January 05, 2016

On grinding coffee.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Why settle for mediocrity if the best in the world is a one time $300 purchase?

Let’s put a few things out there up front.  First, I don’t care how or if you drink your coffee, or even whether you drink coffee, or tea, or hot water with lemon and cayenne.  Second, I’m new to this and have all the enthusiasm and ignorance of any sophomore.  Third, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get great results, but sometimes spending a little bit extra can really help.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s talk about coffee.  The little green bean has a long history with humans and the deeper you get into it, the deeper you get.  You realize that it’s a bloody complex path from bean to cup and you have very little control over things that have huge impact on taste, like how the beans are grown, processed, transported, roasted, and packaged, beyond deciding which actual package to buy.

Now, before we get into what you actually DO have control over, let’s discuss whether your actions in brewing up a cup of coffee actually makes a difference you can taste and enjoy.  The short version in my world is “Yes”.  The long version goes into what it takes to make enough of a difference so you can taste it.

For the long version, read on.

When making coffee at home, you really only have 3 steps where you can affect the taste of the finished cup.  This article is specifically about the “grinding” step, but I’ll list the others so you have a few other rabbit holes to wander down later.

First, you can buy unroasted green beans and roast ‘em yourself.  You can do that in a popcorn popper, a skillet, or spend a few thousand on a tricked out roasting machine.

Second, you can buy roasted beans and grind them yourself.

Third, you can really get into the intricacies of the brewing process using any one of a number of different methods; French press, Aeropress, pourover, siphon, etc.

It’s that second step, the “grinding” part, that I’m going to discuss.  The reason I start with the grind is that it is simultaneously the biggest, the simplest, and usually the cheapest step you can take towards making your coffee taste MUCH better.

First, why is fresh ground coffee so important?

Within 15 minutes of grinding, 90% of everything glorious in coffee is gone.

A roasted whole coffee bean is a fairly tight little package; it takes anywhere from 3-14 days for a roasted bean to lose enough flavor for you to notice.  When you grind it up, the surface area to volume ratio goes through the roof and flavor loss is dramatically accelerated.

Within 15 minutes of grinding, ninety percent of everything great and glorious in the coffee beans has vaporized into the air.  You might smell it wafting around your kitchen, but you’ll never taste it in the cup. (Update:  It's possible probable I'm wrong about this.)

When you ask your coffee shop to pre grind your beans, a little part of them dies every time they say Yes.

Trust me, when you ask your coffee shop to pre-grind your beans, a little part of them dies every time they say “Yes”.  They want you to drink great coffee, they probably put a lot of work into giving their coffee the best possible chance of being great, and they know all of that work is gone within 15 minutes of them grinding it.  Heartbreaker, right?

If you’re anything like me, you want the best of everything you can buy, touch, taste, smell, and experience.  That means in this case, you’ll want to grind your own coffee fresh for every single cup.  Before you go out and buy a cheap grinder that flogs coffee beans into multivariate oblivion, let’s talk about what your coffee grind objective is.

Simply, it is to make sure that every piece you grind is the same size, and that size is correct for your brewing method.

The standard coffee grinder (the whirly blade in your Mom’s kitchen) is much like the biggest guy in a mosh pit; they zip around and bust everybody up, not caring whether they hit big or little people, and not caring whether those people break into big or little bits.

What you want is more of a surgical striker; a machine that can take a coffee bean and break it down into many pieces that are all the same, correct size.  For French press you’ll tend to have large pieces, for espresso (NOT “expresso” damnit!) they’ll be smaller pieces, and for Turkish coffee you want to grind it into dust, but I’m getting ahead of myself with this idea of “correct” sizing.

As Alejandro said in Sicario, “You’re asking me how a watch works.  For now let’s just keep an eye on the time.”

In this case, we’re focusing on finding a grinder that can take our coffee beans and consistently break them down into many little pieces that are all the same size along the full continuum of particle size.

There are really only two ways to grind all different sizes of coffee (from Turkish to French Press) at top levels of taste, where there’s no noticeable difference “in the cup” between the two methods.

First, by hand with a big and stable conical cutting “burr”.  Second, by machine with a big and stable conical cutting “burr”.

There are other grinders out there (small mills, ceramic burrs, flat burrs, knob burrs, and the previously discussed whirly blade) but if your goal is to achieve uniformity and correctness in size and ultimately consistently superb taste, well, you’re going to need a big, stable, conical burr.

Before you read further, know that a coffee grinder up at this end of excellence is going to cost you at least $300, even if it’s manual.  The motorized ones are going to be north of $600 and can reach above $2k.

You need to be a bit of a geek on coffee and driven to wring the most of out of your beans if you commit to spending at this level, but hell, why settle for mediocrity if the best in the world is a one time $300 purchase?

Where can you find those, and what are your options when you buy ‘em?  If you’re looking for a manual grinder, you have three legitimate options that meet the criteria of big, stable, conical burrs.

This isn’t a review, there are plenty of those on the rest of the ‘net, I’m just laying out your choices.

First, the Rosco grinder from Portaspresso.  It’s the smallest of the bunch, with a 38mm (that’s diameter) burr.  Cost, depending on the AUD to USD exchange rate is about US$375 shipped to the States.

Second, the Pharos grinder from Orphan Espresso.  It’s the middle size, although it’s still big and unwieldy.  The burrs are 68mm, it was made solely to perfectly grind coffee and is a bitch to keep hold of.  I love it. It runs right around $300 with shipping, and ships from northern Idaho.

Third, the HG-One.  It’s the biggest of the bunch, has an 83mm burr, is apparently easy to use and costs right around $1k.  (Update:  Looks like these are no longer available.)

All of those are manual grinders.  That means I’ll probably like you more if you like them.  If manual action isn’t your thing, you can definitely spend more on high end motorized grinders, but rather than be a page reviewing a million different coffee grinders, I’ll just direct you over to home-barista, where they are way more into this than I am.

So, now you know a little bit more about coffee and how to make yours better.  You’re probably also kicking yourself that you didn’t know this before, so you’re welcome.  Finally, know that I’m not making a dime from any of those links, that I don’t give a single fuck if you buy any of those grinders or if you never taste your own cup of perfectly ground and brewed coffee.  My aim in this was to lay out some of the information I’ve learned about what it takes to get to a perfect cup for people who didn’t realize what they didn’t know.  I ain’t fully down the coffee rabbit hole (or rat-hole, as Peter Defty likes to say), but I’m enjoying the hell out of the journey so far.

To geeks, weirdos, and pursuants of the great and glorious things in the world!  

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Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

Too much reading...
How about dessert?

Too Much Reading...How About Dessert?

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