Our guide to your daily grind, and why grinding is the key to great coffee.
An Ode To The Pepper Mill
Ever gone to a restaurant and been asked if you’d like freshly ground pepper on your dish? When ground just prior to being tasted, pepper literally tastes better. And great restaurants will adjust their grind based on the taste of the dish: courser for steaks, finer for soups. In food, just-in-time pepper is all about control and freshness. As a culture, if we’re willing to treat our pepper with such care, why would we neglect our coffee grinding? In coffee, a great grind is essential.
When we meet people who are just getting into fresh coffee, who aren't used to buying whole bean, we say that in a pinch, you can use a blender to grind coffee beans. Of course, that's a less-than-ideal option. In fact, when we talk to folks about spending money on brew equipment for their home, our one key piece of advice is that money spent on a great grinder is your best investment.
Why Grind Matters
If you want to make the best cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted, you need to start with the grind: not just the fact that you grind immediately prior to brewing, but it's the proper size and consistency that make for a great cup. When we brew coffee, we're applying hot (and, with espresso, pressurized) water to and through the grounds. It's the intermix between water and coffee, the process known as extraction, that yields the actual coffee we drink. If you want to know just how finicky things can get around the proper ground, go to any coffee shop worth their salt and watch how much care goes into grinding, packing, and tamping a portafilter prior to pulling a shot of espresso: the shape and preparation of the grounds is literally the entirety of manual control a barista has over the quality of the shot she pulls.
Types of Coffee Grinders
There are two main types of coffee grinders:
Blade grinders, generally considered entry level, are an inexpensive way to get started in coffee. The blades literally slice the beans, and their motion agitates the grounds within the chamber to expose as much of the beans to the blades as possible. In this method, you're increasing the surface area of the beans by cutting them up, and extraction is all about the surface area available to the water during extraction.
Burr grinders literally take the pepper mill approach, pulverizing the beans into smaller and smaller pieces. This also has the effect of increasing surface area, but with much more consistency, as the burrs will crush a few beans at a time, instead of the randomizing effect of slicing found in a blade grinder.
Once you've made the jump to a burr grinder, the upgrade options can take you very quickly from the sub-$100 range, all the way up into the hundreds (for home equipment), or thousands (for prosumer or commercial use) of dollars. That said, we've heard from so many people that their best investments in coffee have been grinder upgrades, as opposed to fancier brewing equipment. For me personally, I'd rather have a great grinder and zero brewing equipment than a super fancy brewer and a bad grinder.
All of that said, if you're new to fresh whole bean coffee, using a blender is a great way to open your taste buds. The ladder to appreciating great coffee only has a few rungs: first and foremost, use clean water; next, always buy fresh, whole bean coffee and grind just before brewing; and finally, when you're ready to spend, always look to improve your grind.