Sure, you can find a grinder that grinds coffee beans for $19.99, but no serious coffee snob would recommend it. No sir! You need to spend hundreds for one that actually does what it’s supposed to do, they say. But — does what? Grind beans the correct way? What’s that even mean? Aren’t we just breaking them up so that you can add hot water?
Alas, with all things coffee related, it’s never that simple. Alongside coffee guy Patrick O’Malley of Arizona, who owns a café, runs a distribution company, founded a barista academy and has spent the past several years developing the world’s most advanced coffee grinder, we grinded away to find out why grinders are so expensive — and whether they’re worth it.
Go on then, what makes a grinder special?
It’s not just about slicing apart the roasted beans — a $20 Cuisinart can do that. O’Malley is diplomatic, but entirely dismissive of the cheap grinders (although he admits he hasn’t actually ever tried one). But step one is, good coffee demands that beans be consistently sized — and that’s different for pour coffee versus espresso.
So it’s just about making the grounds uniform?
Ahem, it’s called “particle size distribution,” you philistine! And no, they don’t necessarily need to be uniform in size. Different brewing methods work better for either more or less uniform particle distribution. “It’s all about contact time and how the bed of the coffee is prepared,” O’Malley says. “So for espresso, there’s a particle size distribution curve that just works best. You have not as many [finer grains] because they tend to over-extract sooner.” In other words, they don’t need to be all the same size, but the distribution of size does need to be uniform.
What if it’s not?
Then coffee just doesn’t taste the same, O’Malley says. A coffee made with poorly ground beans will taste dirty or muddy — the more subtle tasting notes are overshadowed, or even spoiled altogether. O’Malley explains that the reason for this is that poorly ground coffee will produce a lot of fine grounds. Those fine grounds extract flavor first, due to their size. But you can only extract so many good “soluble solids” out of coffee beans — after that, you’re extracting muddy, dirty, Band-Aid or metallic tastes.
Come on. How different is it, really?
O’Malley guarantees you’d be able to tell the difference between coffee ground on a $2,700 Mahlkonig EK43 grinder (which he currently uses) and a lesser one. Even the nice, lesser grinder he has at home doesn’t measure up. “I’ve got a Sumatra here [at his business],” he says. “Usually Sumatras taste a bit earthy, a bit dirty, a bit spicy — this one starts off that way, but as soon as it cools, it’s as if you’ve just bit into a fresh peach. And this coffee at home, that peach is just gone. It’s a really disappointing coffee on a less expensive grinder.”
A lot of it comes down to build quality. On a basic level, there’s more metal and less plastic in them, and the quality control is light-years apart: think burrs spinning very close together at high speeds. That’s what produces a consistent grind, and your coffee will taste noticeably better. It’s a superior-built, better-tested product with superior components. A decent, purpose-built grinder is going to cost north of $200, and O’Malley says the better ones are $300 to $400.
O’Malley makes a comparison to a countertop pizza oven (which he also owns) that will cost several hundred dollars. Are they expensive? Sure. But these purpose-built appliances also make the product, whether it’s coffee or pizza, taste far better — as it really should taste, you could say. Is better taste worth hundreds of dollars? That’s entirely up to you.
And what is the world’s most advanced grinder going to be like once it’s finished?
In a (hyphenated) word: mind-blowing. O’Malley and a few of the best baristas around the world have spent several years in R&D. It weighs every single bean as it comes down the chamber into the grinder. The burrs are custom-made and specially coated, which keeps the beans from getting overheated, and keeps retention very low (meaning, there’s no leftover grinds that will oxidize as they sit there — or worse, commingle with different varieties (or “origins”) of beans you use the grinder for each time, which will fuck up the flavors, just like if you mixed different wine varietals together).
Particle size distribution is extremely consistent. It has a variable motor to adjust the RPM. They’ve used $150,000 lasers to analyze the particle size it produces. It’s supposed to be extremely reliable, as top-end commercial grinders are. He says a top grinder comes down to “consistency, performance and extraction.”
Understand, he’s making this for a company that produces $20,000 espresso machines. They’re literally chasing perfection.
That sounds, uh, intense.
And yet, there’s still so much more to learn, O’Malley says. “One of the big issues with grinders is densities of coffee,” he says. “We don’t understand fully how the density of both green coffee (before it was roasted), as well as on the roast level, how those particles disperse or are crushed during the grinding phase. That makes the study of grinders the most fascinating thing that I’ve been involved with in a long time.” So, grinders still appear to have a long way to go. Utilizing density is their destiny.
That’s fascinating and all, but I’m never going to spend thousands of dollars on a coffee bean grinder, because I’m not a maniac. What’s a good bet for basic home use?
“If I was a layperson who loved coffee and wanted to explore it, I’d invest in a good quality hand grinder, as opposed to buying a low end electric grinder made by kitchen supply people who don’t really understand coffee at all,” O’Malley says. “A hand grinder will give you a lot more consistency.” But he admits, “It’s a lot more work — you get a little workout in the morning.”
Otherwise, Baratzas are highly rated, and he says they make a decent grinder for home use (they’re also around $140, which might seem less eye-watering after reading everything above). He has high regard for the Italian company that produces their grinding stones.
Is it really worth all the time and effort people spend to create a crazy-expensive grinder, if the $140 one works just fine?
Well, look, you can roll your eyes at the perfectionism and preciousness of serious coffee people, but cut them some slack: They’re just trying to make coffee taste the best it can, which requires the right tools. This is their thing that they’re into, and you have cheaper options if it’s not your bag.
And anyway, making your coffee at home more delicious? That does sound like a pretty nice ambition — and, with enough time and cups of coffee, an expensive grinder is perhaps a worthwhile investment so you get the most out of your hobby. And having more knowledge and the right tools could at least spare you some haughty-barista attitude at your local café. How much is that worth to you?