Now that we have looked at the importance of using fresh coffee beans, the proper way of storing beans, the correct cleanliness and temperature of water for brewing coffee, and the necessity of brewing with a gram scale, it is now time to address the topic of grinding coffee beans.
Why Grind Coffee Beans?
As mentioned before, when the coffee is ground is especially important. Ground coffee breaks down much quicker than whole bean coffee. Whereas whole bean coffee, stored correctly, will last 2-3 weeks, ground coffee significantly loses flavor after only a few minutes. It is important, then, to grind whole coffee beans immediately before adding water to insure that they retain as much flavor and aroma as possible.
Now, if you tried to brew a cup of coffee with whole beans, you would end up with an extremely weak cup, essentially having a cup of dirty water. Thus, the purpose of grinding coffee beans is to expose enough surface area for the extraction process to occur properly when water is added. Simplistically speaking, the finer the grind, the more surface area that the water has access to, which necessitates a shorter extraction time. The coarser the grind, the less surface area, requiring a longer extraction period.
Grind Size Guide
Fine: Espresso, Turkish Coffee (extra fine, like powder)
Medium: Siphon/Vacuum Pots, AeroPress, Hario V60/Pour Over Cones, Basket/Drip Brewers,
Coarse: French Press/Press Pot, Nel Drip, Toddy Cold Brew System (extra coarse)
Remember, this is a guide, not a set of strict rules. It is a guide because there a many factors that come into play when considering grind size (e.g., brewing method, type of bean, growing altitude, roast level, freshness of roasted beans, water temperature, batch size, and even weather). It is also a guide because good grinders have more than 3-4 settings (e.g., Baratza suggests that that an Aeropress should be slightly finer than a Drip/Basket Brewer). This is something that you will have to experiment with.
The fact that grind size affects extraction points to the necessity of having a good grinder. If the grinder is producing coffee grounds that are not the same size, then some grounds will extract quicker than others, resulting in a cup that is mixed with under- and over-extracted coffee.
Now, there are two different types of coffee grinders: blade grinders and burr grinders. Blade grinders are much cheaper than burr grinders, but produce a very uneven grind. A blade grinder is essentially like a blender; they have a metal blade that simply chops up the coffee beans while the button is being pressed. Theoretically, the longer you hold the button, the finer the grind. The reality, though, is that when the blade hacks away at the beans, it is not consistent at all. The chopping action results in extra-fine and coarser grounds being in the same batch, which produces that under- and over-extracted coffee that is both bitter and sour.
Burr grinders, on the other hand, function much differently. Rather than having a single blade, burr grinders have two “burrs.” When the grind level is adjusted, the distance between the two burrs is changed. What happens is that the burrs do not allow the coffee beans to pass through until they are the correct size. This produces a much more consistent grind. However, the issue that most have with burr grinders is the price tag. Although much more consistent, they are much more expensive. In the end, though, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.
With that said, though, one of the ways that many choose to go, when struggling with the price tag of an electric burr grinder, is to turn to a hand-crank burr grinder. Hand grinders can truly produce a decent grind, but this decent grind comes with a cost: labor. You are, in fact, the machine that grinds the coffee. Personally, I have found that hand grinders produce a finer grind better than a coarser grind. But I would definitely suggest getting this before a blade grinder.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
Personally, when I was in college, I purchased my first grinder; it was a blade grinder. Now, although I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a blade grinder, it is in fact what opened my eyes to the world of tasting coffee. Blade grinders get a lot of flack, as they should, but they are often the very tools that lead people from being a caffeine seeker to an enjoyer of coffee. With that said, I have heard that it helps with consistency and the heat issue to shake blade grinders up and down as you push the button, while only holding the button down for 2-3 seconds at a time.
After the blade grinder, I upgraded to a hand-crank burr grinder, specifically the Hario Skerton. Since then, though, I have heard that the Hario Slim Hand Grinder produces a more consistent grind, so that may be something to look into if you are considering a hand grinder. The Hario Hand Grinders are perfect for those who are wanting a better cup of coffee but have a limited budget—and want to get a workout in the morning. I still use mine when I go on trips—hotels, family and friend’s houses, camping, backpacking, etc.
I now use a Baratza Encore, which is Baratza’s entry level electric burr grinder. The Encore replaced Baratza’s previous entry level burr grinder, the Maestro, upgrading some of its features. It does a great job with pour over grind levels, and although it definitely has its limits, it is capable of producing an espresso grind. The benefit of the Baratza Encore is that it is an entry level priced grinder that is capable of producing wonderfully consistent grinds. While I do not have much experience with other electric burr grinders, I do know that you cannot go wrong with Baratza or Mahlkonig Grinders.
Truly, if you want consistently good tasting coffee, this is, honestly, the most important tool.