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This article, the first of two installments, will prepare you for an eventual purchase of a new home coffee grinder. It is the hope of the author to supply enough technical information, pricing details, and "tips and tricks" for you, the reader, to begin shopping immediately. But first, a brief history of the coffee grinder and how coffee grinders now play a role in the coffee drinking experience.
Perhaps the earliest form of grinding anything, whether it be spices or coffee, was the simple mortar and pestle approach. The item to be ground - or crushed as it were - was placed in the bottom of a bowl, and the blunt end of a stick was used to crush said item along the bowl's bottom and sides. Following this - and history tends to lead us down numerous paths - mechanical means replaced the mortar and pestle. Manually operated, the coffee (or, again, spice, wheat, corn... whatever) was placed between a stationary and a moving disc. The movement of the one disc atop the other created a grinding force. This is also known as milling; a term we carry into the present. (Did I say a "brief" history?)
Milling has become very efficient with the use of electrical motors as opposed to horses, water, steam, or human-power. And milling, as a process, is as common to the agricultural industry as it is to coffee. To understand the benefit of milling coffee, let us first compare it to another popular grinding technique, the blade styled coffee grinder. Available in practically every housewares store in the world, the blade style grinder uses a small, universal electrical motor to spin two metal blades at very high speeds. When in contact with the coffee beans, the blades chop and crush the bean's structure. Akin to the mortar and pestle for nor creating a uniform grind, this method is quick and inexpensive. Many models of this type can be had for less than 20$US.
A step up, and the primary focus of this article, is the burr style, or milling style coffee grinder. Like the wheat or corn grinder, and identical to commercial, industrial sized grinders the burr grinder for today's consumer is available in a myriad of colours, features, materials, and prices.
Why a burr grinder? As mentioned above, the blade variant of coffee grinders allow a varying particle size from the resultant grind. The leading reason for the use of a burr grinder is the ability to produce a uniform grind of the beans. A uniform grind is important for a few different reasons. First, it provides even surface area for extraction during whatever brew process you may wish to use. Second, for espresso, the uniform grind allows for even wetting and even packing of the grounds. You will read why this is so important in next month's installment.
How come? Let us return above. An even grind will provide for an even extraction of the oils from the coffee. Ill-proportioned grind will cause some of the coffee to over-extract, and some to under-extract. Over-extracted coffee will taste bitter and overly pungent. Under-extracted will taste weak and thin.
Burr grinders, ideally and theoretically, pass an incoming bean under (or in between) its burrs once. Whether it be for one revolution or two, the bean, as it finishes its pass, is completely crushed into identically sized pieces. Blade-style and mortar and pestle re-grind the coffee, which provides the inconsistency mentioned.
The Big Debate: Conical Burr Grinders vs. Flat-Plate Burr Grinders Burr grinders are distinct by two forms. The first is where the burrs are plate-shaped and lie atop each other. In the second model, the burrs are shaped like two mating cones; the grinding teeth facing towards each burr set. The debate lies with life expectancy (read: wear), grind consistency, and ease of cleaning. To begin with, both variations are easy to clean so long as the manufacturer designed the grinder to allow one of the two burr sets to be removed. To my knowledge, every manufacturer has done so. It is up to the owner to find the appropriate cleaning tool used to get into the teeth's grooves. Incidentally, a stiff bristled brush like that of a toothbrush works well. The debate flourishes here: does a conical burr-set wear more but provide a greater grind consistency and slower operating speed (due to prolonged contact between bean and burr), or does the flat-plate bur-set provide greater consistency and life because of it's ability to operate at faster speeds? You decide. There are arguments for and against both parties. As will be addressed later, you do get what you pay for. All in all, to the average consumer, this argument is like the blowing of the wind. Meaningless.
Which models? How much will I pay? And, where can I buy it from? Collected below is a list of today's most popular models. They range from lower quality, smaller sized to high-end, high-performance models.
The first of these burr styled grinders is the LaPavoni and Melitta. These models, nearly identical in all respects, are the most affordable and use a flat-plate burr set. Their hoppers can store a quarter pound of beans and their grind bin can be easily removed for access to the finished coffee grounds. They perform the best for the coarser coffees as used in moka pots and plunger pots. A simple dial adjusts the distance between the burr plates. An all-plastic housing can be one reason why static electricity plagues this grinder. In dry weather, coffee grinds can easily fly out of the hopper and end up being attached to clothing, counter-top and the grinder itself. While this is the worst-case scenario, and is common to many grinders, it is easily controlled by wiping down the grind bin prior to use with a moist cloth. This grinder is available in white and black, and will cost anywhere between 30$ and 50$US.