A great cup of coffee is a result of many small factors that add up. There is no magic bullet or technique that will automatically make your coffee delicious every time, but if there were, it would come down to a quality grinder.
Well ground coffee comes down to grind consistency. The goal is to grind the coffee as evenly as possible in order to extract the grounds evenly.
Even VS. Uneven Extraction
The topic of extraction goes deep and requires a deep dive, so I will stick to the basics for our purpose. Coffee beans have certain chemical properties such as acids, sugars, lipids etc. that make the coffee taste the way we like. The purpose for grinding and steeping coffee is to pull out all the goods. However, coffee is only about 30% soluble, and only about 19-24% of that tastes good. Extracting more or less than this range will result in undesirable flavors depending on the specific coffee, or how far in each direction you go.
Coffee that has not been extracted enough is sour, light in texture, and sometimes bitter. If your coffee tastes thin, tart and has little depth of flavor, you are likely under extracting your coffee. This is much more common in lighter roasted coffee because they have more density, and therefore are less soluble. This is inevitable if the roaster didn’t roast the coffee enough, and there’s nothing you can do to fix a bad roast. You will also see under extraction if too much coffee is used with not enough water or brew time, or if the coffee is ground too coarse.
On the other side of the spectrum, over extracted coffee tasted primarily bitter, fuzzy and has no flavor clarity. This is different from the bitterness that comes from dark roasted coffees. Common culprits of over-extracted coffees are too fine of a grind, too much water or too much brew time.
Uneven extraction happens when unevenly ground coffee is brewed or if sloppy technique is used. If some grounds are a little too fine, some too coarse and some just right, then you will enjoy a symphony of sour-bitter yuckiness.
When most people think about a grinder, they usually start with a blade grinder, which sounds exactly like what it is. Because of gravity, the beans sink below the blades, while the beans that are being chopped continue to get chopped smaller and smaller, making it the worst choice following a mortar and pestle.
On the other hand, grinders that chop coffee with burrs will have a much more uniform grind, making even extraction much easier.
Hand Or Electric
In the world of burr grinders, you can choose between a hand grinder or electric grinder. This all comes down to personal preference and what type of gear you enjoy using.
Grinding coffee by hand is fun and enhances the ritual of making coffee. Hand grinders are portable, and usually inexpensive due to lack of electronics. They do, however, take much more time and energy to use, and because of their design constraints are generally inferior to an electric grinder unless you spend more than $100 for one.
Let’s look at a few good choices for hand grinders.
*I have not used all these grinders. I recommend doing research before purchasing.
Hario Slim Mill or Skerton
Hario makes some of the cheapest gear that are great first buys.
Pros: These grinders are cheap, simple and highly portable.
Cons: The burrs on these grinders are not fixed in an axel from top to bottom, allowing the burrs to move a little when grinding. This results in slight variation in grind size. I recommend grinding finer on these as the variation in grind size will be minimal.
If you want both uncompromising quality and durability, check out the new VSSL grinder built for light-weight portability. These feature large conical burrs that will do the trick, and the axel is fixed on both the top and bottom, eliminating any burr wobble.
If you're interested in an electric burr grinder, look no further than Baratza. Baratza hands down makes the best burr grinders, and they offer various models for different budgets.
The Encore is undoubtedly the most popular being their cheapest model clocking in around $130. Baratza also refurbishes grinders, making them simple to repair and better for the environment.
If you want a few more features and minimal grind retention (grounds held in the burr chamber), check out the baratza sette. This little grinder produces some of the best grind quality for the price point that I have seen up to this point. While it does have some unnecessary features and the build is a little lacking, it more than makes up for it with grind quality.
Of course, there are many more home grinding solutions, but these are my top picks. As always, technology is constantly improving, and I’ll likely revisit home grinders in the future!