Sunday, April 29, 2012

Grinders -- the most important aspect for quality coffee...

Well, It's been longer than I thought for both this 'blog and the ham radio one.  Unfortunately, I have no updates for the ham 'blog since I've been busy.. vacation, family issues, etc.  Life does get in the way of your other plans.

Anyway, even though I have a very small audience of people who are home roasters of coffee, I would only rank the home roasting process as the second most important aspect of having good coffee.  I would say, especially with Espresso, but in fact any cup, that you want coffee that is no older than two weeks past roast.  However poorly ground coffee is in fact more bitter and lower quality than properly ground stale.

The best solution for everyone is to go out and spend $400-1000 on a high end home grinder such as a Baratza Vario or a "low-end" commercial grinder like a Mazzer.

But not of us want to or can do that.

I'm going to give two suggestions for someone starting off with coffee for grinders, with some annoyances and quirks that can do a good job at fine and a completely adequate job at course.

If you want to spend <$50.. then my obvious first pick for a grinder is a manual Conical Burr Mill.  There are a few varieties such as the Hario Skerton, Kyocera CM-45 and the Hario Slim Mill MSS-1.

I recommend the MSS-1 because it will eventually become your travel grinder.  I recommend that even people with the $1000 grinders have 1-2 of the Hario MSS-1's around because it can work from Espresso to French Press (a little loosy goosey at French Press but it tastes ok to me!) and is portable and can work in an emergency.  (Which I had today.. I'll get to it.)

Hario MSS-1 Disassembled, showing simple internals and the Kyocera conical burrs that work remarkably well in this and the other similar Japanese hand grinders.

Hario MSS-1, assembled.  Note that the 2 cup legend is completely warn off and the 1 cup one and the Hario is starting to wear off!  I use this a lot!

I'll now show you what not to buy, even at the same price as the Hario was.  I got a noisy Cuisinart Flat Burr mill.. but the problem is that is a "crusher" and not a cutter because as you can see from the pictures, the mechanics are not precise.  I no longer have this unit, I traded it for a Guitar practice amp.  Despite being not a decent mill, it's still better than the blade grinders that my friend used.. so I didn't feel too guilty about the trade.  The reason you want to avoid a unit like this is twofold:  1. It can't grind fine enough for Espresso or even pressurized portafilters.  On the coarser grinds, you get a mix of "Turkish fine" grinds, and the size you want.  I always chucked as much of the powder as I could.  This was because the places that were crushing the beans always makes this dust.  All around, I'd save my $35-60 (yes, it's $60 are BB&B) for something better.  I'll recommend my current pick for cheapest capable electric mill soon.

Cuisinart "supreme grind" burr mill:

OK, notice how the burrs invariably rub each other due to the lack of mechanical precision.  Because of this, the mills can not be sharp, they would instantly destroy each other and the unit.  So these dull mills "crush" the coffee rather than mill it.  It works, it's better than a blade grinder, but it adds a fine dust to all grinds.  I suppose that would be okay at the Espresso end if it could grind that fine but it can't.  It's also not noticeable on drip because the paper filter filters it off.  But it's sludge central on any press drip.  It was, of course, ok for Aeropress.. but for the MSRP of $60 it's not a good choice.  I don't even think it was a good choice at the $30 I paid for it.

It was also extremely noisy... it would wake up the dead.

So what do I recommend for a capable low end grinder?  Luckily Baratza decided that their least expensive grinder, the Encore should be capable of a full grind range, albeit not with enough "stops" in the stepped selection to make it convenient.  But it's doable.  I will add that if you really know you want to go for Espresso mainly eventually that you may want to move up to a better grinder immediately than the Encore-- or play it the way I am right now, and that is the Encore will eventually be my grinder for "everything" else-- which it does REALLY well, and I will also get a less expensive, but very fine adjustment Espresso grinder.  I went into this deciding to do it this way because I didn't know if I'd really like Espresso (I do) and didn't want to go the "Rocky/Silvia" $1K route to try it.  This is the essence of "Cheapskate Coffee"... not to be cheap but to do things in a logical fashion to see what one likes before blowing a small fortune on equipment!

The Encore, when recalibrated for "fine" and kept PERFECTLY CLEAN, like blown out with compressed air 2x a week, can grind fine enough for decent Espresso.  There are the snobs and the "home barista" types that will correctly tell you that the grinder makes the Espresso (hey, that's what this post is about!)--- and that the Encore doesn't let you "dial in" fine enough!  It doesn't but there are tricks, such as tamp and dosing that can make up for this somewhat.  I will get into that in a future post.  You can start with this grinder for all types of coffee making.
"ENCORN!" Ok, that joke's been covered at Seattle Coffee Gear.  Apparently the first run of these grinders, which I was lucky enough to get into, I guess, had the plain misspelled with box.   And the model number is #485, but it's written as 485# so you can make jokes about the working out helping....  It's a pretty plain looking grinder.

The 40mm burrs.  Smaller than the "better" Baratza's but still a decent set of mills.  The Internal gear box on this grinder is a DC motor with a circuit to control speed and safety features.  It's pretty quiet too.

View looking down into the unit.  The "pulse" button for portafilter use is shown here too.

Unlike the Maestro series which this replaced.. there is no timer.. just the on off switch.  I personally believe that the gearbox is improved enough on this unit that the timer is no longer needed to protect the gearbox like it probably was on the Maestro/Plus.

  Now.. when I got mine.. it did okay for Espresso on the finest and 2nd finest settings.. not like #6-7 that the "Evaluation units" that SCG and WLL showed on this videos.  So if you want to do Espresso, the first thing you will want to do with the Encore is "calibrate" it as fine as she goes.  Look up the WLL video on how to do this, it's the best explanation-- even better than the instructions on the Baratza site.  Doing this literally has no effect on the coarse end because even set to fine... French press is at about setting 25/40 on the unit.

Here is mine apart when calibrating it.  In order not to scratch or bung up the unit.. use a butter knife and not a flat screwdriver to take the cover up.  The wider width of the knife and the inherent dullness will help pop off the four clips and not scratch up or "indent" the plastic.

Unit before cal-- set to "Coarse" by the factory.  That ring needs to rotate to the third set of holes.  I wish there was a fourth as if I could ONLY get it one click finer.. maybe after the warranty is up!  The burrs are capable of at least one to two steps finer!

View from the other side showing the DC motor and motor control board.  Sorry it's slightly blurry.
The one think I do not like about the Baratzas and I believe this would be the case even on the very expensive ones, is that coffee does get into the inside of the unit.  So I'll be popping the cover off of the grinder a lot.  This is because my penchant for grinding mostly fines.  The clip idea simply sucks.. if they were to put screws from the bottom instead so the cover was easily accessed without prying the plastic off I'd be much happier.

So, in a way, I'm happy I went this way.  The $400+ for a Vario instead will go for an Encore -AND- a Lux, Le'Lit or Ascaso Espresso only grinder.  Certainly the internals are almost exactly the same up to the Precisio and that means the grounds getting inside will certainly happen on those pricier units.

My Emergency today requiring the Hario?  My two week old Encore decided to only start grinding to drip-ish on the finest setting.  I decided to go to French Press grind yesterday.  Little did I know, that some of the Espresso grounds which were on the oily side last week (I roasted darker) settled down somewhere into the Encore and kept the bottom mill (the ring-- the adjustable part) from seating past a certain point.  I actually had the unit apart three times and made sure that the "calibration" had not slipped, the burrs were not damaged (they look like brand new).. etc.  I finally re-ground the beans with the Hario (Yes you can do that with the little hand grinder.. you can regrind packaged coffee to dust if you want!) and had my Cappucino so I could think-- and then decided.. well, lets "blow 'er out" with the air compressor in the garage.

I did that, and I can grind down to almost Turkish again.  The scary part of this is I still don't know and couldn't see where the bottom burr was binding on the unit.  (I HAD IT APART!)  Seeing that all of the Baratzas appear to have that part of the chamber be the same design -- I will go against the crowd here and recommend for true Espresso grinding to go with another unit from a different manufacturer.  I'll be unpopular I know..  Maybe the most expensive Vario won't have this happen.. but from Precisio down it will. Look at the calibration instructions.. the adjustment mechanism is the same for all but the Vario!   Now I'm going to take it outside and blow it out 2x a week.. but that's annoying. Really Annoying.   Really, Really Annoying!

Despite my criticisms, you really can't beat it for $129 shipped, though.  But bear in mind that if you push it to Espresso which it certainly is useable with, that it needs extra care.  Mine also needed to be adjusted "calibrated" to the finest setting to allow me some "dial-in" area.

For all other uses, in the home, I don't know why you'd need better.  I think when eventually I am fully set up the Encore will be the Aeropress, Drip and French Press grinder and I'll have a step-less for the Espresso always "dialed in" for Espresso.  SO-- if you want to progress with this obsession in "baby" steps like I do.. get the Encore and then later get a $200-250 Espresso only grinder.  My humble opinion on this.

Here is a teaser from my next post.. maybe later today.. maybe next weekend -- on the MyPressi Twist V2 and the trials and tribulations of using that device.  But here is what it's capable of with the $129 Encore...

A pretty decent looking double.  THE Second shot pulled with the Encore/MyPressi Twist V2 combination.  Tiger striped and pretty much perfect crema.

Of course, the Espresso-only grinder will likely come after a more expensive machine than the MyPressi Twist.. and now.. after a drum roaster (Behmor 1600) which I have ordered... so yeah.. it's an expensive hobby... even for a "cheapskate!"


  1. nice write up. such is the obsession with great coffee. salut.

  2. If you want to spend <$50.. then my obvious first pick for a grinder is a ...

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