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The Next Level: Coffee Grinders

Hey, everyone! Welcome to the first entry of what will be an occasional series we're going to call "The Next Level." In these posts, we're going to (a) tackle a piece of entry-level hardware that you, the newly-minted home barista, may be using, and (b) discuss the more advanced hardware that you could use if you felt like taking your morning ritual to the next level. We'll explain the difference between the basic and advanced options in plain and simple terms, and we promise not to push you in either direction: we're merely here to give the bare facts to provide you with a better understanding of why some folks choose one over the other. That stated, let's talk coffee grinders.

To begin, let's recap something covered in The Basics: you should never buy pre-ground coffee. Coffee flavor is at its best right after the roast, and the flavor goes "stale" over time. The process of going "stale" speeds up once the coffee is ground. How do you ensure you're getting the freshest cup possible? You grind the beans at home. This, of course, means you need to buy a grinder. If you're just starting out, we recommend a basic blade grinder like this, this, or this. Find a decent sale, and these grinders will only set you back a few bucks. Grinding the beans each morning takes less than a minute, and your taste buds will give you a high five for going the extra mile.

Okay, so let's assume you've been using the blade grinder for a while now and saw a burr grinder on sale at your local kitchen store. You're aware that coffee shops and "serious" coffee drinkers swear by burr grinders, but burr grinders can cost up to hundreds of dollars, so you've been holding off on buying one. Moreover, you don't know the difference between blade and burr grinders and what the fuss is about (editor's note: we've been there). Let's break it down.

Blade Grinders: These grinders have a well with a blade in the center that resembles a propeller. Blade grinders can also be used to chop spices and may be described as spice grinders or generically as just "grinders" at the store. The method is simple: pour the beans into the well, put the top over the beans, press down, and voila! It grinds. Going for a rougher grind for your french press? Hold the top down a little less time and get a coarse grind. Want a fine grind for your Bialetti Moka? Hold the top down a little longer. Great deals pop up often for blade grinders; for what it's worth, our mainstay is this one.

One downside to the blade grinder is that it doesn't give you a uniform grind. In other words, you may get some larger grinds mixed in with finer grinds, and you may even end up with a couple of untouched beans at the end. A way to try and mitigate this problem is to pulse the grinder, which allows the bigger grinds to fall beneath the lighter, finer grinds and get chopped into smaller bits. That stated, you're not going to get a perfectly uniform grind with the blade grinder. To go a little technical here, the downside to not having a uniform grind is that when you brew the coffee, the water won't have a consistent amount of contact with each grind, which causes the flavors coming off the grinds to be inconsistent, leaving you with a slightly less than perfect cup.

Now, if that last sentence sounded ridiculous or snobbish to you, we get it, and we recommend sticking with the blade grinder. If, on the other hand, you're in pursuit of a perfect cup, you need a burr grinder.

Burr Grinders: These grinders can come in two types, automatic or manual. If you want a burr grinder for cheap, are looking to get buff, or plan to grind your coffee in the woods, we recommend manual. Otherwise, embrace the twenty-first century and go automatic. Once you pick your poison between manual and automatic, you have one more decision to make: flat or conical. Both types of burr grinders do the same thing (i.e., grind your coffee), but since there are two options, everyone's going to have an opinion about which is the best. Without going into a whole discourse, we recommend conical. They're a little cheaper and a little less noisy, which matters to some folks in the early morning hours. However, you can't go wrong either way, and so if you want a flat burr grinder, we've got your back completely.

The great advantage of the burr grinder is that you can set the burrs at different distances to allow for different sizes of grind. The burrs are set over a hole, so if you put the coffee beans over the burrs and turn the grinder on, only grinds of a certain size will fall between the burrs and down the hole, thereby giving you a uniform grind. As mentioned above, the consistent grind means consistency in the wetting of the grinds, which results in a more consistent cup. If this sounds like music to your ears, we highly recommend taking your home coffee game to the next level and picking up a burr grinder. For what it's worth, from our research, if you're going electric, this one is the one you want. If you're going manual, this one is your best bet.

Ultimately, when picking a grinder, it's going to come down to how particular you want to be in ensuring a consistent grind, how discerning your palate is when tasting coffee, and how much money you have in your wallet. The blade grinder works perfectly fine, but the more expensive burr grinder will give you a better cup. We hope this primer has been helpful and provided some clarity to help you pick the grinder that best suits your needs. Now find yourself a bag of freshly roasted coffee and enjoy a fresh cup!

- The Cortado

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