Near titan class performance in a reasonably priced, flexible grinder.
Positive Product Points
- Allows for wonderful extraction and rich, intense flavors in the cup. - Controls make it easy and quick to dial in a new bean or adjust flow rate. - Very quiet compared to the previous grinders I owned, which helped make my spouse happy. - Small footprint. Neat, tidy appearance. Not obtrusive like a Titan class grinder would be. - Control markings make it easy to change, tune or repeat previous settings. - The timer feature makes it very easy to produce accurate, repeatable doses, reducing variability and improving flavor in the cup. - Grind adjustments are quick, intuitive and reduce waste of coffee. - Very minimal retention of grounds. - Portafilter holder works great; bin works great. Reduces mess on the kitchen countertop.
- Three month follow-up comments: - I appreciate the ease of adjustment even more now, as sometimes I'll try a new bean and find that I have to really tweak the fineness of my grind. The Vario makes this quick and painless. Dialing in beans is now very easy and intuitive. - the digital dosing is awesome - flexibility to switch between espresso and drip is really easy, convenient. A very cool grinder. - Much quieter than other grinders. Important when overnight guests are sleeping in the living room or family room.
Negative Product Points
- Haven't noticed any. - Three month follow-up, still no negatives. And after observing what its like to use large, commercial type grinders I'm even more enamored of the Vario. Also, I now think the gap between the Rocky and the Vario is much, much larger than I previously thought.
To put this in perspective I think it might be helpful for the reader to know that, for quite a while, I had been really discouraged with my home espresso. Before the holidays I had tried a new blend by Middle Fork, but was never able to get it dialed in. The shots were too fast, the flavor was not good, and my attempts to get it to work just ended up making me feel jittery and uncomfortable. I was thinking of throwing in the towel and quitting espresso entirely, selling my equipment and allocating the money to a new refrigerator.
When I first tried out the vario I didn't have any fresh beans, just some month old Middle fork decaf and month + old dark roast that someone gave us for Christmas. That was from Fidalgo Bay roasters. I couldn't get any of my shots dialed in. Every shot was too fast. No crema, no real flavor. Yesterday I went out to track down some Velton's Bansai Blend that my nephew had raved about so much. I wasn't able to find any of the bonsai blend but I did find some three ravens decaf roasted on 1/17 that looked like it would be good. Tried a little of that but still, not dialed in at all, and not really feelin' good about it, ya know? Again, felt like maybe I should just give up.
The next morning I thought, what the heck, I'll try one more time on that Fidalgo Bay. Worst that can happen is if its no good I'll just toss the shots. Who cares? Maybe I'll just relegate it to brew coffee at the office. Well, with the macro slider set all the way to one, and the micro slider up towards fine, I pulled an absolutely mind-boggling shot of the Fidalgo Bay. Way, way better than I thought it could be with month old coffee. I tried the same setting on the month old middle fork unleaded and WOW, here's another flavor bomb. I mean, WOW. These are month old beans! And they're absolutely up there on a par with anything I've had, anywhere! Now it makes me think if somebody says that a blend or a bean or an SO is no good then probably its a good idea to really try dialing in the grind and pulling a decent shot before expressing an opinion about that coffee. The vario is that key that has enabled me to do this. This thing is going to save me so much money and provide such fantastic shots. I'm extremely happy about this purchase.
Comparisons to Rancilio Rocky and Cunill El Tranquilo: Note, I always grind by the cup and do not store any beans in the hopper, since I usually make one or two full-caff shots in the morning and one or two decaf shots in the afternoon and evening. Being able to easily and repeatedly adjust the grinder is an important feature for me.
I really liked my Rocky. It was a great grinder and allowed me to learn a lot about making espresso. I was happy enough with it that I had not intended to replace it. I was able to switch from a doser model (which I found pretty convenient) to a doserless model (which made a bit more mess on the kitchen counter). I liked the reduction in retention of grounds with the doserless model. I did find the adjustments on the Rocky a bit of a challenge when I switched between caf and decaf and was less than satisfied in my ability to dial-in shots. I often found myself either experiencing gushers or choking the machine (Nuovo Simonelli Oscar).
Unexpectedly I ran across the Cunill El Tranquilo. I felt that the Cunill allowed for a few more adjustment steps in the grind than the Rocky. The quality of my shots improved. I also liked the doserless design of the Cunill, although static was an issue and I always had to use a tool to scrape out the residual grounds exiting the grind chamber. I liked the increased number of grind adjustment steps on the Cunill, but the adjustment collar has no markings or indicators. I used a piece of tape to mark my "zero" point. The Cunill was an improvement over the Rocky but I still had challenges switching from the morning caf to the evening decaf and being satisfied with how the grinder was dialed in. BTW, I consider the Cunill El Tranquilo to be a real bargain. In early 2012 this grinder is available new, shipped, in the US for around $275. That's a bargain, IMHO.
Contrasts between the two capable grinders above and the Vario are striking. My wife commented on the quietness of the Vario; that lack of noise was a major factor in her willingness to give the green light on the additional investment required to upgrade to the Vario. More importantly, the clearly marked indents on the macro and micro slider make it easy to keep track of where a particular batch of beans is dialed in. Where the Rocky might have had 8 usable grind adjustment steps in the espresso range (for my usage, YMMV) and the Cunill had 12 (again, YMMV), the Vario has over 60. And these gradations in the fineness of the grind allow me to get a glimpse of what others are talking about when they review or test the grinders in the "titan" class and comment on the ability of the grinder to reveal the subtle flavor nuances of the bean/roast. This was an eye opening experience for me. BTW, my son and nephew both started using Varios before I did and they made the same kind of comment on its ability to open up the espresso experience and improve shot quality.
I've noted a fair number of posts/threads on coffeegeek and home-barista regarding the Vario. It seems this grinder has generated quite a bit of controversy, in its own way. Having never used an SJ, or Mazzer MIni or Macap or any of the other well regarded upper tier grinders, I'm not in a position to compare the Vario to them. But financially, I doubt that I would ever choose to spend that kind of money on a grinder. I expect you can tell that I regard the Vario as a very special grinder, and recommend it highly.
Three Month Followup
A year of ownership has only served to reinforce all the positives about this machine. Oh, just thought of one caveat - when I adjust for drip (both sliders all the way down) the coffee is still ground a little fine for drip, though I make drip/pourover just fine. This is not a fault of the Vario but a function of how I have the machine dialed in, as I often am dialing in fresh coffee two clicks down from the top (on the macro slider) and mid-way down on the left (micro slider). So, I've got it dialed in pretty tight, because every once in a while I'll run across a blend that seems to require a much finer adjustment.
One other comment, my main coffees are from Cafe d'Arte. I routinely get wonderful crema, even from their decaf espresso. The Vario "extends the life" of my coffee with little or now drop-off in flavors. I love the vario. The gulf between the Vario and other, comparably priced grinders is very large. I could not stand to go back to my old Rocky or Cunill.
One Year Followup
For some reason my one-year comments are being shown in the 3-month window. Please refer to them there.
My three month comments are actually now shown in the body of the original review. This was probably my error, not the fault of Coffeegeek.
This is a very solid, very reliable machine. A big bonus is the minimal waste of coffee. I typically dose by the shot - about 18 grams - and it all comes through. The grinder does not retain any grounds, so what you get into your portafilter is always fresh.