How to choose the perfect bean crushing machine
A good grinder is a key piece of kit for coffee aficionados everywhere – but not all grinders are created equal.
The gold standard in the coffee crushing biz is the burr grinder. You might have heard the name bandied around as the craft coffee crowd likes to talk about them a lot. But what is a Burr grinder? How do they work? Why are they better? And what is the right machine for you? These are all good questions, which we at The Coffee Bazaar set out to answer.
Coffee is tastier from freshly ground beans
First off – Coffee is much tastier when made from freshly ground beans, period. Once your beans are crushed a lethal combination of factors, namely oxidization, interaction with atmospheric moisture and CO2 escaping from the coffee leaches away a good deal of the delicious flavours and aromas.
When it comes to grinding coffee, machines tend to fall into two camps. Blade grinders and burr grinders. Blade grinders, as their name suggests, use spinning metallic or ceramic propellers to smash your coffee to smithereens. Burr grinders crush your beans between two abrasive surfaces.
The main benefit of a burr system is that it crushes your beans to uniform particle sizes – whereas blade machines pulverize your coffee and leave you with a mix of grain sizes – from fine powder, through to coarse sea salt.
The finer powders produced with blade grinders can clog up your coffee machine and tend to produce coffee that is silty and over-extracted. You will also get that classic ‘coffee sludge’ at the bottom of your mug.
Thanks to the uniform size of the burr grind your cups are sludge free. Uniformity in grain size also makes the brewing process easier to control and the coffee produced is smoother and more well-rounded.
The drawback to a burr machine is its cost – a bog standard electric grinder will set you back around £20 but burr varieties can easily set you back over £100. Here are a few things to consider before you buy.
Which is a better burr grinder – manual or electric?
Manual grinders like this Hario Medium Glass machine are substantially cheaper than their electric brothers.
It can take a few minutes and a good bit of elbow grease to prepare your beans, but those who like a ‘hands-on’ approach to coffee will love it. Hand grinders are quiet to use and portable too – so outdoorsy types will also get a kick from being about to fit them in their backpacks ahead of their next camping trip.
Manual machines also tend to have limited capacities, meaning you will struggle to prepare enough to satisfy your ten person coffee morning. If you like your coffee fast and hassle-free, this Melitta Molino machine is probably more your speed.
What type of burr?
When it comes to the burrs themselves, you need to consider material and shape. The burrs can either be flat or conical in their shape. A conical machine has one stationary burr and one rotating burr and thanks to the volcano-like shape of the machine the flow of coffee into the burrs is slightly faster.
In flat burr machines both sets of burrs are laid parallel to each other and revolve to shear your beans to the desired grain size. Flat burrs are said to retain more coffee – so you can end up with some old pre-ground stuff coming through your machine from the last cycle when you use it. It is also said that conical machines are easier to set to the right size, but this is really a theoretical discussion.
Both will produce uniform grounds and unless you are planning to enter the world coffee-making championships, burr shape is not something to get a bee in your bonnet over when choosing a machine.
Perhaps more important is the material. Two options predominate: ceramic and stainless steel. Ceramic burrs will stay sharp about twice as long as stainless steel ones. But ceramic is, of course, fragile and therefore dropping or bashing a ceramic burr machine could easily smash your kit. Bear this in mind if you are looking for a machine to travel with.
Ceramic does not conduct heat – stainless steel burrs will get hot during grinding, so much so that they can give your beans an extra bit of roasting as they go through. That is not necessarily a problem – but something to bear in mind.
Stainless steel has its benefits too. Even though burr grinders grind coffee very evenly, they still produce a small amount of ‘fines’ or powdery grounds. The amount of fines produced is much lower with stainless steel burrs, giving you a cup with slightly smoother mouthfeel compared to the fuller bodied stuff you will get from ceramics. There are no clear winners – the choice is yours.
Doser or Doserless?
Machines with a doser, like this Rancilio Rocky machine grind the coffee into a staging area, from where you can pull a trigger and release a quantity of coffee grounds – usually in the 7 gram mark – into your receptacle.
They mean you don’t have to weigh out the coffee and can easily control your portion size. They are great for filling up portafilter baskets for an espresso quickly. If you drink lots of espresso, consider it as it will streamline the process and make it much less messy.
If you want versatility and don’t need a way of easily controlling the measure of coffee you are using, a doser is probably not a priority for you.
Five of the best burr grinders
Keeping the range of above options in mind, we went and had a look at what kind of burr machines were available at different price points on the market and compiled a list of our favourites. There’s something to suit every budget here.
This tidy looking piece from German outfit Melitta features flat steel disk burrs that are removable for easy cleaning and maintenance. The unit contains a bean hopper up top that can store around 200g of beans, which in real money is enough to make up to 14 cups of Joe at any one time. It boasts 17 different settings for coffee grinds that will take you all the way from a fine espresso grind to a coarse French press configuration.
The side panel of the machine contains a useful guide to help you choose the right setting, too. We liked this feature but it lumps all settings into three categories which is a bit wasteful. It’s helpful but Melitta could have had a bit more fun with it and provided a bit more value, we feel. Simply spin the dials to choose how much coffee you want to grind and the machine will get to work, automatically stopping once the required volume is reached.
The grinds basket detaches and re-attaches easily with minimal spillage. The Melitta Molino is compact enough to fit in any kitchen and runs quietly thanks to its 100w energy efficient low power drive.
This attractive machine from Bodum is available in black or red and comes with a hopper capable of storing 220 grams of beans. The beans can be ground into 15 different settings from coarse to fine via its conical stainless steel burrs. The machine uses a borosilicate container to catch the grounds which is anti-static. This is useful as it stops coffee clinging to everything inside and clumping together.
It also contains a timer allowing you to pre-set how long the machine runs for so you don’t need to stand there with your finger on the button.
It is great value for money, but there are a few gripes. The bean hopper is not airtight, so not ideal for storing beans if you want them to stay fresh. The consistency of the grind size on the coarser settings is not all that uniform and the machines fine setting does not get quite as powdery as others on the market, although it will still do a good espresso ground.
Slightly more expensive than the Bodum is this Sage machine made by kitchen appliance stalwarts Breville. The machine features hardened steel conical burrs and is easily programmable.
There are ten manual adjustments that can be made to the burr to fine tune the process and some 60 settings on the machine – meaning there are 600 possible settings for your grinds.
The machine will let you programme grind time and size easily and will remember your settings to allow you to scale up and down the quantity needed for differing numbers of cups. The machine comes with an airtight grind container and two portafilter cradles. The functionality of the machine is great and it produces consistent grain sizes time after time. It is a little on the bulky side if you have limited space, but difficult to fault.
The Cuisinart Professional features steel disk burrs that will grind coffee to 18 different levels of fineness. The unit looks and feels at bit plastic compared with others on the market but works well. The hopper is supposedly tinted to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the beans – but seemed mostly transparent to us.
The plastic hopper and collector have a 250 gram capacity which is enough to make up 18 cups worth of coffee and both are dishwaster safe. There is no portafilter holder and the collection tray suffers from static issues, meaning that grinds will line the walls of the container which can make things a bit messy when removing the unit and making coffee.
This machine is cheap, portable and comes with a nice cotton pouch for transporting it. The machine is easy to fill and setting the control over the grind size is easy, although some trial and error is needed to operate the screw thread mechanism.
The machine comes in hardy stainless steel and uses flat ceramic burrs. Course grounds come out like instant coffee – whereas the finest setting comes out like medium sized sand, so not really fine enough for a decent espresso, but great for pour over, filter aero-press etc.
The consistency of the grain size was good but not great. Some powdery stuff does end up in your cup. The action of the machine is great and it takes up next to no space in a rucksack. It took about one minute to get 7 grams of coffee on a medium-fine grid. Highly recommended for travelling coffee fanatics.
The Krups machine features a flat steel burr system and comes with an airtight 225 gram hopper to keep your beans fresh. It has 17 settings running from smooth to coarse and a 225 gram collection tank for your crushed beans.
The machine has a 12 cup selection dial meaning it will automatically run for long enough to grind enough coffee for anywhere between 1- 12 mugs of the good stuff.
The machine is one of the more compact on the market measuring 28×3 x 20.3 x 16.4 cm, so is great for people with limited kitchen space. It’s rather loud when its doing its thing though and perhaps not as eye-catching as some of the other units on the market if you are looking for a feature-piece for your kitchen counter top.