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