Ground coffee used to be something we just took for granted. If you bought coffee, it came ground to an industry standard. As we have become more accustomed to great coffee and taking more care with the ways we make coffee, grinding coffee at home is now common.
For the most particular of coffee connoisseurs, there is no way to brew coffee without fresh ground coffee beans. What is more, control over the size of your grind has become paramount in home grinding techniques. We now take care when grinding for a Chemex or a French press, an automatic drip or a pour-over—the type of grind varies according to the brewing method.
There are a number of home grinding mills available now. It is no longer a specialty item. In fact, there are so many types of coffee mills available that the problem has now become how to choose.
This guide will give you a general break-down of coffee mills in such a way that you will be able to make an informed decision as you sort through the confusing number of available options.
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Getting the Perfect Grind: Course vs. Fine
The proper grind of your beans is possibly the most essential aspect of making a perfect cup of coffee. We could do an entire article on coffee grind size alone. The thumbnail version for the most commonly used coffee brewing methods we use at home is this:
- Cowboy Coffee: Extra Course
- French Press or percolator: Course
- Chemex (or its variants): Medium course
- Cone shaped brewers or flat-bottom drip machines: Medium fine
- Espresso or Moka pot: Fine
- Turkish Coffee: Extra fine
Ultimately you will need to experiment with this to determine what works best for your equipment and your taste. The break-down above is just a general guide to think about when grinding your coffee.
Note on flavored coffee: Flavored coffee is also sold as whole bean. Just remember that if you grind a flavored coffee bean, your mill will likely taste like that forever. You cannot put most coffee mills in the dishwasher. Professional cafes use a separate grinder for their flavored coffees.
The grinder functions with one of two mechanisms: the burr grinder or the blade grinder. The blade is probably what most of us got used to when home grinders first came out. It is simply a propeller that breaks the beans up with the force of a blade. It is that simple.
The burr grinder is the mechanical feature of old wooden coffee mills. This consists of two abrasive surfaces, or burrs, which turn against each other to break the beans apart a few at a time. One of the immediate and obvious advantages of the burr grinder is the distance between the surfaces can be adjusted and this will adjust the grind from course to fine.
The advantage of one over the other is ultimately a question of personal choice. I will say that the burr grinder is preferred by most people who take a lot of care with brewing coffee. But the blade grinders tend to be more affordable, and it is still possible to maintain control over the size of your grind with a blade. It just takes some more finesse and practice.
As I mentioned above, blade grinders are the simplest coffee mills available. They consist of a sharp propeller that breaks up the beans. If you are new to grinding coffee at home, these can be the best way to begin. I have one and still use it when I just do not want to get all involved in grinding beans.
Other advantages to the blade grinders are that they are the most affordable. These can come in at around $10 and up. They travel easily. You can throw these things into a bag and take them with you.
Because these grinders are generally super-affordable they are the perfect thing to keep in the kitchen as a second grinder for your flavored coffee.
You can also use a blade grinder as a spice mill. They are the same machine with a different label. Just remember, you will never get those spice flavors out of your grinder. Once you grind nutmeg, you will always have nutmeg coffee.
It is possible to maintain some control over the fineness of your grind. This is obvious, but the more you grind, the finer the grind. The old models just had an attached cup. Technology has caught up with the demand and hand mills now come with a removable cup that has measuring grades built into it.
Some people believe the blade grinders are perfect for use with a French press. An ideal grind with a French press is flakey and the blades will give you this type of grind.
Certainly the blade grinders are fine for use with a regular automatic drip coffee maker, and it is perfectly reasonable to get a good, fine grind for espresso with the blades.
The best of the blade grinders will give you 60 grams of ground coffee, enough for an average pot. Most have a graduated removable cup for accurately measuring your grind and transferring it to your coffee maker. The grind you get from blade grinders is also perfectly usable if you’re making coffee without a traditional coffee machine.
If you are really serious about grinding coffee, electronic burr grinders are the top of the line. These grinders are essentially designed in accordance with the specs used to produce the grinders you see in professional cafes.
Again, the burr grinder consists of two gears which pulverized the beans to a granular size which is in relation to the distance between the gears. The burr grinders are set in place, so there is no guess work as you determine the fineness or coarseness of your grind.
On the high end of these grinders, the top manufactures produce what are called “smart grinders.” The highest example of these types of grinders will give you a grind that is nearly on the level of a professional system. But keep in mind those professional coffee mills cost roughly $2000 more than the type you would purchase for home use.
These mills have electronic settings. They operate with two conical burr grinders which can be set to 60 precise grid settings. You can adjust the grind time in 0.2 second increments. And they come with “dosing IQ” which allows you to preset all of these parameters.
Coffee mills of this type will run about $200. Besides all of the technical advantages, these models are built to last. Made with stainless steel mechanics and heavy-duty plastic housing, these things are tough. If you take care of them, they will last.
If you do not want to spend that kind of money but you are still ready for a top end mill, there are a number of models which are much less expensive.
The conical burr grinders are the best. These look a lot like the blade grinders, but instead of having a cup attached at the top, there is a hopper attached to the side and the burr grinds directly into it. Basically, these are mini-versions of the professional mills.
Home burr grinders have a manual dial for grind size. They come with an easily removable hopper that is graduated for measuring your grounds. They clean up easily. Best of all, these types of mills average around $30.
The advantages to burr grinders are in the control over the size of the grind. Burr grinders are simply the best tools for getting perfectly ground coffee from cowboy coffee to espresso.
Turkish Coffee Grinders
Turkish coffee requires and extra-fine grind. Using what amounts to a fine powder, Turkish coffee is brewed in a special pot in which the grounds are placed directly in the hot water.
There are a few common coffee mills which will get your grind down to the smallest possible espresso grind. But these will still create something of a powdery consistency for Turkish coffee.
The best Turkish coffee grinders are fairly ornate hand mills. Made from tough metals, these grinders operate with the burr method and create the finest possible grind possible.
Specialized Turkish coffee grinders are not cheap. They range from $50 to $200. But these mills are worth the expense if you are making Turkish coffee. This is the type of investment you will value if you have gotten to a point at which coffee is more than just a morning pick up and has become something of a passion.
Manual Vs. Automatic
Depending on your needs, you do have both manual and electric coffee grinder options available to you. I’ll detail a few of the differences between the two technologies below:
I have a friend who grew up in Cuba under Castro. Among his childhood memories was the presence of old-fashioned coffee grinders. He told me these things were a fixture in every Cuban home. Life may have been bleak under Castro, but Cubans love coffee, and they were not going to go without freshly ground beans in their daily brew.
Those old-fashioned wooden grinders, with the little drawer for grounds, are largely a thing of the past. But modern designers have come up with more sophisticated designs for those who prefer grinding by hand. There are a number of manufacturers who put out hand grinding coffee mills.
I own a few manual grinders myself, just because I think they’re pretty cool and fun to use. The things I look out for are when buying are the size of the grinder and how well-made the components are.
Obviously, you want a grinder that is going to yield the proper amount of coffee for your needs. There are few hand coffee mills which are specifically made for travel, and they’re just not going to give you what you need at home. Certainly, if you are brewing a cup or two at the campsite some of these smaller models are fine. But for home brewing you want something with the capacity to grind at least 60 grams, or about 3.5 ounces of ground coffee.
I also pay attention to the material used to make the mill. You can find hand mills made out of cheap plastic and these are often tantalizingly affordable. But, like everything, you get what you pay for – these things break easily. Look for stainless steel or ceramic models – there are plenty of affordable options out there that are also built to last.
Finally, do not fall into the limitations of old-fashioned mills. Hand grinders today can come with as many as 15 different grind settings, so you can get a course grind for cold brew, a fine grind for espresso, and everything in between.
You do not need to go broke buying a manual grinder. Well-made, stainless steel hand mills can come it at around $25.00. Like anything else, you can spend large amounts of money on these things, but you don’t have to. The higher-priced models do come with more bells and whistles, but you don’t always need them just to make a good cup of joe.
Automatic, electric coffee grinders will always work faster and more efficiently than their manual counterparts. If you like fresh-ground beans but don’t want to worry about the process behind them, then an electric grinder is perfect for you. Most models have measurement markings that dictate how many beans you put in, then you simply push a button and you’ll have a picturesque pile of coffee grounds before you know it.
That being said, automatic grinders tend to be more expensive than manual grinders, and it might be harder to achieve that “perfect” consistency if you’re particular about your grounds. Automatic grinders do have a variety of settings to choose from, but it’s often easier to fine-tune your grounds with a manual option.
And, as with all things electronic, there are just more components that can break when it comes to an electric coffee grinder.
Caring For Your Grinder
These are machines and they do require some general maintenance. You cannot just put them in a dishwasher.
For most grinders, a couple simple brushes may be all you need. Regularly brush out the mechanics and the interior of the grinder to prevent a build-up of gunk. You can clean the cup of some of these mills with soap and water, but make certain to dry it completely before using it.
For blade mills there is a trick you can use. If the blades and the interior have built up on the inside, try grinding some rice grains. Just place a tablespoon of dry rice in the grinder and grind it to a fine powder. Then use a brush to clean all remaining dust. This will create an abrasive which will pull off the built-up oils and coffee dust.
Burr grinders require a little more care. Use a stiff brush to clean off the mechanisms and the interior of the hopper.
The gears come apart on some machines, but this may require a special tool. Check with the manufacturer specs for proper care of these machines since they are more sophisticated.