Brewing coffee is all about extraction

Why should we be obsessed with grinding our coffee beans in the best possible way and with a quality coffee grinder? Why is grind size so crucial for a great tasting coffee? Simple, because brewing coffee is all about extraction. We want to get the right mix of components out of the beans that are responsible for the flavor profile of our cup. And we would like to avoid extracting components which could ruin the taste or even cause problems like heartburn, a.k.a. acid reflux or GERD in sensitive people. Three factors are playing a crucial role in extraction and having a significant impact on taste:

▪ Grind size

▪ Water temperature

▪ Length of exposure

While water temperature and duration of exposure is rather easy to control, grind size needs your undivided attention, too. The ideal water temperature is in a fairly narrow range of between 92º C and 96º C (198º F to 205º F). And the ideal length of exposure is close to 4 minutes, not much longer as this can lead to over-extraction. When making coffee at home, you should not have too many problems in getting at least these two settings right. For cold-brewed coffee, there are other rules, obviously. Here we are talking about room temperature at most and a soaking time of 6 hours or even much longer.

The correct grind size

To get the proper grind size can be a much bigger challenge. After all, it has the most significant impact on the taste of your coffee. Various brewing methods call for different grind sizes. Brewing an expensive choice of single estate coffee beans and not going for the proper grind size, you risk making an inferior coffee, despite using expensive coffee beans. On the other hand, having the appropriate grind size for your chosen brewing method, you can still produce an acceptable cup, even when using relatively cheap beans. 

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Which is the right grind size for your favorite brewing method?

Depending on your grinder you may have 20 or more settings. You might not need all of them, at least for now. But it is great for fine tuning once you are past the rookie grinder level. To start out, just look at five of the basic settings: 

Extra Coarse Best for cold brewed coffee. The grind should be a bit coarser than kosher salt.

Coarse Best for French Press. About as coarse as kosher salt.

Medium Best for automatic coffee machines and manual drip coffee when using flat-bottom filters. This is the standard setting when you buy pre-ground packaged coffee. Mind you, this is NOT a recommendation of store-ground coffee.

Between medium and fine Best for cone-shaped paper filters, both for manual drip and automatic coffee machines and for Moka pots, like the Bialetti Moka Express. 

Fine For Espresso machines. The contact time for steam/water and your coffee is very short. Therefore you want maximum surface for perfect extraction. Cheaper grinders may not be able to do a top quality espresso grind. For specific recommendations see below.

Powdery For Turkish Coffee, you would need to grind your coffee beans even finer than fine, almost like flour. Not all commercially available coffee grinders can handle this. These settings are just rough guidelines. Your personal preferences may be different from mine and also every grinder has its own characteristics. The type of coffee beans and their roasting level will make a difference as well. I therefore recommend to start out with the recommended settings for your chosen brewing method and experiment a bit with adjusting them little by little. Let your palate be your guide. Brewing an excellent cup is almost like experimenting in a science lab, at least until you find the perfect setting for your personal taste.

When to grind your coffee beans

The basic rule for making a really great coffee is to grind the beans just before use and only as much as you are going to use for this brewing. Coffee aromas are very volatile and won’t stay in roasted coffee beans forever. Whole roasted beans will lose most of their flavor in about two weeks after roasting. That’s why you shouldn’t buy roasted coffee in bigger bags. It depends on how fast you run through your beans, but I think one pound bags should be max.  Properly packaged and stored, beans can last a bit longer. The very best would be in containers filled with nitrogen gas. They have a shelf life of two years but because of the higher cost, you will find this only with premium coffee beans.  When you buy store-ground coffee, the aromas will disappear very fast after the sealed bag is opened. And the finer the grind, like for espresso, the faster the volatile aromas will fade away. To make sure your coffee always tastes at peak level, use the freshest coffee you can get and grind it just before brewing.

No grinder? Make the jump and get one, you won’t regret it.

If you are serious about coffee, you should invest in a decent grinder. This is an investment which will pay rich dividends in flavor, convenience and enjoyment. And it doesn’t even have to be terribly expensive. 

To burr or to blade – that is the question. 

And the answer is loud and clear:

                          burr
There are two basic types of coffee mills, blade and burr grinders. Blade grinders are cheap, easy to operate and have a minimal footprint. But they have two serious disadvantages: The grind is very inconsistent, and you will end up with a mix of bigger chunks and pulverized coffee. Brewing this concoction will lead to over-extraction and under-extraction at the same time which will certainly ruin the taste of your coffee. And since there is no way to set the grind size to a certain level you will have different results every time. it is nearly impossible to grind the beans to anything other than fine by letting it run to the very end.  The other problem with blade grinders is the heat generated by the high-speed smashing of the beans. The heat will make the beans to lose their flavor very fast. 

That’s why you should go for a burr grinder

Serious coffee lovers should therefore go for a burr grinder. They are slightly more expensive, but produce a more consistent grind and give you much better control over the grind size.  A good quality burr grinder will run at a slower speed and thereby avoiding to heat up the beans. The coffee aromas are better protected and you will notice the difference.

How to choose the perfect burr grinder

You have the choice between manual and electric burr grinders. Manual grinders are of course cheaper than electric versions and are somewhat less noisy. They are also great for a little exercise in the morning.

When I was a kid, we had one of these at home and my job was to grind the coffee long before I was allowed to drink it. As a kid, I found it to be too bulky and not easy to handle.  If you don’t mind the extra exercise and feel a bit nostalgic, this could be something for you.

A modern manual coffee grinder with a ceramic burr

Much easier to handle, a modern, stylish and very slim alternative are coffee mills made from stainless steel and with a hand crank. They are now very popular and a great choice if you are on a budget or don’t have much space in your kitchen. Also, when you are single or just with a partner, they are ideal. But when you regularly make coffee for a family or for several guests, you will be better off with an electric coffee mill, because grinding beans for more than three cups can become quite a chore. Some people recommend them also for traveling. But come on, do you pack also your V60, Chemex or French Press??? I’d rather go out and explore some interesting local coffee shop.

This is the detailed view of the manual grinder. The individual parts are simply stuck together

Pros: 

  • Very affordable
  • Equipped with a ceramic conical burr
  • Not heating up your beans while grinding them
  • Very quiet compared to electric mills
  • Adjustable grind settings from ultra fine to very coarse
  • Gives you some exercise

Cons:

  • Small capacity, can grind only for about 3 cups
  • Finer grinds take quite a while to grind
  • Ceramic burr can brake when you drop the grinder

Watch out:

There are many models on the market which have essentially the same burr grind mechanism. This mechanism allows for a full range of grind sizes, but it does not have a marker for the settings. This will be a problem only when you want to switch back and forth between grind sizes. It is very difficult to find the exact position of the previous setting again. 

Electric burr grinders

There is an overwhelming choice out there. Nearly every maker of coffee equipment has one out. And prices starting at about 35 bucks and go up almost indefinitely. Well, not quite, but I have seen a few for a couple thousand bucks. But there are a few good choices in an affordable price range. At this price level, the burrs will be made from steel. They are somewhat less durable than a ceramic burr, but there are considerably fewer choices for a ceramic burr grinder and you will have to invest at least 300 or 400 bucks. Among the desirable features of an electric coffee grinder are:

  • slow grind speed to avoid heat buildup
  • consistent precision grinding in every grind setting
  • no static electricity problems to avoid a mess 
  • easy to clean
  • attractive design

The very cheap models might not have all these features. Models from about a 100 bucks upward are mostly fine, though.

My favorite electric burr grinder

My absolute favorite one is the Capresso 575.05 Infinity Plus which is the newest model and top of the line of that well-known manufacturer. The conical burrs are hand-assembled in Switzerland and the angles and shapes of the steel burrs are manufactured with a precision of 1/250 inch. This grinder is one of the few electric grinders which can grind for Turkish coffee. 

Alternatives from the same manufacturer

The models Capresso 560 or 565 are also fine if you are on a budget, but they wouldn’t be able to grind for Turkish coffee.  Their entry model Capresso Coffee Burr Grinder is the cheapest, below 50 bucks, but I would recommend staying clear of that one, even if you are on a really tight budget. It is made from very cheap plastic and the dial controls are not really effective. It also has many negative reviews on Amazon complaining about malfunctioning or dying on you prematurely. 

My second favorite coffee grinder

My next favorite is the reasonably priced Ariete – Delonghi Electric Coffee Grinder. Delonghi is a very traditional and well known Italian manufacturer. The company was established already in 1902 and has a very good reputation for coffee machines. The Ariete grinder can handle the ultra-fine grind for Turkish coffee as well. Very easy to handle and even cleaning can be easily done.  Even the cup size is adjustable so that the right amount of beans will be used.

You may want to consider

Finally, for the sake of completeness, I should mention the popular Baratza Encore. It is said to be an entry-level model and looking at its features I would agree. The maximum fineness is for espresso, so it is no help for friends of Turkish coffee. The plastic housing looks cheap to me and, frankly, I hate the overall design. But that’s a very personal thing and you may not agree with my opinion which is perfectly allright.

Compared to the other grinders mentioned above, this one looks a bit overpriced to me.

But check it out yourself and compare before you buy.

One important caveat

My recommendations are based on my own experiences and those of my trusted friends.

However, there is no guarantee that you won’t have a bad experience with one of those machines. It happened to me as well and I know very well how frustrating it can be to deal with the manufacturer to get a replacement or a repair. And some of you will have to go through this as well, I’m afraid.

I have lived in various places in the world and my worst experience in this regard was the U.S., while I had the least problems in Japan.

But not getting a decent coffee grinder and continuing to drink inferior coffee is not a viable alternative. So, take the risk and make the jump.

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