Yay, grinders!! As much as I geek out over hi-tech stuff like espresso machines with E61 groupheads, pre-infusion, PID and bottomless portafilters, any coffee geek will tell you the most expensive espresso or coffee machine is nothing without a quality grinder. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to spend MORE on the grinder than on the entry-level espresso machine. It’s not just about getting the coffee fine enough; it’s about getting the particle size as even and consistent as possible.
Now, if you aren’t making espresso and are just planning to make a pot of coffee at home, your grinder needs will not be as intense. I’ll do my best to cover all the bases!
If you are starting from scratch and this will be your FIRST coffee grinder, AND you have a small budget ($20 or less):
My first grinder was a Krups F203 electric blade grinder that I bought for around $20. I liked this grinder because it was very easy to use – just fill the compartment, fit on the lid, and hold the button down as long as needed for the grind size you want (3-5 seconds will do for most applications). When you are done, turn the grinder upside down (while holding the lid so it doesn’t fall off) and thump the side of the grinder a couple of times so that the grinds fall neatly into the lid. Remove and dump into your coffee machine. Easy peasy. Cleaning is a snap – you can grind white rice or bread in it to sop up the coffee oils, since you’re not supposed to immerse the grinder in water.
Now, the drawback to blade grinders for serious coffee folk is that they chop up the coffee with their spinning blades, and the particle size is bound to be uneven. Some pieces may be large, and some pieces may be small, which will negatively affect the flavor in the cup (similarly to how you don’t want to chop onions into unevenly sized pieces for cooking – they won’t cook at the same rate and the taste and texture of your dish can be affected). You will also get some coffee dust (known as “fines”), which can impart a bitter taste to your cup and clog up a french press filter.
Why then, am I still recommending this grinder? I’m recommending it because it does a good job at its price point, and because it is a multitasker. You can also use a blade grinder for grinding spices like cinnamon sticks and peppercorns, making your own rice flour, etc. I still have mine and use it for grinding chia seed to use in baked goods. For people that aren’t fanatical about their coffee and just want a decent cup in the morning, this might be the only grinder they ever need.
If you have a small budget ($35) but want something better than a blade grinder and are not afraid of a little manual labor:
Disclaimer: I do not own a manual grinder, but these have excellent reputations!
The Hario Skerton is a crank-style grinder with ceramic burrs that won’t heat up your coffee as you grind. Made of glass, plastic, and rubber.
The Hario Mini Mill has less capacity than the Skerton, but also has quality ceramic burrs. It is all-plastic, so if you travel a lot, this is a good choice because it’s practically indestructible.
It seems like it takes around 30-60 seconds to grind beans for one cup of coffee. This may not be practical if you make a full pot each morning.
If you have a budget between $50-150:
This budget will get you a decent electric burr grinder. Burr grinders are superior to blade grinders because the burrs crush the coffee into more evenly sized particles. I’ve only owned one grinder in this price range; I jumped from my Krups to a Capresso Infinity (I purchased it for $80, but they retail around $100 nowadays). Electric grinders in this range will generally have steel conical burrs, which stay sharp but can heat up the coffee as it grinds (which is not great for the coffee). The Baratza Encore ($129) is generally considered to be “best in class” at this price point, and from what I have seen, the particle size is more even than on my old Capresso, but there are also other good grinders in this price range. Regardless of what you choose, there will be some grind retention; some coffee will be left in the machine once all the beans are fed through the hopper. You will have to get used to smacking the side of the machine to loosen out these grinds so that you are not drinking stale coffee. The Capresso retained SO MUCH coffee, it was kind of horrifying. You will also sometimes deal with static when sliding the compartment out to dump the ground beans into your coffee machine. I recommend keeping your grinder on a cookie sheet in the kitchen to make cleanup easier.
If you have a budget up to $200-250:
Now it sounds like you’re getting really serious about your coffee. The two electric grinders I have read about as being “best in class” at this price point are the Baratza Virtuoso (which I own) and the Breville Smart Grinder (as well as the new Breville Smart Grinder Pro). Expect to pay around $200-230. I like my Baratza Virtuoso a lot. It effortlessly goes between fine settings for my Hario V60 and coarse settings for my french press, as well as everything in between. The grind retention is much less than with my previous grinder (though I still smack it), and the bin has an anti-static coating which greatly limits the grounds flying all over the kitchen counters.
If you’re interested in a high quality manual grinder, I hear excellent things about the grinders from Orphan Espresso, particularly the Pharos and Lido 2 (both just under $200).
If you need a grinder for an espresso machine:
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can use a cheap grinder for espresso. With the possible exception of the manual grinders, NOTHING I have listed up to this point is capable of grinding properly for a semi-automatic espresso machine.
One exception: If your espresso machine comes with pressurized baskets, you can get away with a cheap grinder, but it won’t produce real crema, nor will the flavor be as good as “real” espresso. For that, you will need a semi-automatic machine, a quality tamper, and non-pressurized baskets.
Even though the Baratza Virtuoso SAYS it can grind for espresso, the level of control was sadly lacking. The settings on the Virtuoso (and Encore) range from 1-40 from finest to coarsest. When I used to use it for espresso, I usually started the grinder on 7, and sometimes it would be okay but most of the time, espresso would gush out of the machine. When it gushed, I would go to 6 to make the grounds finer, but that almost always choked the machine (where no liquid was coming through). The proper setting was somewhere in between 6 and 7 but the machine didn’t have it available. Proper espresso machines have many many more settings (steps), or are even what we refer to as stepless, for maximum control over the size of your grind.
Warning: once you start looking into getting a grinder that is truly capable of grinding for espresso, you’re probably going to experience some sticker shock. The cheapest grinders that I have heard of (again, outside of the manual grinders) which are capable of the range needed for espresso are the Baratza Preciso, at around $300, and the Le’lit PL53 around $260-300. The Baratza Vario, at around $470, is a better choice with its flat ceramic burrs (compared to the Preciso’s conical steel burrs) and is generally considered to be the most “bang for your buck” espresso grinder out there. It’s what I own. It fits nicely underneath most kitchen cabinets and is really user-friendly for home use.
One criticism of Baratza products is that they are mostly made of plastic and look flimsy compared to the huge metal titans that you see at coffee shops. If you have your heart set on getting one of the huge grinders that you see at your local shop, those will be things like the Mazzer Super Jolly, Mazzer Majors, Ceados and Quamars. Then again, if you know about those brands, what are you doing reading this? 😉 If you have $1,000 or more to spend on a grinder, you’re a lucky duck indeed.
If you’re looking for one electric grinder capable of everything from espresso to french press:
Coffee bars and many coffee enthusiasts tend to keep a grinder specifically for espresso (in the case of coffee shops, sometimes multiple grinders: one each for an espresso blend, a single-origin, a decaf…). Finding that perfect grind for a particular espresso bean can be challenging, and if you are forcing the burrs in your grinder to make wide changes, it’s very difficult to find that sweet spot again. I do keep two separate grinders, but my research indicates that if you are planning to get an all-in-one grinder, the Baratza Forté is a great choice (around $900).
I know it sounds like I’m a paid spokesperson for Baratza. I wish! But seriously, I think they make very very good products for home use and their customer service is legendary. I have yet to have a problem with either of the Baratza grinders I own, but based on my knowledge of how they take care of their customers (even when the grinders are outside of their warranty period), I have full confidence that they stand behind their product and go the extra mile to make sure their customers are happy. They also offer refurbished machines at a discount with the same warranty as their new machines.
Got a grinder question that I didn’t cover here? Comment or contact me at the link at the top of the page!