First announced during the spring of 2007, and first demo'ed in preproduction format at the May 2008 SCAA Conference in Minneapolis, the Vario Grinder from Baratza LLC, (based in Bellvue, Washington) will finally hit North American retail and online shelves in January 2009.
At first glance this grinder shares similar design looks with Baratza's three other grinder designs: the Maestro, Maestro Plus, and Virtuoso. However, based around a completely new ceramic burr set designed, developed and produced by Mahlkonig, this flat burr, digital grinder is a radical departure from these other models.
The grinder features a built in digital timer, accurate down to 0.1 seconds, and multiple controls and settings including the ability to program in three preset grinding times.
The grinder also features an entirely unique dual cam system for selecting the grind fineness - presenting both a macro and micro grind adjuster.
The Vario comes with a full grinds catcher bin, as well as Baratza's newly designed "Portaholder", a grinds catcher replacement that lets you use a portafilter directly with the grinder.
We have a very early first look at one of the first production models available for the North American market. As usual, this is not a review of the grinder, but an initial look at the product, how it works and what it is capable of.
Baratza the company
Consumers can count themselves very fortunate that Baratza as a company exists - because without them, the sub $200, multipurpose grinder market would be pretty much barren of any quality grinders. Excluding Baratza's offerings, there's no grinders that we at CoffeeGeek can recommend at the $100 price point, and very few at the $150 and $200 price point. Major manufacturers and rebranders (rebadging a product made by another company) of grinders under $150 simply are not producing products that can produce a uniform, even grind at a variety of settings from press pot to espresso.
The CoffeeGeek in me wishes more of them, including Krups, Breville, Rancilio, Saeco, La Pavoni, Gaggia and others would step up in this market price between $50 and $150, and produce something truly decent that serves multipurpose grinding needs.
Baratza is a company meeting these needs. Their entry point grinder, the Maestro, has seen a step down in features since it first came to market about six years ago, but it has also seen its price drop since that introduction (from $129 at introduction to $99 today). The loss of features are minimal - gone are the front instant on button, and the side timer dial - it operates as an on/off grinder only - and those are no big losses.
The Maestro Plus does include those features, and also includes a weightier base, so the grinder sits firmly on the counter under a variety of grinding conditions. Both the Maestro and Maestro plus feature the same conical burr set, housing and other parts inside.
The Baratza Virtuoso looks very similar at first glance to the other two models, but this $200 model is quite different inside. It has a DC-motor and delivers more sustained torque as compared to the lower models. It also has a completely different burr set, a major upgrade over the Maestro and Maestro Plus models, with a very precise cutting pattern, delivering very uniform grinds at any setting. It also features more metal in the construction, and more grind selection settings on the hopper dial.
All three models provide a range of choice to consumers looking for a good entry point or mid-range all purpose grinder for their home. And many restaurants have the Virtuoso on as their press pot or decaf grinder, complimenting their dedicated espresso grinders (though the Baratza Virtuoso is not designed or rated for commercial use).
So with this good range of grinders, why did Baratza develop a fourth model, one that will cost more than twice the price of their previous high-end model (the Virtuoso)? According to an informal talk I had last year with Kyle Anderson, chief designer and partner in Baratza, "because there's still holes in the marketplace for certain specific-needs grinders, and because we believed we could deliver even more in (the form of) an ultimate home grinder".
Baratza Vario, out of the box
| Vario with hopper and two bins |
The Vario comes standard with a regular grinds bin as well as the new Portaholder.
The Baratza Vario doesn't appear heavier or bigger than its sibling, the Baratza Virtuoso - but the box it comes in is almost double the size. The grinder sits sideways inside, with his hopper and grinds catcher off to the side. In the grinder itself sits the new Portaholder (more below) that Baratza designed for this grinder.
Our test unit was literally one of the first full "production" models built for N. America (the production line is already producing 220V European models) there were no instructions or any fluffery in the box - just a cut styro container with the grinder and parts. Once the full production starts for the N. American variants of this machine, all that usual stuff should be included in the box.
The Vario at first glance has a similar silhouette to the other models in Baratza's lineup, and because of this could be confused at a distance if you were looking at the grinder from the side or back. Looking at the front side view, you know this is a different beast.
And at that same first glance, the front of the grinder may look intimidating and confusing. Levers. Buttons. More buttons. Digital readout. Tiny labels. Bigger labels. Notches. What the heck is going on! But the geek in you might just think wow, there's a lot going on here, can't wait to check it all out. Fortunately, once you get past that first glance things aren't so confusing. There's an obvious common sense approach to the layout and how the buttons and levers all work.
| Levers |
The control panel has levers on the side that are hard to miss.
| Control Panel |
The control panel, in detail.
| Portaholder |
This is still a slight-preproduction version of the Portaholder - the shipping versions will be slightly different.
| Grinds Bin |
The grinds bin holds a fair amount of ground coffee.
| Burr Mounting |
The burr mounting inside the grinder. The actual burr is mounted on metal, and adjustments are made from the bottom - not the top. Note the very minuscule 'scoop' area where ground coffee temporarily resides.
| Burr Mounting |
Top burr, made out of ceramic, mounted on its aluminum holder.
From the top down, here's a walk through on the Baratza Vario.
We start with the bean hopper, which holds approximately 275g of coffee (measured). The hopper looks like the same hoppers the other Baratza grinders feature, with a conical shape, finger guard and a smoked plastic body. On other Baratza models, you change the grind by rotating the hopper, but not on this model - the hopper can be removed by rotating it counter-clockwise about 1cm, but that's all the rotation it offers. The grind selection is made by something on the front panel.
As we move down the front panel, you see the Vario name and below that a digital readout with three digits - the first two are seconds, and the last digit is 1/10th of a second. Below the readout are two small buttons with an up arrow and down arrow, and a label "Grind Time". Pressing these these buttons will put you into immediate 'full manual mode" with the grinder - all blue status lights will be off, and pressing the Start button (located below and to the left of the up-down small buttons) will start the grinder and grind for the specific time shown on the LCD readout.
As mentioned, there's a Start button located in the middle left of the panel, and beside it a "Manual" button on the middle-right. These are the two largest buttons on the grinder, and Manual puts the grinder into a 'count up' mode - press it, and the digital display reads 00.0; pressing the Start button at this point starts the grinder, counting up. Why would you use this mode instead of full on manual mode by just dialing in a time with the up-down buttons? Well for starters, the grinder won't stop until you hit the Start button again, or it reaches 99.9 seconds - useful for grinding a lot of coffee. It's also very useful for determining how much coffee you need to grind (time-wise) to program in the next row of buttons for automatic grinding - but I'll cover that more later.
At the bottom of the middle panel, there are three more buttons - each with a blue indicator light next to them. These buttons are labelled Espresso, Filter, and Press, and below that, it says "Preset Ground Time". Bear in mind, pressing these buttons doesn't automatically give you an espresso grind or a filter grind - instead, they are three presettings you can easily adjust for your coffee needs. If you want to make one setting for a double basket of espresso, and the other two for a 3 and 4 cup press pot, you can (keeping in mind you also have to change the grind).
All these buttons are soft-touch, easy use buttons. Even though some of them are small, I've yet to miss pressing the one I've intended to press. The labels are clearly marked, and overall, it's fairly intuitive.
On the left and right of the front panel are two mechanical settings - the micro and macro adjustments for the coffee's grind. This is a radical new way of approaching grind fineness levels, which I will cover more below.
Below the control panel is the grinds exit area. It's recessed into the body, but unlike other models from Baratza, the sides are cut out, giving better access to the grinder bins and portaholder. You get both with this grinder - a decently designed bin with a little built in handle, and the portaholder, a device Baratza designed to work with a variety of portafilters hands-off.
The body of the grinder is about half plastic and half smoked-steel metal. Baratza's logo is tastefully appointed on the lower front of the grinder, on a lower metal band which is actually a nice slab of metal to give the grinder good stability.
The back and sides of the grinder are unadorned, and mostly black textured plastic. The cord is very heavy duty and 3 prong, and longer than most kitchen appliance plugs. Fortunately, it can easily wrap into hooks built into the base of the grinder, making it shorter.
Inside the grinder are some very unique parts. Baratza partnered with Mahkonig to produce the burr set and burr housing on this grinder, and it's unique to the Vario - no other grinder features this set. It has 54mm flat burrs made out of ceramic, which means they should stay sharp for the entire life of ownership for most home users.
The motor that drives the burrs is belt driven, another first for grinders from Baratza. That, plus the ceramic burrs, should keep heat issues at an absolute minimum, even when grinding a fair volume.
The grinder weighs approximately 4.2kilos with the hoppper and grind bin attached.
There's a few parts to this grinder I want to describe more in depth. Please bear in mind this isn't a review. I am providing a product walk through, with some thoughts on the theory and implementation of those theories behind the grinder, but this is not based on any long term testing.
| Micro Adjustment |
The micro adjustment arm on the left has 23 indents it can move along.
| Finest Setting |
At the finest setting, this grinder produces a near "turkish" grind - and can choke a standard espresso machine with an updose.
| Indents |
Here, you can see the indents the grind fineness levers move on.
The first and most obvious difference in this grinder is how you select a grind. In the past, we had basically one way to adjust a grind - rotate a hopper (or in the case of some Nuovo Simonelli grinders, rotate a dial) one way or the other to lower or raise one of the two burrs inside the machine to provide a coarser or finer grind.
Some grinders feature "steps" or lock in settings, jumping from one fineness level to another. Others have a stepless grind setting, allowing you to do fine adjustments by touch.
The stepped grind selection method has some advantages - it's generally easy to remember your preferred settings if you use a grinder to go from an espresso setting to filter drip. Stepless adjustment on the other hand doesn't easily lend itself to finding repeatable places, since there's no lock-in involved.
The Vario's grind selection occurs through the use of internal cams to lower or raise the top burr stack. One cam (the micro adjustment) sits inside the other cam (the macro adjustment), and both work in conjunction with the other to make a grind setting. On the right side of the front panel is the macro adjustment, listing Esp (Espresso) at the top, Filter in the middle, and Press at the bottom. There are 10 soft-stepped (via indents behind the panel) settings for this lever - you slide it up and down, and it slides into an internal groove, staying put once you leave it at your desired setting.
On the left side is the micro adjustment lever - once you set your macro setting (any of the ten steps between Espresso and Press), you can fine tune those settings on the right. That lever has only two labels - Finer and Coarser. There are 23 soft-step settings on this lever - featuring the same action the right side lever has - it easily slides up and down, but soft-locks into a setting once you leave it alone.
In total, this dual cam, dual lever adjustment system gives you approximately 230 different grind settings - and it's surprisingly easy to remember very precise settings for your favourite press coffee's optimal grind, and your preferred espresso blend's optimum grind - visually, you just have to remember a couple of notches. As you change your coffees (or just change your grind back and forth), it takes only a second or two to go from a press setting to an espresso setting and back again.
Programming the Grinder
As mentioned at the top, the Vario may seem complex, but it's pretty intuitive. Even without a product manual, I could easily figure out how to program the three preset buttons along the bottom of the panel, and also how to use the grinder's various modes.
Out of the box the grinder's preset buttons provide 10 seconds for espresso, 20 seconds for filter, and 30 seconds for press pots. To change these, all you do is dial in a new time using the up-down buttons just below the digital readout, then hold the preset button of your choice for about 2 seconds. It's that easy.
| Vario's Panel |
The control panel on the Vario Grinder from Baratza
Or you can just dial up or down the display, then press the "Start" button and the grinder will grind for that time you just programmed in. Want to grind for a while, but don't know how long? Press the manual button and the display will read 00.0. Then press start, and the Vario will start to grind and the timer will count up. Press Start again to stop the grinding.
This is also the best way to find a starting-setting for your preset buttons. When I first set up the grinder, I didn't know how long it would take to grind the volume I needed for a double basket of espresso, so I adjusted the grind to what was ideal for the machine I was testing it with (an Ascaso Steel Duo), and then just put the grinder into Manual mode (the indicator light next to the manual button will light up). I pressed Start, and watched how much coffee came out into the basket. When I visually though there was enough coffee, I pressed Start again, and noted the elapsed time. I then pressed the Espresso preset button, adjusted the digital time readout, and pressed Espresso again for two seconds to set it to that new time.
Another way of doing this is even easier, thanks to how efficient this grinder is, and I'll cover that next.
Coffee in, Coffee out
When Baratza designed this grinder, they had in mind that it would leave almost no coffee inside the grinder between grinding sessions. Further, if you put a precise amount of whole beans inside (say 20g), the grinder should produce 20g of ground coffee once it was finished grinding - no stray grinds left inside.
They've come pretty close. In my very initial use of the grinder, I found that less than 0.5g (and in some cases, 0.2g or less) was 'missing' when I would put in a premeasured amount of whole beans and then measured the resulting grinds. This is awesome news for cuppers.
In a future review, I'll detail how this happens - suffice to say, Baratza engineered some tight tolerances in the grinder to make it happen.
This is also a boon to dialing in your preset buttons, though you have to do some fiddling to make it really work. Let's say you want to set the three presets to a 3 cup press, a 4 cupper and an 8 cup press volume. If you use 7g of coffee per 'cup' in a press, that would mean 21g, 28g and 56g of coffee, respectively. Measure out 56 grams of coffee, put the grinder into manual mode, and grind - marking the time it takes to grind (and keeping mind that it may take a second or two longer for the last beans to grind, since they hop around a bit, with no weight pushing them down). Set that time (minus a second or two) on your preset you've chosen for the 8 cup press, then fill the hopper to test it. Grind using that preset time, weigh the resulting grind, and adjust the preset button if needed.
Repeat for the other two buttons, and voila, you have a grinder preset to grind for three different sizes of press pots. Perfect for restaurant use, especially since wait staff won't have to premeasure or worry about sitting by the grinder. And because it grinds faster than 2g a second at the press setting, fast too - it will do a 3 cup press in under 10 seconds; the 8 cup press in about 45 seconds or less.
Again, this is not meant to be a full review of the grinder - in fact, during my initial testing, I did come across some challenges I haven't written about, and won't write about until I fully review this product. This is just an initial look at the Baratza Vario grinder to give you a better understanding about what it is and how it works.
This grinder should be available in January, 2009 from many of CoffeeGeek's advertisers for a price of around $430 US dollars. It is already available in Europe for around 400 Euros.