Is there anything closer to heaven than the smell of freshly ground coffee beans in the morning? Ask coffee experts and they'll tell you that one of the most important (if not THE most important) steps in making a great cup of coffee is the grind and the freshness of the grind. In fact, some would argue the quality of your drip coffee maker or brewing tool matters less than the quality of the grinder.
There are two kinds of grinder mechanisms - blade and burr. Blades are the long, flat, pointed metal planks that revolve quickly to chop things up, like you'd see at the bottom of a traditional blender. Blade grinders are cheaper but tend to produce more uneven grinds of slightly different sizes. Burrs are the superior grinding method, composed of two round, metal, disk-like surfaces covered in rough blades that spin quickly in opposite directions and trap pieces of coffee between them until the beans erode into a more consistent powder. The bottom line is that blade grinders chop up coffee beans with a spinning knife to produce a more varied result while burrs actively crush the beans into a uniformly powdery texture that will be the same every time.
The other great feature of burr grinders is that the distance between the two spinning disks can usually be adjusted to produce a finer or coarser grind depending on your preference. Blade grinders do not have the ability to do this.
Example of burrs. nikkytok/Shutterstock
Because burr grinding produces coffee of a uniform size, the hot water is able to extract the coffee oils evenly when water pours through the particles. This results in a more even-tasting flavor experience. By contrast, blade grinding produces pieces of coffee of varying sizes, some of a finer, smaller size and some of a clumpier, more solid size. As a result, different levels of oil and caffeine pass through the coffee at different levels of speed, with larger particles taking longer to extract and smaller particles taking less time. The reason this produces an uneven cup of coffee is that you can actually over-extract some grinds and under-extract others in the same brew if the grinds aren't of the same consistency. Smaller, over-extracted particles make for a bitter, unpleasant coffee, while larger, under-extracted particles result in a flat, dull cup. What burrs do is cut the grinds from both sides as the rough disks turn against one another, only allowing particles of an equal size to pass through and end up in your filter.
Example of a blade grinder. Coprid/Shutterstock
As a rule, coffee grinders are expensive, so it's important to take as many factors into consideration as possible before you commit to one and shell out the big bucks.
When choosing a coffee grinder, you'll want to think about the kind of lengths you'll have to go to clean it. Coffee grinds aren't exactly the tidiest substance known to man, so you can count on some cleaning from time to time. Few coffee grinders seem to include a cleaning brush with the packaging, but you'll find some kind of cleaning tool is necessary to keep your grinder running smoothly. Take notice of whether the coffee grinder you're considering says anything about having dishwasher-friendly parts. The cheaper grinders are typically more likely to have dishwasher-safe, removable parts, while the more expensive, higher-quality models are more likely to be handwash only.
Peace of mind is a big deal when buying any pricey appliance, but coffee grinders in particular need to be working top notch, all the time, to justify their high price point. Remember to look into the warranty program for your brand, and investigate whether the seller you're buying from makes you eligible or ineligible for their warranty. Most companies seem to offer a one year warranty on parts and labor, with the option of an extended warranty for an added cost.
Do you enjoy fresh espresso shots or see yourself making lattes at home? If so, you'll want to invest in a coffee grinder that specifically mentions it grinds espresso beans. Espresso has to be ground to a fine, very consistent texture - similar to granulated sugar - so you'll need a burr set that's precise enough to do the job. Don't simply assume that because a machine says it can grind "fine" that it's capable of doing espresso beans justice! Keep in mind that the grinders with the most effective, consistent burr sets for grinding espresso tend to be pricier.
One of the questions you may be confronted with on your search for the best coffee grinder is whether or not you want a machine with a "doser", a little container that catches the coffee grinds after the machine has worked its magic. The nice thing about having a doser is that you lose less coffee via stray grinds if you have an attachment stationed under the dispenser to catch it all. It also means less mess to wipe up after the fact. On the other hand, a doserless machine will give you the option to grind coffee on demand in whatever quantity you choose, and will allow you to place any kind of filter underneath to make the transition from the grinder to your coffee making device quicker and easier. That said, depending on how many cups you're making and the occasion, it can take longer to produce a large amount of coffee for a larger group of people without a doser.
Engineered in Seattle, the coffee capital of Amerca, the Baratza Virtuoso is a pricey but premium grinder which wins the day for its durable 40mm burr set and reliable performance. This grinder produces the most uniform grinds on its wide spectrum of settings, numbered 0 to 40, from fine to coarse. The Virtuoso boasts a high torque DC motor that keeps the coffee beans cool, even during long grinds, so they don't start to cook and alter the flavor. This device is easy to use, clean, and maintain, and this model includes a timer so you can expect the exact same grind with every cup. It has a solid, sturdy base to resist vibration and holds 8 ounces of beans. Perfect for drip, manual brewing, espresso, and French Press, the Baratza Virtuoso comes with a one year warranty,
Lucky for this grinder, its quality justifies its insane price. The 50mm burrs are amazing quality and definitely built to last, delivering strong, powerful tastes and flavors that make it perfect for grinding espresso. A wildly versatile grinder, this model has 55 modes to provide a crazy amount of choice and variability in your grind, from coarse French press to extremely fine Turkish. Half a pound of coffee beans fit up in its 10-ounce glass hopper, which is sealed tightly to maintain bean freshness and tinted blue to protect from UV rays. This model is also extremely quiet and safe, featuring a thermal protection device that shuts down the machine if the motor starts to overheat. The burrs on the Rancilio Rocky should be cleaned weekly or bi-weekly with a brush, and the hopper can be washed as needed by hand. Rancilio products have a one year warranty, and models with and without dosers are available online
For those on a budget, the Bodum Bistro is a stellar pick for under $100. Stainless steel burrs grind evenly and consistently according to its 14 settings, with a plastic hopper that holds 8 ounces of beans. It features a glass doser that catches the grinds without promoting static, and a push-button that works with a timer so you don't have to stand next to the machine while it does its thing. An added bonus? It comes in seven fun colors that you can match to your kitchen or other appliances. Bodums have a one year warranty, though broken glass is not covered.
A popular and well-reviewed hand grinder, this model is portable, great for traveling, and well-made. With ceramic burrs and a stainless steel, static-free body, this Japanese model is durable, easy to use, and noiseless. This version only holds about 1.5 ounces of coffee, but the burr settings are adjustable and produce an even grind. There aren't numbers to identify the various grind levels, but settings can be determined based on the number of audible clicks the machine makes when it's turned. Porlex Tall is on the expensive side for the fact that you have to crank the coffee by hand, but the result is worth it. The warranty situation is iffy on Porlex, since warranties are organized through the authorized sellers as opposed to Porlex. The Porlex website recommends buying through one of the recognized retailers on its website, as they do not honor warranties from Amazon or eBay.