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Understanding Espresso Grinders

Published by Ben Piff
July 18, 2016 10:41 pm

It’s time to continue our journey into the tantalizing rabbit hole that is…the espresso grinder! In my previous posts (first Choosing an Espresso Grinder, and second Grind Consistency and Particle Size), we described the parameters for making espresso, and the variables that a burr coffee grinder can help us avoid. Now we’ll spend some time explaining some different types of espresso capable grinders, and how key features affect performance in the cup.

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Adjusting the Grind

You’ll recall from previous posts that being able to dial in proper espresso shots is dependent on the ability of a grinder to make precise adjustments to grind fineness, while also being able to grind the coffee consistently (if you need a refresher, click here). Some of the “heritage” espresso grinders like the Mazzer Mini require the whole top collar to be turned by hand, often requiring two hands and extreme care to not “over-adjust”. Just a few short years ago home users had to be content with grinders that only offered large stepped adjustments or a limited range of adjustability. But now, home grinders such as the Breville Smart Grinder Pro, Baratza Sette, and Baratza Vario offer a surprising wider range of adjustment than other comparably priced grinders. These all-purpose grinders can allow the user to grind for drip coffee as well as espresso. While not offering truly infinite adjustment, these grinders offer ample adjustment for dialing in a great 25-30 second espresso shot, and they’re significantly more affordable than most dedicated espresso grinders. The Sette and Vario both have a micro-adjustment as well, which allows finer tuned (hundreds of clicks, rather than 60) adjustment than the Breville models.

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When dialing in espresso, finding the perfect shot typically requires smaller and smaller adjustments. Companies like Profitec and Macap have added more precision to the adjustments made via the top collar by attaching a worm drive. With one hand, we can adjust the fineness of the grind with the twist of a knob, as much or as little as we want. This allows for very small adjustments to the grind and more intuitive control over the shot time. Eureka has an equally impressive micrometric adjustment knob, which gives comparable control over the shots, but not by rotating the top collar. Eureka grinders retain the dialed-in settings even when the upper burr has been removed for cleaning the grinder, without having to recalibrate it.

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Grind Volume

Another major variable to be controlled in making consistent espresso is getting the right volume – and the same volume – of ground coffee every time. Our recent “Dialing in Your Grinder” post described single dosing as well as utilizing the grind timer. Some affordable grinders like the Eureka Mignon utilize a simpler adjustable analog grind timer, which offers improved consistency over manual grinding. The Eureka Zenith shown in that video is adjustable to tenths of a second, and can have two doses programmed. Most home users in the US don’t pull single shots, so having the single dose programmed for a one second purge can be handy if you want to ensure you have drawn fresh beans into the grinder. The timers on the Baratza Vario and Sette are digital. Some grinders like the Macap M7D can be programmed down to hundredths of a second, and can grind a dose extremely fast, which can be extremely important in a busy shop.  The M7D’s 800w motor can grind a 20 gram double shot in three seconds. Virtually all of the most powerful grinders benefit from additional fine tuned control. All these programmable doserless espresso grinders have the option of grinding manually, but we’d only recommend this if you’re single dosing. Otherwise, grinding by sight or intuition can make it significantly more challenging to pull consistent shots.

Flat vs. Conical Burrs

What is it about burrs that can cause even the most even-tempered enthusiast to stay up late at night reading dozens of posts on various internet forums? Why do people argue about whether conical or flat burrs are best? We’ve saved the biggest question for last in this post, but we’ll just start to scratch the surface here.

The Starter Set

Most affordable all-purpose grinders use small conical burrs. Many home enthusiasts find the level of performance offered by the latest generation of home grinders (such as the above mentioned Breville models) very satisfactory, even if the grind is a bit slow and clumpy.

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Light-duty Commercial

As burr size increases, and we leave the realm of home grinders to enter the arena of light duty commercial grinders suited for the typical small cafe, performance improves, as does the ability of the grinder to be consistent when used throughout the day. These mid-sized grinders also enable users to begin to discern more nuances in the flavors of blends and single origin espressos. The hardware used in these grinders is characterized by 50mm-65mm flat grinding burrs and 250-500 watt motors. Examples such as the Eureka Mignon, Baratza Vario and Eureka Zenith provide a level of performance only previously dreamed of for the home enthusiast.

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Heavyweights and Titans for the Flavor Obsessed

As burrs increase in size, the precision of the grind improves and the speed of the grinder output increase (bigger burrs require more powerful motors to turn them). The improvement in grind precision can be seen with a microscope, and when beans are also subjected to less heat (by friction and the motor) as they pass through the grinder, the flavors in the cup become cleaner and the notes easier to discern. This is typically the biggest variable between espresso at home and those popular cafes noted for coffee expertise. Here, above the level of performance seen in most coffee shops, the specialty shop typically employs either grinders with large conical burrs or huge flat burrs. The grinders are chosen to highlight subtle notes, enhance body or improve balance among flavors. Flat burrs often are used because they can bring out chocolatey espresso notes and flavors with good balance, and they’re more affordable than the large conicals. But as the specialty coffee movement continues to grow and bring to market high quality coffees, roasted with greater care, conical burrs can make subtle aromatic and fruit notes stand out, and enable the user to develop espresso with superb body, intense and multi-dimensional flavor notes. Though this might sound like copy for an ad, I don’t know any other way to describe what these grinders are capable of doing. These elite grinders are gaining popularity across the country with coffee-obsessed home users and fine shops every day. While their bodies are bigger, they also work excellent for single dosing (which means you can remove the hopper and get the height down as low as 15 inches).

Next Steps

Whether you want to make espresso at home, work, or in a cafe, your sense of direction in your coffee journey can help guide your choice of espresso grinder. Maybe it seems overly simplistic, but do you have a clear idea for what you want your espresso to be like? Are there certain flavor notes that you prefer? Are there certain styles of espresso beverage you plan to make for guests in your home? Whether you simply want to learn about dialing in consistent shots at home or recreate the performance of a specific coffee shop, at Clive we can help you find the right combination of features to get there. In the next post of this series, I’ll focus on helping you identify the type of grinder, as well as the features, performance and price point that make the most sense. But until then, the best way to make an educated guess at the ideal grinder for your needs is to set aside any preconceived notions about brand superiority, whether the burrs should be flat or conical, large or small, the power of the motor, and how adjustments are performed, and call us to talk about your favorite espresso and favorite shop.

 


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