the last review i wrote here was on the starbucks barista/solis 166 grinder. at that time, the next level of upgrade was the quirky but generally competent, rancilio rocky, then a HUGE gap in both performance and price, then the mazzer mini. well, that huge gap is no more. and the reality is even better than that. yes, the vario is a little more expensive than the rocky, but it's a lot cheaper than the electronically dosed mini, AND it appears to be equalling or bettering the mini in blind taste tests by experienced testers. so, as a coffeegeek'er, and armed with this good news, i took the plunge and bought a vario. serial number 855 arrived at my local shop in the first week of september, 2009.
unboxing and assembly:
the grinder is shipped mostly assembled. all you need to do is to install the hopper, a process that requires no tools. however, you MUST seat the hopper properly, which depresses a microswitch, which in turn allows the grinder to run. this should not scare anybody, but it is not ENTIRELY obvious how to get the hopper in right. i fiddled with it for 15 minutes, and i build automotive race engines as a hobby. so be aware that it's possible to install the hopper the wrong way, whereupon the grinder will not run, because the microswitch will not be depressed. i see this as a good thing, unless it causes the hapless new owner to fear his new unit is defective. so if you put your new hopper on an it doesn't run, double and triple check that you have the hopper on right before you take it to the nest level and call for customer service.
espresso is my main thing, and why i bought this grinder. after 5 1/2 years using the old solis166/starbuck barista burr grinder, along with a new burr replacement about halfway through due to dulling of the original one, i could still never seem to grind fine enough to get more than about a 17 second pull for a double. for those new to espresso, you want more than 22 seconds, and that is accomplished by grinding finer. simply put, my old machine couldn't do it... and it is a $125 grinder. there is a family resemblance between the vario an the 166, and after running my 166 at it's finest setting, i was gunshy to try anything but something very fine with the vario. so i set the coarse adjustment lever one from the finest, and the fine adjustment lever to full fine and ground out a shot, tamped it like always, and it choked my espresso machine. it may sound bad, but this was fantastic news, because it was now TOO FINE... something i had never been able to do before. anyway, after some trial and error with dosing, and coarser grind settings, i got 25 second shots dialed in. when i say, dialed in, i mean it. the timed dosing feature allows you to set it to the nearest tenth of a second, and the carefully designed dispensing system yields the same dose so consistently, any differences from one to another are virtually undetectable. further, the grinds come out light and fluffy, something that is generally unimportant to almost anybody except an espresso drinker, to whom it's quite important, because lumpy, clumpy grinds can cause loose and dense spots in the portafilter, which have a negative effect on the quality/taste of the shot. before the vario, most of us got used to fluffing our grinds before tamping, to avoid bad tasting shots. well, the vario has made that additional step, all but unneccessary. with the vario, when i fluff my grounds, [using the WDT], and pull a shot through a bottomless portafilter, i can barely detect the difference.
great, but what about the taste?
unbelieveably good improvement in taste of espresso shots. much more subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness. prior to buying this grinder, i was seriously preparing to replace my $400 class pump-style espresso machine with a $2000-class pro-sumer model because i was dissatisfied with the taste of my shots, and mostly relegating them to latte duty. not anymore. i hardly even drink lattes anymore and i've put my plans for a $2000 dollar espresso machine on indefinite hold. i am now making and drinking proper, good tasting shots of espresso, straight up.
so it's a great espresso grinder, but what about everybody else?
drip: i don't drink that much drip coffee, but have made some with it, and it is difficult to tell much difference in taste. i attribute this to the relatively forgiving nature of brewing drip coffee. if it were my money, and i were not an espresso drinker, and only drank drip, i'd get a $100-class burr grinder. french press: i do drink a little more french press than drip, and i have an opinion on french press coffee and whether or not you need this grinder for it. it all depends on your tolerance for sludge or fine cloudiness in your coffee. i am ok with it, so again, a $100-class of burr grinder would suit me for french press. however, if you can not tolerate cloudy french press, my limited experience with the vario shows that you will get fewer fines clouding up you french press brew, in which case, the vario would be a good investment for you.
detail on the negatives:
*when you set the digital timer to just the right time, and unplug the machine, it forgets all the digital timing settings. However, word has it that varios purchased march of 2010 or and later will retain their memory after unplugging. further, for those of us who already own a vario, they will sell you the newer style circuit board for $20, so we don't have to do without.
**this is so minor, i can't believe i'm mentioning it, but i said i would, so here goes: for espresso users, there is an option to not use the grinds catcher bin, and grind straight into your portafilter. there is a steel clip, for lack of a better word that is meant to hold the portafilter in place while you grind. well, in real life, portafilters come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and that clip can not and does not fit them all. it doesn't fit mine. so i removed it and merely hold my portafilter under the "spout" with my hand while grinding. it's only 12 seconds or so for a double, so no big deal.