Once you buy fresh coffee, the secret to a great cup lies in how to grind coffee beans. The most important piece of coffee equipment is your grinder, since it determines how taste is extracted when you brew. In the United States, 90% of coffee consumed at home is pre-ground. While this is a great convenience, it’s always best to buy whole bean, and to grind immediately before you brew.
Even the tiniest kitchen has more than enough to start you off on the right foot. Ever gone to a restaurant and been asked if you’d like freshly ground pepper on your dish? Grinding pepper is similar to grinding coffee, and most pepper grinders allow you to adjust the coarseness. If an unused pepper mill isn’t available, the best stand-by option is a blender or a spice-grinder. Use quick pulses to control the coarseness of the grind. These alternatives illustrate the two main options in grinding technology: blade-based (beans are literally sliced up), and burr-based (pulverization).
In a pinch, you can also hand-pulverize beans. Use a mortar and pestle or even a rolling pin to crush up whole beans. Just be careful to crush to a consistent size.
If you don’t have a coffee grinder and don’t want to try a stand-in, there are two other easy options. First, every supermarket has a grinder in the bulk section; just bring your own beans and select the brew method you’re using on the dial. (Warning: we can’t vouch for the cleanliness of these machines!) Alternatively, while buying whole bean is best, you can always buy freshly ground coffee.
If you’re just getting into coffee, blade grinders are a great, inexpensive choice. These are essentially special-purpose spice grinders. Our usual recommendation is the Bodum Bistro, and it can be found almost everywhere from Amazon to Target (around $20). If you’re new to artisan coffee, starting with a blade grinder is a good way to set a baseline for your palate. Once you get used to drinking your coffee for the taste, the upgrade to a burr grinder will be a real eye-opened.
The limitations of a blade grinder come down to inconsistencies in the size of the coffee grounds. This leads to an uneven extraction of flavor from the beans, and a generally flat, underwhelming taste.
Grinding your coffee beans with a burr grinder is, for many, the best upgrade (short of buying better beans) for your coffee experience. Burr grinders come in many varieties and at a wide range of prices, from about $100 up to “price is no object”. They’re also where you find all kinds of bells and whistles, from weight-based dosing to anti-static materials to titanium burrs. We recommend the Breville Smart Grinder Pro, our personal favorite choice (around $150). For drip coffee, I dial mine in to a grind size of 39 (1 is finest, and 60 coarsest).
What you really want from a burr grinder is a) to pulverize the beans (which creates more surface area than slicing/cutting), and b) to produce a super-consistent grind, so you get the same taste experience every time. From a coffee tasting standpoint, the flavor extraction with a burr grinder can yield depth and subtlety that can be transformative; out of nowhere, you’ll be able to taste notes such as baker’s chocolate, blueberry, or almond.
If you want to make the best cup of coffee possible, you need to start with the grind. Your coffee grounds need to be the proper size, with a high degree of consistency. When we brew coffee, we apply hot (and, with espresso, pressurized) water to and through the coffee grounds. Extraction is the intermix between water, coffee, temperature, pressure, and time. It’s that operation that yields the actual coffee we drink.
When extraction goes wrong, you know it right away. Although your brewing method dictates the right level of coarseness, flavor goes south in two very recognizable ways:
Based on how you’re brewing, the general rule of thumb is:
For a great visual guide to grind size, see Ground Control, from the National Coffee Association.
Once you have with high-quality, fresh beans, clean water, and a solid grinder, it’s all about locking in your grind and brew methods and building a habit around it. Consistency, whether it’s water source, temperature, amount of coffee, or grind size, is key. For example, I know that a Bean Box single-brew pouch (1.8 ounces of coffee) takes 50-55 seconds to grind in my grinder, and it makes a Chemex for two. You can use our coffee to water ratio calculator to figure out how to calibrate your brew. If you’re looking for the best bang for the buck to up your coffee game, invest in a great grinder, hone in your coffee grind size, and enjoy great brew every day!