Expectations and needs has a lot to do how we feel about what products we purchase. If you bought a Toyota Yaris to take kids to soccer practice, hauling materials for home improvement chores, and towing a boat to the lake in the summer, you would be probably not be very happy with your choice of vehicles. I want to be as honest, fair, and objective in this review, but it is also only fair that I tell you what I expected and wanted when I bought this grinder.
Enjoying great espresso for a while, I wanted to try my hand in the hobby of actually making espresso. I wanted an entry level set up that would allow me to decide if it was something I wanted to get into more seriously, but still good enough to get decent results that I would be happy with for a while. I would be pretty upset to spend $2000 only to donate my equipment to Goodwill in six months because I got bored. Likewise, I didn't want to spend $200 and be upset that what I bought was useless and end up spending more anyways. I didn't really have a budget, but wanted to get the most that the least would get me; if that makes sense. $200 on a grinder seemed to be on the cusp of what would actually work for espresso, but $300 seemed more of a universal acceptance of products for the starting range. I chose the Virtuoso, because I truly felt that it could grind fine enough for espresso knowing that the burrs could be calibrated if needed. I know that's been an issue for some; as it turns out, mine was fine from the factory. I was also able to get the most recent version heavily discounted for $140 new in the box. At $140 it was still 1/2 the price of a Rocky and I felt at worst case scenario, it would work well as a designated drip grinder.
Out of the box it's pretty basic. There was the grinder, hopper, hopper lid, grind bin, wire brush, and a manual. The grinder is pretty heavy; metal is almost always a better material for durability than plastic. The weight also keeps the grinder stationary when grinding with the pulse button. The hopper and lid are a transparent plastic allowing you to see the volume of beans inside. The grind bin is non-transparent dark plastic; from what I understand, this came on more recent versions to help with the static issues. Not much to say about the wire brush, its a cone shaped stiff wire bristled brush for cleaning the burrs. A nice little extra. The manual is probably the highest quality item in the box. It is very well layed out with simple, easy to understand instructions. It also has actual photographs (not illastrations) that aid the well written intructions. What isn't in the manual is the directions for calibrating the burrs; however, they were readily available on their website (www.baratza.com) along with some other good information including the manual in pdf. which came in handy after my wife tossed ours after a week. The whole unit put together really doesn't have much of foot print. It takes up less space than almost anything else on my kitchen counter; the caveat is that it is also the worst looking. I wouldn't call it ugly, but it just isn't good looking.
There's no real mystery in the basic operation of the grinder. There are a couple of ways to start grinding. First, there is a pulse button on the front; press to start the motor and let go to make it stop. Second, there is a knobed timer on the side of the grinder body that ranges from 0-60secs. What I wish was included was a continuous on switch; when I'm grinding a larger volume, I don't want to have to hold the pulse button or guess how long it's going to take. The Virtuoso has 41 separate settings from 0 being the finest to 40 being the coarsest. According to the manual, 0-10 is for espresso, 15-28 is for drip, and 34-40 is for french press. To adjust the grind, the hopper is turned clockwise for finer settings and counterclockwise for coarser. It is recommended that the grinder is running while making this adjustment to avoid damage in case there a beans in between the burrs. Collecting the grinds can also be done to two ways. The grind bin fits snugly in the grinder beneath the burrs and allows the grinds to fall into the bin. The snug fit eliminates any real gaps giving the grinds nowhere to go but in the bin. The bin can then be emptied by dumping or scooping the grinds into a drip filter or french press; my experience is this is a poor method for filling a portafilter(PF for reference). The second way of collecting the grinds is to hold the PF directly underneath the burrs allowing the grinds to fall into the PF basket. This is a little hokey at best. If you hold the PF directly underneath the burrs, almost all the grinds can be collected and moving the PF will help distribute them evenly. The problem: The top of the PF is conceiled, so you can't really see if the grinds are being distributed evenly. If you lower the PF an inch or more below the burrs, you can see where the grinds are being distributed. The problem: The grinds are being distributed all over your counter and kitchen floor. I put the grinder atop of a pan to collect the stray grinds. The Weiss Distribution Technique(WDT) would most likely do well with the yogurt gaurd to help keep the grinds collected; I do a variation of this but grinds still find homes of their own. If you don't know what I'm talking about go ahead and search the WDT; it is recommended for good reason.
I haven't used this grinder for french press, so I can't comment on how the coarser settings work for it. The mid range grinds all seem to be very consistant. I've played around a little bit and about 18-20 seems to work well for my drip(cuisinart-not sure of the model #). It uses a #4 cone style filter. Based on the consistency of the grind I would assume it would work well on other types of drip machines. My espresso machine is an Ascaso Dream that I purchased at the same time as the Virtuoso. So the big question is: Does it grind fine enough for espresso? Well, I can definately say yes, yes it does (please note that I only use freshly roasted beans that I pick up locally at a couple of different places). The first 3 setting(0,1,and2) will choke my machine. The 4th setting (#3 on the indicator) will work but still a little too fine. So it grinds fine enough for espresso, so that's all you need right? Well, not exactly. One thing that my $140 bought me was the knowledge of why a good grinder is so key in making good espresso. Setting #3 is still pretty fine and only kind of works on my beans when they start getting on the older side (2weeks after roast). Setting #6 kind of works, but a bit too coarse. So that only leaves two setting (#4 and #5) that work for espresso, and best case scenario is 4 settings if you want to include #3 and #6 on the indicator. Beans are like snowflakes; you know, no two alike. That being said, they grind differently and therefore need different grind settings. Also, this machine while suprisingly consistant in the coarser settings, that consistancy diminishes in the finer settings; a fair amount of fines(powder). Only two settings, but what about the espresso. I've actually gotten some pretty good tasting and looking shots. I've only used 3 different roasts, but try to get to know the roast I'm working with and choose the more appropriate of the two settings. Right now with my last couple of blends that I bought, I find tamping a little on the heavy side will result in a better shot. Adjusting tamp isn't ideal though, that's supposed to be the grinders job.
I wanted something that would get me started and it has. I wanted a set up that had the capability of making decent espresso and it has. It also leaves me with a capable drip grinder if I ever upgrade. So, recommending the Virtuoso really comes down to your expectation and needs. Hands down, it's great for non espresso grinding. For espresso, it depends on the decernment of your palate and the type of drinks you enjoy. I'm okay with pretty good yet not great shots; I prefer capachinos where the sweetness and texture of the milk helps compensate (not hide) a less than perfect shot. If you like mochas, lattes, or the triple fudge carmel snicker mars bar milky way-chino, the actual flavors (both good and bad) in the espresso will be less noticed. On the other hand, for some people, if it's not great espresso, it just isn't espresso. If straight espresso, or even machiattos, is your drink of choice you'll probably want to mayble look at some higher end options.
In conclusion, I stand by my purchase, espesially at the discount. It IS a good grinder, but be reallistic with your expectations and really look at what you want to accomplish.