Product Review

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.

Following on the heels of the Melitta is Gaggia's first offering into the burr-grinder market. The Gaggia MM - costing about 70$US - offers flat-plate burrs and similar grind control. It can hold ten ounces of beans. While its aesthetics are plain, function and reliability are of Gaggia-quality: tried and true.

Our first entry into the conical grinders is the Swiss-designed Antigua, by Bodum. Also available in black and white, the Antigua has a large hopper for whole beans and a mediocre size hopper for the ground coffee. The look is simple and the function is very reliable. The Antigua's controls reside atop the machine - by turning the hopper you increase or decrease the burr-set's distance hence the grind size. The Antigua struggles with super-coarse coffee but does a wonderful job on the finer coffees, such as for espresso. At a price-point of near 100$US, this grinder is an exceptional buy. The Antigua also boasts quietness.

Saeco, a long-time popular Italian manufacturer, offers this machine as their entry into the grinder market. It differs only in appearance. Its manufacturer's suggested retail price is listed at 119$US. The MC2002 is a flat-plate burr design and works in similar fashion to the Antigua and the following others. This machine, while sometimes known to gain a static charge on the beans, performs generally well over the grind spectrum. It too is available in black and white. The hopper can hold up to 250g of beans.

The next group of machines all fall into the 200$US price-point category. The first one is Gaggia's second grinder, the MDF. This too is a plate-design grinder and features a dosing attachment for its line of Gaggia espresso machines. It is a high quality machine and is backed by a good product/manufacturer history.

Billed as the MDF's equal, if not superior, is Rancilio's Rocky. This grinder features the same performance and reliability as Gaggia's. And, like it's competitor, the Rocky has a dosing attachment for direct grinding into a Rancilio espresso machine's portafilter. The Rocky is knows as a stable machine that is certainly built to last. It has a metal exterior to boot. Like the Antigua, it is a sure bet and a sound purchase. For the sake of curiosity, the name Rocky refers to the American actor, Sylvester Stallone's infamous boxing character "Rocky." Those darn Italians- what will they think of next? Naming an espresso machine after Nancy Reagan!? (see next month's installment)

The next grinder of interest is an extension of a small legend. The manufacturer, LaPavoni, is well known in smaller circles for its chrome and brass, lever-operated home espresso machines. Only to compliment such elegance, one will find Pavoni's grinders. Available in chrome or brass finish, the grinder performs like others in and below its class. It uses plate-burrs for its grinding process. Professional opinion leans towards a purchase of the immediately aforementioned grinders when comparing them to the Pavoni. Aesthetically, if you own a Pavoni machine, purchasing the grinder would be the next logical step.

Ranking in at over 300$ is Nouva Simonelli's entry. Billed as a near-commercial grinder, this unit has the look, feel, presence, and performance. It's hopper can hold a pound of whole bean coffee and the dosing unit has a built-in tamper for espresso machines. If you plan on using copious amounts of coffee, then you may wish to further investigate this grinder.

There are other grinders that you will find that I did not mention here. For the aid of your own searches on the Web or in retail outlets, look for machines by Salton, Cuisinart, Braun, and others. They all cost anywhere from 20$US to 85$US. Each are billed as mediocre to above-average machines.

"You get what you paid for."
I mentioned this above. And it is true, especially when you figure in other factors to your potential purchase. These factors are as follows:
  • Does the machine come with a warranty? If so, how many years?
  • May I try the machine first before committing to a purchase?
  • Is the machine too loud?
  • Is the machine easy to clean up? Does its spill or throw ground coffee all over the place?
  • Is there service available in my area? If so, how much extra and how easy is it to obtain?
  • Is the machine repairable by myself or a local appliance repair-person?

Keep all of these questions on the tip of your brain when and after you go shopping. You'll find distinct differences between each and every model mentioned above. It is true that the higher you go, the greater the quality of the machine - both in materials used and end-product. Consistency is still very much a driving argument and consistency is best achieved when higher quality components and material are used.

These are the two biggest questions you need to keep on your mind:

    How much will I use this grinder and for what reasons? Do you plan on only grinding for one style of coffee? Do you plan on using it daily? Do you plan on using many different types of coffee beans?

If you can answer these questions, you can narrow down your search very easily.

This article will be followed up by a product review on home espresso/cappuccino machines next month. You will find that names mentioned here will reappear. This is not a coincident as the grinding process is very critical to proper preparation of espresso coffee. But that's another story. Until then, happy hunting!

I am very open to corrections or questions regarding any of the above listed machines. Please contact me at the address found in the staff page.

I would like to thank, with sincerest regards, Mr. Barry Jarrett of Riley's Coffee, Illinois and Mr. Gary Salzman of Whole Latte Love, New York. Both gentlemen offered their experience and expertise which, without it, would not have made this article as complete as it is. Thank you both. Also, thanks to Mr. David Bogie for his support and experience. A final word of thanks to the Starbucks Coffee Company and Bodum for their research support of the Antigua for my graduating project for college. Editor's Note: This article has been updated. The section on the Saeco grinder was updated on February 28, 2000 to reflect the correct manufacturer's suggested retail price as given by Mr. Vera Bevini, Saeco's vice president.

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