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Baratza Vario-W Grinder - Rod Emmer's Review
Posted: August 26, 2012, 3:04am
review rating: 7.4
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Baratza Vario-W Weight Dosing Grinder
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Arrow The Baratza Vario-W Grinder has 1 Reviews
Arrow The Baratza Vario-W Grinder has been rated 7.40 overall by our member reviewers
Arrow This product has been in our review database since November 6, 2012.
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Ratings and Stats Overall Rating: 7.4
Manufacturer: Baratza Quality: 7
Average Price: $550.00 Usability: 7
Price Paid: $540.00 Cost vs. Value 7
Where Bought: Ditting Mahlkönig UK Ltd. Aesthetics 9
Owned for: 1 year Overall 7
Writer's Expertise: I love coffee Would Buy Again: No
Similar Items Owned: Baratza Virtuoso Preciso
Bottom Line: The Vario-W should have filled the weighed output gap in the espresso grinder market for me ... but sadly it hasn't.
Positive Product Points
  • The small footprint is great for home use (tidy kitchen & happy wife).
  • The noise level is acceptable.
  • Intuitive, particularly when first used in conjunction with the manual, a few clearly labelled buttons make it easy to get the grind desired consistently.
  • Flat steel burrs produce uniform grinds from espresso through pour-over to french press.
  • Fineness of grind is adjusted by a 'macro' lever with 10 steps from 1 (fine) to 10 (coarse) and a 'micro' lever with 23 steps from A (finer) to W (coarser) giving 230 reproducible settings.
  • Accurately weighed output to 0.5g.
  • 3 programmable (memory) preset buttons make it easy to reproduce the same quality of grind again and again as well as being able to change the setting whenever desired.
  • Variable: I use the first preset for an 7g single shot and the second for a 14g double shot. There are 2 arrow buttons, 'up' increasing the output weight and 'down' decreasing it, both in 0.1g steps, allowing the home barista to cater for the individual taste of each person.
  • Retention of grinds is minimal so there is little waste.
  • Feels substantial and well made.
  • What a joy to simply touch a preset button followed by the 'Start' button, then consistently receive exactly the grind required for the best extraction. (Please don't tell anyone that even the grinding process is part of my pleasure in drinking great coffee, they'll think I'm some sort of coffee geek!)
Negative Product Points
  • It is only possible to grind directly into a portafilter if holding it because there's no portafilter holder as the grinds bin sits directly on the scale pan. Using the grinds bin became a problem as the effects of static grew over time.
  • There are no 'timer' functions because the Vario circuit board was modified, and the available buttons recycled, to produce the Vario-W.
  • At the time of purchase the Vario-W was being sold as a grinder suitable for espresso, pour-over and french press. When seeking helping about my problem with static, the Mahlkonig representative told me that the Vario-W ISN'T AN ESPRESSO GRINDER. I've checked their website and downloaded the pdf documents which confirm they now only advertise it for pour-over and french press
Detailed Commentary

Not very long after I bought the Preciso, Baratza introduced the Vario-E (now known as the Vario-W) and the Esatto grinder attachment. When the Esatto grinder attachment is attached as the base unit of a Preciso, it adds weighed output functionality to the Preciso. Whilst waiting for these to be available in the UK I'd been weighing beans for grinding using a postage scale that allows a 'tare' of the container to made before the beans are added. It took 4 months for the Esatto attachment and the Vario-W to arrive in the UK. In the light of experience, I'd have been better off with the standard Vario than with the Vario-W.

Unpacking and setting up
The packaging was very good, it was like playing 'parcel-the-parcel' at a Christmas party! Seriously, the box within a box within a box approach ensured the Vario-W was received in excellent condition. The 'setting up' only needed a simple washing, thorough drying and subsequent installation of the bean hopper and grinds bin to make the grinder ready for use. The different sized 'lugs' on the hopper prevent it being fitted to the grinder the wrong way round. The grinder won't work until the hopper is properly inserted and a kind of 'click' felt that confirms correct insertion. The force required to get the 'click' was a bit more than I expected for a plastic hopper but in spite of my tentative approach I got there eventually. I couldn't find an operations manual in the packaging, so I downloaded and printed the manual from www.baratza.com. The manual sensibly recommends that moving the macro and/or micro grind adjustment levers to a finer setting should only be done while the grinder is actually grinding. As mentioned above, this prevents any larger bean particles from  preventing the desired reduction of the gap between the burrs.

First experiences
Right off, the quality of the Vario-W was obvious. My postage scale was accurate enough for postage but the Vario-W excels at 0.5g accuracy. I'd been timing my shot extractions with the Preciso and aiming for mid-range of 20-30 seconds for the bottom of the meniscus to reach the measure ring on my shot glass.

My first shots using the Vario-W ran through too quickly. Adjusting the fineness of the grind using the macro/micro levers to their finest setting of 1A improved the extraction time to 18 seconds but it still wasn't enough. The operations manual states that the burrs can be calibrated using a 2mm Allen key but there is a label over the aperture for the 2mm Allen key saying that removal or penetration of the label invalidates the warranty. A call to the Mahlkönig representative to explain that calibration is recommended in the Baratza product manual and the manual includes a 'how-to-do-it' guide and I was given the go-ahead with confirmation that the warranty would remain intact. Carefully following the straight-forward instructions, calibration was quickly accomplished. Straight away it was apparent that extraction had slowed to a controllable level and following a few minor tweaks on the 'micro' lever achieved 25 seconds for an extraction. My reward was black gold capped with a lovely crema which produced a latte that was better than any coffee I'd ever tasted anywhere before. Scared that this was a fluke, I thought it necessary to test the setup which I duly did. I'm delighted to report the quality of the extractions didn't diminish but I had to stop re-testing the quality after a while when it felt like the top of my head was about to 'lift-off'.

Ongoing experience
I'm still delighted with my Vario-W which sometimes is very hard to pass by without touching a couple of buttons to create the grinds for another wonderful latte. Are they 'god-shots'? To be honest I don't yet know so I'll settle with calling them 'my nectar' until I know better. Having just returned from a Mediterranean holiday really helped my confidence, there was only one cafe latte that tasted better than my equipment can produce and that was in Florence.

Every time a new kilo of beans is finished and a new one needs to be opened, approximately every 3 weeks, presents an ideal opportunity for a clean. First time I used the sample pack of 'Grindz' included with the grinder. I followed the instructions carefully and ground quite a lot of beans to flush all the 'Grindz' residues from the grinder. I've read that rice can be used instead of expensive proprietary cleaning materials and my post-cleaning inspection of the burrs confirms that basmati rice works very well. I tried a coffee without 'flushing' out the residue of the rice with beans after cleaning. As might be expected there was no taste of the rice or diminished flavour from the coffee. It's just necessary to ignore a few white particles from the rice in the grinds for the next couple of coffees.

A comment on cost
Having decided that the 2 important things to control at the grinding stage, so other factors can successfully be controlled at the extraction stage, are quality of the grind (fine/coarse with uniformity of grinds) and accurately weighed output. I had effectively limited my options to the Vario-W since I hadn't found another grinder with the required capability. At first look £540 may seem a lot for a 'prosumer' grinder, but when taken in context it does represent good value for money, but it does feel like a lot of money for a first grinder. In the light of my experience with static, I'm not at all suprised to see the price for a new Vario-W has fallen to £348.

Other equipment in use

  • Espro tamper: not a cheap item to buy but beautifully made, simple to use and gives me confidence that I'm tamping consistently close to 30lb.
  • Tamping station: something to hold the portafilter firmly in place while tamping and somewhere to keep the tamper when not in use.
  • Espresso machine: Isomac Tea II (2012).
  • A pair of 'naked' portafilters, one with a single shot filter basket and the other with a double. When I read of this approach, the reduced number of surfaces that the coffee oils can be deposited on was a winning argument for me, i.e. more of the taste of the coffee goes is available for drinking. It also seems to produce a much better crema.
  • A single shot and a double shot glass with a measuring line(s): grinds are calibrated to pull in the 20-30 seconds range, so with no need for timing, extraction is direct into the shot glass held up to the bottom of the filter basket, trapping any 'spray' to ensure all the extraction goes into the shot glass.
  • Timer (in my iPhone): used occasionally to check that a single shot is pulled in about 25 seconds, including a short pre-infusion of the grinds.
  • Espro Toroid 20 oz Pitcher: for producing consistently good microfoam although I haven't mastered latte art yet, but I keep trying!
  • Thermometer: I was advised that the milk temperature is right when the pitcher becomes too hot to hold but, on the principle that a 'normal' bath for my wife is far too hot for me, I decided to get a thermometer. I'm glad I did because I can replicate temperature recommendations from others as well as be confident in the consistency of my own brewing method. My technique is to 'stretch' the milk until 100°F and then heat it to 140°F so that maximum sweetness is extracted from the lactose.
  • Grindenstein knock box: made of plastic, I half expected this to have a very short life but what a lovely surprise to open the packing and find a substantially made item which is standing up surprisingly well to use which might be better described as abuse!
Buying Experience

The people at Ditting Mahlkönig UK Ltd. (the manufacturer of the steel burrs in the Vario-W) were helpful but in light of their change of heart regarding suitability of the Vario-W for espresso, they could have been more open with me about the shortcoming. I'd even discussed the purchase for espresso use with their sales manager before going ahead. I still have't received the missing instruction manual which was promised.

Three Month Followup

I'm still happy with my Vario-W, although there are a couple of points to add to my review in the light of on-going experience.

  1. Static is naturally generated when grinding a dose, sometimes making it difficult to get every last grain from the grinds bin into the portafilter. Using a soft brush gets them all out but it's not what I think I should have to do with a grinder costing over £500.
  2. The weight of grinds delivered into the bin seemed to vary slightly and my research both here on these forums and at Baratza confirmed that the 'spin-down' of the grinder burrs (the time it takes to stop) is quickest with coarse grains (French Press = least resistance) and slowest with fine grains (Espresso = most resistance). I now use the suggestion of Kyle at Baratza and 'blip' the start/stop button until the desired weight is shown. If the actual weighed amount is replaced by the 'set weight', a 'blip' will bring back the actual weighed amount so the result of the adjustment can be seen.
One Year Followup

The static issue with the grinds bind is now an on-going problem. Either I hadn't noticed it before, or it has developed over time, grinds from the chute are clinging to the under surface of the top part of the grinder. I wonder if I didn't clean it regularly whether stalactites would form! The Mahlkonig representative tells me it's a result of grinding fine enough for espresso because the Vario-W (which isn't suitable for espresso) has steel burrs and the Vario (which is suitable for espresso) has ceramic burrs.

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Posted: August 26, 2012, 3:04am
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