200 on the Baratza Virtuoso. Three months ago I would not have considered this a worthy expenditure. Today it seems more important than groceries.

At the store, as the clerk fetched the item from the stockroom, on the counter by the coffee brewing machines was a working Virtuoso complete with beans. They use it all day long! I gave it a spin at the coarsest setting, 40, which produced a grind too coarse even for French press. This eradicated any lingering doubts about the capabilities of this machine. My only regret was that I would have to wait until morning to sample the brew.

At last, amazing coffee

Holding the recipe constant from earlier trials, this time using the Virtuoso set at 35, I could see before I tasted it that my morning coffee would the best I’d ever made. The amount of dust in the ground coffee was much less due to the greater precision of the burr, and the screen in my French press pot didn’t clog up. Pouring the first cup, I could see rich color without the murkiness of a dusty grind.

The aroma and richness of flavor surpassed my expectations. This was one seductive brew. I almost drank the entire pot before it had cooled below scalding temperatures. It was barely within my power to resist consuming this coffee in toxic quantities. I had to wait several hours before writing this review to be sure my excitement wasn’t only a manifestation of caffeine.

Epic quality, Epicurean value

The main functional difference between cheaper grinders and the Virtuoso is the quality of the burr. It’s a simple metal tool but I learned that you can’t expect any precision from the cheaper models. If they were drill bits, even the sloppiest carpenter wouldn’t put up with the ragged holes they made. It is surprising, but the burr grinder market will bear a very low quality baseline. Thus the Baratza Virtuoso’s vast superiority earns it an epic rating.

While the step from blade grinder to low-end burr grinder made significantly better coffee, the difference was too little to justify the $100 price tag. A high-quality conical burr grinder makes such a satisfying brew, it is easily worth $200. If you are thinking of upgrading your blade grinder, hold out until you can afford this one.

I am still a coffee novice with much to learn about beans, roasts, and brews. But now I’m confident that I can explore the world of coffee without want for a better grinder.

How to buy a coffee grinder

The gift of coffee

For Christmas my girlfriend gave me a Bodum French press and a basic coffee grinder. I love the beautiful and functional Bodum glassware but a blade coffee grinder always produces an uneven grind. The large bean chunks steep too slowly and the fine dust clogs the screen or finds its way into the cup. The result is a cup of insipid coffee with a thick layer mud.

You can find such a machine for under $30 at the supermarket. These “coffee grinders” consisting of a closed chamber with rotating blades are actually coffee choppers and should be outlawed. At least, the misnomer should be corrected. A quick look at the dictionary confirms this:

grind 1. a. To crush, pulverize, or reduce to powder by friction, especially by rubbing between two hard surfaces: grind wheat into flour.

The search for an even grind

The way to good coffee is through a burr grinder. The beans are ground between two hard surfaces that can be fixed in a range of positions to achieve a coarser or finer grind. Because these rotate at lower RPMs and the coffee passes through rather than remaining in the chamber, the beans are subjected to less heat and therefore give the brew a superior flavor. They also produce less of the stuff that hurts French press coffee: chunks and dust.

I bought a Saeco Titan burr grinder for $99.99 plus tax at my local Fry’s Electronics. I had seen consumer-grade coffee mills ranging from $50 to $150 and the Titan looked like the best deal. Most online outlets sell it for $130. It has a conical mill which is superior to a flat mill because the grounds are pulled through by gravity as soon as they are sufficiently fine. Flat mills, which can be found for under $50, eject the grounds by rotating more quickly, adding extra heat just like the chopper.

What makes a conical burr grinder so much more expensive than a blade grinder? It’s just a motorized mill with a timer and an adjustment ring. I suspect it has more to do with the quality of the coffee grounds than the cost of producing the machine.

The first time I used my grinder the coffee was much better than the best the chopper could produce. There were no large chunks, so the brew was richer and darker without over-steeping. Still, I was unhappy with the amount of mud in the cup. The Titan is well-designed but when I disassembled it I found that a very important part was poorly made.

Saeco quality

A burr is a type of rotary cutting tool. A less desirable kind of burr is a rough edge left on metal after milling. My Titan’s grinding surface had these in spades, as shown by this photo:

Saeco Titan burr grinder
Click for more detail

The rough, curled-over edges on that milled metal part are a flaw. They reduce the range and accuracy of the adjustment ring by changing the space between the grinding surfaces. There are also several ridges cut much higher or lower than the rest, further hurting the grind. And nobody knows how many of those tiny burrs broke off and wound up in my coffee. It’s good that I don’t drink the mud.

When I saw my grinding wheel up close I thought it must be an anomaly. Even for a mid-range consumer unit made by a company that manufactures multi-thousand-dollar automatic coffee machines, this was a disappointment. I sent the photo to Saeco’s European office and asked whether this was up to their quality standards. They instructed me to email the American branch and I did.

Two weeks later, with no response from Saeco-US and my 30-day return window about to close, I boxed my grinder and headed back to Fry’s. The clerk let me open an identical unit to inspect before exchanging. It had the same flaw so I opted for a refund, which I used to buy a microwave oven for the same price. (Fair trade? Pshaw. No-brainer.)

Selecting a coffee grinder

It’s nice for you to know that the Saeco Titan is carelessly made and not worth buying. What’s better is knowing what to look for when buying a coffee grinder.

The consumer goods market is a mixed bag. The price of a gadget is indexed to its quality in direct proportion to the number of competing products, or in inverse proportion to the market share its manufacturer enjoys. Luckily there are a lot of coffee grinders on the market.

Fry’s selection of coffee grinders peaked with the Saeco Titan so I dashed to the mall to inspect the goods at Williams-Sonoma. There I found the $100 Breville Ikon Burr Grinder and the $200 Baratza Virtuoso Burr Coffee Grinder on display for my inspection. (They don’t stock the $1000 Elektra Espresso Grinder.)

The $100 Ikon is sturdier than the similarly-priced Titan but it suffers from the same flaw: a poor-quality grinding surface. I was pleased to look inside the $200 Baratza Virtuoso and find grinding surfaces with clean, sharp edges. Is that worth an extra hundred bucks? The Baratza has a lot more going for it—the weight alone is impressive—but I didn’t buy it because I felt sure I could have done better on the internet.

Buying the right grinder

Today I am the proud owner of the grinder I got for Christmas. I’m kicking myself because I could have checked online prices with my phone, saving myself a second trip to the mall. I’m also drinking a lot less coffee, even though I still have pods for my Senseo. As imperfect as it was, the burr-ground coffee was the best I’d ever made.

Unless I get other advice by Friday, I will return to Williams-Sonoma and buy the Baratza Virtuoso. My expectations are unreasonably high. You will find my review here next week. Baratza Virtuoso review

Please share your burr grinder experience by leaving a comment below.