Coffee aficionados have long debated the best brewing method, but is the secret to great coffee all in the grind?
How We Tested
If you want the freshest, most full-flavored cup of coffee, we always recommend grinding your own coffee beans. It's best to do this right before you brew, as our testing has shown that the beans begin to lose flavor and aroma within an hour of being ground.
Home grinders come in two styles: blade and burr. A blade grinder works like a tiny food processor, with a rapidly spinning blade that chops coffee beans into smaller and smaller fragments. You have to hold the grind button down, time the grind, shake the grinder periodically to distribute the beans, and inspect the ground coffee to see if it's reached the desired consistency.
While a blade grinder has one chamber where you load, grind, and dispense the beans, a burr grinder consists of three components: a hopper where you feed in the beans, the grinding chamber, and a removable container that holds the grounds so you can transfer them to the coffee maker. You simply switch the machine on and whole beans are pulled from the hopper through two gear-like metal rings (called burrs) that spin and crush the coffee, similar to the way a pepper mill grinds peppercorns. The setting you choose on the machine determines the space between the burrs and thus the size of the grind.
Burr grinders are the norm in the coffee industry, and now household brands such as Breville, Hamilton Beach, and KitchenAid are offering them for home users. To find out more about this popular grinding method, we tested 10 models priced from about $30.00 to $200.00, all with metal burrs and at least eight grind settings, and compared them to our favorite blade grinder from Krups.
Grinding Coarse, Medium, and Fine Coffee
Brew method usually dictates grind setting: Generally, coarse coffee is used for French press, medium for drip machines, and fine for espresso. A good grinder should be able to produce these three consistencies, so we ground coffee on the settings recommended by each manufacturer for coarse, medium, and fine. We repeated the grinding tests with light roasted beans and very dark roasted beans, which have different densities. Finally, we had six testers—from novices to coffee experts—operate each grinder to gauge its user-friendliness.
Almost every model was able to achieve these three consistencies, but many were confusing or a pain to use. Some sprayed grounds everywhere, even with their collection containers properly in place. Others had displays that were befuddling or hard to read, and some had grounds containers that were too small or irregularly shaped, so they overfilled easily or poured imprecisely when we transferred the grounds to the brewer.
Some grinders fell short in other ways. One had a built-in scale that promised to dispense the exact desired amount of beans. However, our lab-calibrated scale confirmed that the grinder missed the target weight by 10 percent every time, even after we reset its internal scale. Another grinder shook heavily, rattling the table and changing its grind setting. Finally, one model's glass grounds container shattered when we accidentally elbowed it off the counter. We don't expect small appliances to be bulletproof, but we'd hope our grinder could survive groggy morning mishaps.
Our favorite grinders were intuitive and easy to use; had roomy, sturdy plastic grounds containers that could withstand a morning drop; and ground cleanly without making messes of our kitchens.
Measuring Coffee Evenness
One of the much-touted benefits of burr grinders is their ability to produce an extremely even grind, since each bean passes through the burrs only once compared to the repeated whacking the beans undergo in a blade grinder. To get a read on evenness, we ground coffee on a medium-grind setting and sifted the grounds in a Kruve Sifter, a device used by coffee professionals that separates the large pieces (“boulders”), medium pieces, and dust-like particles (“fines”). We repeated this test, tweaking the grind setting until we had grounds that contained the highest percentage of medium pieces. The grinders in our lineup produced grounds ranging from 28 percent to 88 percent medium pieces.
But does this evenness even matter? To find out, we brewed three batches of coffee using the same beans ground in the most even burr grinder, the least even burr grinder, and our top-rated blade grinder, which achieved up to 46 percent medium pieces. We kept all the variables the same except for the grinder. A panel of 21 tasters then sampled the coffees in a blind tasting. The verdict was surprising: Though we identified flavor differences in the batches of coffee, each made a good cup and tasters were split on which one they preferred. To verify these surprising results, we conducted this test three additional times. We also brought in coffee tasting experts, and they came to the same conclusion.
So if the evenness of your grind doesn't matter all that much, why is the coffee industry so excited about burr grinders? With their range of settings and streamlined designs, which require the beans to pass through the grinder only once, burr grinders can guarantee consistency day after day in a way that blade grinders can't. Ultimately, we think a good burr grinder is a useful tool for home brewers to have for two reasons: These machines are easy to use, and they produce a consistent cup of coffee. And even though grind evenness isn't the most important factor in how your coffee tastes, we also gave an edge to grinders that left no whole or partially processed beans in our grind (a waste of good coffee).
Two Great Grinders
We found several burr grinders we liked, with the Baratza Encore leading the pack. The darling of the coffee industry, this machine produces a very even grind, but we particularly appreciated its simple design and no-fuss grinding: Choose your grind setting, add your beans, and you're done. We also liked that it has 40 grind settings, giving coffee aficionados the ability to customize their cups. Our Best Buy, the Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder, is also intuitive, but it has just 16 settings and it doesn't work well when grinding coffee for a single cup. Either of these machines will round out your set of coffee tools and elevate your brew.
We purchased 10 burr grinders, priced from about $30.00 to $200.00, and used each to grind coffee beans of different densities on fine, medium, and coarse settings. We also ground and sifted 10-gram batches of coffee in each model until we found the grind setting on each that produced the highest percentage of medium-size pieces. Six users tried the top four coffee grinders and gave feedback about grind size and ease of use. A panel of 21 tasters sampled coffee made from beans ground in the least even and most even coffee grinders; we standardized the weight of the ground coffee, the brew method, and the type of beans. We repeated the test three times to confirm the results. Finally, we removed the burrs from all the grinders, inspecting their shape and size; measured the capacity of each bean hopper using whole beans; and measured the capacity of each grounds container using ground coffee. Results were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference.
Ease of Use:
Our favorite products had clear and intuitive controls and were easy to operate, adjust, and program. Lower marks went to products with confusing displays, a lengthy setup process, or superfluous design features.
We ground 10 grams of coffee beans on every grind setting. Products that had a range of settings and were capable of achieving coarse, medium, and fine coffee rated higher. We also gave a slight edge to grinders that produced an even grind, with no whole or partially ground beans left over.
Lowest marks went to products that sprayed coffee onto the counter or had grounds containers that were difficult to clean. Our favorite products operated cleanly from start to finish.