If you take nothing else away from this guide, please take this advice to heart:
The grinder is an integral, necessary part of making good espresso in the home.
I can't stress this enough.
As mentioned in the preamble to this guide, CoffeeGeek readers often ask me for help on what espresso machine to buy. Frequently, back when I was doling out advice, I'd get emails from folks who bought the machines I recommended, complaining about how the shots were lousy, running too fast, producing insufficient crema, or tasting excessively bitter. And 99% of the time, the problem was easily diagnosed; they didn't buy a grinder. They bought preground or prepackaged coffee instead.
Why the grinder is important
Espresso preparation is harsh. It's just about the harshest brewing method you can throw at a coffee bean and still produce something that tastes heavenly. Percolators can't do that. Even moka pots are finicky as all heck. Espresso brewing, using over 135 pounds of water pressure per square inch, extracting in 25 seconds, is near-torture for the ground coffee bean.
So why does espresso just "work" for some people? Why do some home baristas and many "third wave" professionals have the ability to pound out great tasting shots of espresso?
If you ask them for their secret, besides talking up good ingredients (quality, fresh roasted coffee, good water) and having a developed skillset for producing espresso, they'll all mention one other key thing: the grinder. One core item they all have in common is a quality grinder to freshly grind the coffee to the very precise particle sizes necessary to good extraction. Often, the grinder is the rock star of their little espresso show.
I've often said that I can make a better shot of espresso with a $200 espresso machine and a $400 grinder than I can with a $2,000 espresso machine and no grinder (or a blade grinder)... and it's absolutely true.
This isn't some snobby talker here.
This isn't some plot to get you to spend crazy amounts of money.
This is based on literally thousands of experiences related in our forums, in espresso enthusiasts' homes around the world. Nothing has improved the quality of espresso as much as the addition of a good grinder to your home kit. This is so important that I have to say - do not bother reading the rest of this guide if you plan on skimping on this vital necessity.
Budgeting for the grinder
How do you set a budget for the grinder? A simple, hard and fast rule I have offered to people for some time now is, "Spend at least the same amount on the grinder as you do on the espresso machine, up to $200 (the cost of the grinder). Then percentage it down as your budget goes higher."
That means that, if you have $500 for an espresso machine budget, spend $200-$250 on a grinder, and get a $250-$300 espresso machine. If your budget is $1,000, think $300-$350 or more for the grinder, and $650-$700 or less for the espresso machine.
I know a lot of readers are going to look at this and cry foul, or at least wonder how I can justify spending $300 or more on a grinder. But if you're thinking about spending $1000 on an espresso machine, $300 for the grinder isn't so much. You just have to wrap your head around the fact that the grinder is an integral part of the overall purchase. Think of it in terms of budget = espresso machine + grinder + accessories, instead of just budget = espresso machine, and you'll be surprised at how easy it is to justify. And after you have those shots that will blow away 95% of the cafés out there, it gets even easier. Here's a suggested budget breakdown for your purchase.
|Grinder Budget Recommendations|
|Grinder % of Purchase||50%||50%||30%||27%||25%|
What grinder to choose
So now you've budgeted for your grinder and want to know what models to choose.
Your first stop should always be the CoffeeGeek Consumer Reviews for Grinders, but with over 900 reviews posted for grinders (and growing daily), it can be a bit difficult to navigate. Fortunately, one page of this guide gives you tips on how to more effectively use the consumer reviews section. Make sure you check it out.
In addition, I do have some recommendations, fresh as of this writing and amending of the guide (revised on Jan 1, 2010), so keep this in mind if it's 2012 and you're reading this! I'll give my low end, medium price, and high end recommendations, as well as a tip for scoring an awesome grinder at a price way lower than the cost of many new high end consumer grinders.
We don't include manual grinders (like the Hario Mini Ceramic) in this guide for a couple of reasons. First, most hand grinders, especially budget ones, cannot do a consistent enough grind for pump-driven espresso machines (the Hario models are an exception). Second, and probably more important, hand grinders are very, very slow when grinding for espresso. Think two, three minutes to grind. Because immediate grinding is crucial to great espresso (ie, you should be brewing within 30-45 seconds after grinding), a lot of the coffee's stored Co2 is released from the grounds when using a hand grinder and patiently grinding enough to do a double shot.
Low End Champs
| Baratza Virtuoso |
It's had some teething pains, but the latest incarnation is solid.
This is going to sound like a paid advertisement for Baratza, but it isn't - instead, it's an indication that we consumers are not well served by most grinder makers in the under $200 category.
With that out of the way, the entire line of grinders from Baratza are great starting points for the new home espresso fan. At the low end, the Baratza Maestro grinder (around $100 new, around $75-80 refurb) will do fine. This grinder has seen several minor revisions over the years since first being introduced, and, like the other Solis and Baratza grinders, can handle multiple duties. It is capable of doing what we call an "okay" espresso grind, but it can also handle your press pot and auto drip grinding chores, too. Recently, the grinder has lost its timer dial (it's now a two position on/off dial), and its front push button on demand button, but gained a lower price, and an improved motor / burr setup. For some espresso machines, it might be a challenge producing a grind fine enough for a "ristretto" shot; but it will be absolutely fine for most budget espresso machines.
I had the chance to use the Breville Ikon Grinder, which is also priced at $100 in the US. While it does not have the grind range of the Baratza lineup, it comes close. You may find the Maestro can grind a tad finer compared to the Breville's finest setting (in our testing, the Breville at the finest setting produced a normal 60-70ml double shot in 25 seconds on a Rancilio Silvia). At the coarsest settings, the Breville produces big-chunk grinds that are suitable for press pot coffee, though the fines were a bit more present than other grinders.
The next step up in price are the Maestro Plus at $150 new ($110-$130 refurb), and the Baratza Virtuoso at $200 new ($160-$175 refurb). The Maestro Plus shares the same motor and gearing system with the Maestro, but its upgrades include a slightly larger grind range, more metal on the body, a weighted base, and side timer + front microswitch for active grinding on demand.
The Virtuoso is a bit of a step up. It features a DC motor with different gearing and a lot better torque. It also has a different conical burr set (the Maestro and Maestro Plus share the same burrset). And probably most importantly, the Virtuoso has a wider grinding range and can grind for ristretto pulls and press pot grinds.
The three machines from Baratza can also be accessorized with something Baratza calls "the Portaholder". It's a replacement for the grounds bin that allows you to insert and hook a portafilter (even commercial portafilters) into the machine for direct grinding into the espresso filter basket. This is an optional accessory, but highly recommended if you do a lot of grinding for espresso.
If you buy any of these grinders (incl. the Breville), there's a bit of a bonus here - if, down the road, you want to buy a dedicated espresso grinder, you can still make use of these grinders for your non-espresso grinding needs. On the other hand, they have a good resale value, should you choose to do a straight upgrade to avoid having two grinders on the kitchen counter.
Middle Priced Grinders
| Rancilio Rocky |
Always a solid choice - current models ship with green tinted hoppers and doser chambers.
This is where we get into the "dedicated espresso grinder" arena, with one exception. From $200 for a Gaggia MDF, to the Rancilio Rocky doser (or doserless) model at around $365, to $385-$425 for the Anfim home grinders all of these grinders are well suited for producing a great espresso grind and, more importantly, will be serviceable for decades to come.
The favourite for many in this category is probably the Rocky, priced at $365 as of this update (Jan 2010). Rancilio has been manufacturing this grinder since 1990 (its introductory price was $175!), and while it has seen some aesthetic and usability upgrades in recent years (including a model using a chute instead of a doser), some things have never changed. The Rocky possesses the same motor and internal parts as the Rancilio MD40 grinder, as well as a precision-milled flat burr set. I know people who have Rockys that are 15 years old, and they're still running fine today. Amortize the initial cost over 15 years, and that equals about $20 per year - not too shabby. You could go through five Braun KM grinders in that time and end up paying the same amount for a vastly inferior grinder.
| Virtuoso Preciso |
This new grinder is coming in March, 2010.
Our one exception to the "espresso only" is a grinder coming in March 2010. Around that time, Baratza is rolling out a fourth grinder in their budget/ midpriced lineup. It is called the Virtuoso Preciso, and it borrows something from Baratza's top of the line grinder - the Vario - adding some extensive grind controls. The projected price is $300 MSRP, so it may sell for less. The added grind control will make many espresso lovers happy.
Lastly, Anfim. We believe the Anfim "Best" model is probably the best bang-for-the-buck dedicated espresso grinder under $600. We've had a model in the CoffeeGeek Lab for 2 years now and it consistently beats the Rocky (and even the Mazzer Mini!) in terms of overall grind quality, dosing, speed, and convenience. If you search hard enough, you can find this grinder under $400, but the price has steadily climbed in the last two years, taking it slowly out of the mid priced category. You should avoid the "Haus" model from Anfim - it has a much weaker motor and smaller burrs - the "Best" model is the one you want.
The High End Models
By the time you get up to the $400-$1,500 price range for grinders, in most cases you're moving into the commercial world; I don't just mean commercial parts in a consumer product - I'm talking full-blown commercial grinders designed for light to medium (and even high volume) café duty. Most of these grinders are dedicated for espresso, but one, introduced in 2009, is a bit of a game breaker because of how well it does a multipurpose job of grinding for a variety of needs.
That grinder is the Baratza Vario. It finally hit the market in 2009 after almost 18 months of development. This grinder has impressed the socks off many of our forum participants, including those who have done blind taste tests pitting the Baratza Vario against $1,500, $2,000 commercial grinders. One of the more famous claims is that the Vario bested a Mazzer Robur, a nearly $2,000 grinder!
We like the Vario because of its versatility. It is extremely capable as an espresso grinder, but you can quickly switch grind settings using the macro/micro adjustment feature, grinding for press. Then just as quickly, you can switch back to your espresso setting. We also like the near zero grinds-retention feature. Pretty much every doser equipped grinder we talk about in this guide retains up to 10 grams of ground coffee in their chutes between uses. The Vario retains less than 0.5 grams. Its highly recommended as a do-it-all home grinder.
| Macap's Doser |
Check out the quality in the doser portion of the Macap. Super thick plastic, and the doser lever sweeps like butter.
Then there's the Mazzer Mini grinder. For a long time I was a big fan. And as long as the grinder was under $450, it was on my most recommended list. The grinder is now $600, and while it is a full blown commercial grade grinder (compared to the Anfim Best's more consumer build), the main reason for choosing this grinder is probably longevity - it'll last decades. The stepless grind selection is a big plus as well. Many swear by this grinder.
Some may prefer the Compak K3 Touch and Elite models of grinders. The Touch, priced at $460 (Jan 2010), is a great grinder with stepless grind, a mechanical timer for auto dosing, and the option to do a single or double dose along with always-on functions via the touchbar and three way power switch. The Elite is the doser version and costs about $80 more but is still cheaper than the Mazzer Mini, and very much the Mazzer's equal.
I've also been impressed with the grinders from Macap. Their M4 model has been on the market for the past few years but are only recently getting more attention. They are available in both stepped and stepless models, and I'd recommend going for the latter, unless you get a great deal on a stepped model.
If you want to go full blown commercial grinder, I have three recommendations for you as of this rewrite in 2010. Two models from Compak, and one from Anfim.
The Compak K6, which comes in two flavours - the Barista model ($800) and the regular version ($720) is a great grinder and one that I'd happily pick over the Mazzer Major or Super Joly (at least a new, retail Super Joly). These are full blown commercial grinders, but the size would suit the typical $1,500-$2,000 home espresso machine. Stepless grind selection, a great doser, and a build quality that will last several lifetimes make this an easy choice. Considering it costs nearly half the price of a new Mazzer Major, this is an even easier choice.
If you want ridiculous overkill, and something that even your top cafes would drool over, there's the Compak K10 WBC model - the CoffeeGeek Lab's primary grinder - and the grinder I have paired with my Speedster espresso machine, the Anfim Super Caimano Titanium. I've tried pretty much every grinder available today, and these are the two best bang for the buck super grinders available today.
The K10 WBC is all manual, which I like. The high-resistance switch is solid and secure for turning the grinder on and off. The doser "action" is supreme, and easily the best I've ever used. The dosing itself into your filter basket isn't as good as the Anfim (the current world champ at this), but its pretty close, and puts the doser Robur from Mazzer to shame in this regard. Of course, it is stepless in grind selection, like all Compaks. And the K10 is crazy fast too - it'll grind a double dose in under 5 seconds. Built like a tank, but has nice curves. Huge, but not as huge as a Robur. At $1,400, it's expensive but considering that Mazzer's direct competitor is $700 more, and doesn't even dose as nice, this is the king of conical burr, doser grinders.
The Anfim Super Caimano has recently gotten a major upgrade and has one of the most technologically advanced timers found today on a grinder - it digitally times your dose to 1/100th a second. The doser on the Anfim is legendary, and it started a whole trend towards "never touch the coffee" because it doses a nice cone into your filter basket. The Anfim is actually quite small by commercial standards - it occupies maybe half to 2/3rds the "airspace" that the Compak K10 does - and it is a medium speed grinder. The one I have does 18 grams in 6 seconds, which is pretty fast by any standard. The grind selection isn't stepless, but it does offer subtle grind fineness changes. The grinder is around $1450 as of this writing.
Any of these grinders - and frankly, almost grinder in our review section over $400 - will deliver in the home for decades to come. These are grinders designed to plow through 100 lbs of coffee a week and more. In the home, you're lucky to do that much in a year.
What to look for
I used a lot of terminology in this part of the guide: stepless, stepped, doser, micro adjustment, action, conical, flat, timer, etc etc. I know much of it can be confusing, so here's some tips on what to look for in grinders, and what all these terms mean.
stepless vs. stepped - this refers to how you change the grind particle sizes your grinder spits out. Most budget grinders are what we call "stepped" - meaning there's distinctive settings you click into on the grinder to go from coarse grinding to fine, espresso grinding. Some grinders, like the Baratza Maestro, have 40 steps in their grinding range going from espresso to press grinds. The most expensive stepped grinder we recommend - the Anfim Super Caimano Ti - has about 80 available steps, going from powder (turkish) to a medium grind.
Stepless on the other hand has no set points in grind fineness - the selection is fluid, meaning you can get (hypothetically) grind changes as little as 5 or 10 microns in sizes (that's really small!). There's mainly two types of stepless systems. Mazzers and Compaks use resistive collars that have high friction to keep them from moving during grinding, but your brute force is enough to turn the collars coarser or finer. Macaps use a gear system, referred to as a worm gear, that very gradually changes the burr height when you turn a dial.
Baratza's Vario (and soon to be released Virtuoso Preciso) bring a third system into play - a macro and micro adjustment. One adjuster arm does big jumps in grind selection; the other arm does much smaller adjustments (Baratza claims they are 5-10micron adjustments) which is essentially equal to stepless. That said, the Vario has roughly 240 different setpoints for grind adjustment. One bonus of this is that unlike stepless adjustment systems, it is fairly easy to remember your grind settings on the Vario, when you're jumping back and forth between press and espresso grinds.
Doser vs. doserless - Some grinders we recommend, including the K3 Touch, are doserless grinders - you grind directly into the portafilter. A portaholder-enabled Baratza grinder does the same thing, making them "doserless". Other grinders have a doser - a holdover from the 1920s-1950s era of grinder development when it wasn't understood that filling a doser chamber with ground coffee was detrimental to espresso beverage quality. Grinder manufacturers to this day still don't get that the doser needs to go the way of the dodo bird, but at the very least we have some nice improvements to the technology. Grinders like the Anfim and Compaks dose quite nicely, putting all your coffee into a nice even mound in the filter basket.
Doserless may seem like the way to go, but even this technology is flawed - doserless grinders are very messy, leaving a lot of sprayed grounds on your counter.
Conical and flat burrs - the budget grinders in this lineup have conical burrs, as does one of our most expensive recommendations (the Compak K10 Conic WBC model). But the Anfim, the Vario and other grinders have flat burrs. What is better? The jury's still out on this one. Both do a great job of cutting up coffee for the purpose of espresso brewing. Conical burrs tend to spin slower because of their larger cutting surface, resulting in less heat transfer to the coffee, but the flat burr models we recommend have their own heat-dissipating tricks as well.
Timers - some of the grinders we recommend have timers. Basic mechanical ones (on the Baratza Maestro Plus and Virtuoso), advanced mechanical ones (like on the K3 Touch), and advanced digital timers, like the Baratza Vario and Anfim Super Caimano. Basically, the more advanced the timer is, the better it is for repetition and lack of waste. The Vario basically wastes no coffee - dial in your grind time, and from then on (as long as you don't change brand of coffee), it will grind the near perfect amount based on your setting. The Anfim even more so.
What boon is this? This saves you money. The Anfim Super Caimano's two greatest benefits are its doser and its timer. The clean doser and the precise timer means very little coffee waste for a busy cafe. Some cafes report saving as much as 400g of coffee per day because of the Anfim grinder. 400g of coffee saved means the grinder pays for itself in the first year, just in coffee savings (at least in a busy cafe). For a home consumer, a high end digital timer on a grinder means you get more shots of espresso per bag of coffee.
And a Buying Tip!
Here's one more tip for you. For many years, I had a Mazzer Super Jolly in my Espresso Lab that I found on eBay almost brand new - but not branded as a Mazzer Super Jolly; it had been rebranded as an Astoria "Manual" and used less than a month. The portafilter fork was pristine, the burrs were practically new... and I paid only $275, including shipping. The tip is this: find out under what names the Mazzers are rebranded, and search often on eBay for those names. The one I bid on didn't mention "Mazzer" once, and that kept the price low.
Now I know this tip runs somewhat contrary to my advice on another page in this guide, about treating after-sales service as an important part of your purchase, and not ditching one vendor for another just to save $10. But in this case, getting a $750 retail grinder for a fraction of the amount is just too good a bit of advice to pass up. Just keep in mind that you probably won't get any warranty or any after-sales service if you go this route.