Intro To Coffee Grind
Whenever people ask me what the best coffee brewer is, I always answer, “The best brewer is only as good as your coffee grinder.” It’s true: Your grinder is the most important tool in your coffee tool kit (besides your reusable Ebb filters, of course). While grinders hardly ever get the kind of attention that beautiful drippers and kettles get, they do most of the heavy lifting: Keep reading to find out what I mean, how to choose and use the right grinder, and even a few tips about storing your beans before and after they’re ground.
Burr Grinders: Coffee’s MVP
I think of the grinder as the chef’s knife of the coffee world: A good, sharp one can slice with precision while also making the cooking job faster, cleaner, and maybe even more delicious. A good grinder operates the same way: Sharp, clean burrs can create uniform ground-coffee particles quickly, cleanly, and while preserving the integrity of the flavor.
Coffee-grinder burrs are typically made from machine-cut pieces of stainless steel or injection-molded ceramic, and they have graduated grinding surfaces that are able to cut more of the beans’ surface at once while also ensuring that the particle size of each ground is relatively uniform. Flat burrs sit teeth-to-teeth inside a grinder, while conical burrs comprise one thick burr into which a cone-shaped counterpart fits, also with their teeth facing each other. When you “adjust the grind,” you’re either moving the burrs farther away from each other, which makes a coarser grind, or moving them closer together, which makes a finer one. This adjustability is key, because it lets you calibrate your grind size (which we’ll talk about in a moment) to the brewing preparation you’re using: Coffee isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Flat burrs tend to wear out a bit quicker than conical burrs, but conical burrs are typically more expensive to replace. Most good grinder companies sell replacement burrs and can walk you through the process: It’s relatively simple, and very satisfying.
While grinder manufacturers usually prorate their burrs’ shelf life based on the volume of coffee you’ve ground through them, there are a couple easy ways to tell whether your burrs are ready for a swap are:
- You have had to adjust your grinder finer and finer over time in order to maintain the same grind size.
- The coffee coming out of your grinder is hot to the touch (typically because the burrs are now so close together that they create heat through friction as they work).
“What about my blade grinder?” you might be asking. Well, if grinder burrs are the chef’s knife of the coffee world, then blade grinders are the butter knife. They will take considerably more time and more effort to do the same job, and they won’t produce as even a coffee-grind profile, in part because you can’t adjust them in any way. You’ll probably also notice that the coffee grounds coming out of a blade grinder are almost always warm or even hot to the touch: This is caused from the intense speed of the spinning blade and the friction it causes by grinding the same coffee particles into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. Believe it or not, that heat transfer can really affect your brew in a negative way, creating a bitter, acrid brew.
The Size of Your Grind
If you’ll indulge me the kitchen metaphor a little while longer, let’s keep thinking about burr grinders as the chef’s knife of the coffee world. Now imagine the coffee brewer as the oven: Depending on how and what you’re making, you’ll need to adjust the temperature and rack distance in it, right? Coffee brewers are like that: Depending on which type of brewer you’re using, you will need to adjust certain parameters in order to get the perfect extraction. Grind size is one of those parameters.
When you’re roasting vegetables for a long time in a very hot oven, you want to make sure those vegetable pieces are cut evenly so they cook at the same rate, and so you can maximize the way the roasting process changes their flavor. If you cut the pieces too big, they’ll take a much longer time to heat all the way through, while over-charring on the outside. If you cut them too small, the pieces will dry out and burn.
Making coffee is sort of similar: Preparation techniques in which the water and coffee linger for a long time will call for a coarser grind, while methods with shorter contact will call for a finer grind. In both cases, what you’re trying to achieve is the maximum extraction of ideal flavors.
Generally speaking, French press coffee takes the coarsest grind size, since the brewing water and coffee grounds are in total contact for the entire length of the 4–5-minute brew. Espresso, for contrast, takes a much finer grind, since the brewing water and grounds are only in contact for 20–30 seconds. For a method like pour-over, the grind size—and the contact time—is somewhere in the middle, from medium-coarse to medium-fine, depending on the design of the dripper or brewer.
This is one of the great reasons to have a burr grinder: You can make adjustments among different grind settings in order to use a variety of brewing methods, and you can also make tiny tweaks to your day-to-day routine as you start to experiment with flavor and extraction.
Your Ebb filter will also need you to make some small adjustments as you use it: When the filter is brand new, you may need to grind a touch finer than you would later in the filter's life: Think of this as "seasoning" the filter, like you would a high-quality cast iron pan. As the filter settles into your regular use and spends more time interacting with coffee grounds, you will likely find that adjusting slightly coarser every couple of weeks over the filter’s lifespan will help keep your brew consistent and delicious. When you notice that your brew time is taking 20–30 seconds longer than it did several weeks ago, that's a great time to adjust a bit coarser.
Download and print our Coffee Grind Guide to see how your grind measures up.
One thing to keep in mind is that your Ebb filter's cloth has a slightly different construction than disposable paper filters, which means that your coffee should never be ground too fine: We think that the fineness of table salt is a good limit, and most pour-over coffee wants a coarser grind anyway, for the best flavor.
Grinders for Everybody
Despite their clear advantage over blade grinders, burr grinders don’t have to break the bank. Here are a few of my favorite burr grinders, one for every taste and price point.
- Manual burr grinder: Porlex Tall II ($84) – I love the slim and fully portable Porlex hand-grinders for making pour-overs. Their conical ceramic burrs are long-lasting, and the grinder is easy to clean. If you don’t mind using a little elbow grease, the Porlex is a great value.
- Best budget grinder: My two favorite solid-quality burr grinders at a moderate price are the Baratza Encore ($139) and the OXO Conical Burr Grinder ($105). Both have long-lasting conical burrs and feature user-friendly adjustments. They both also have lower grounds retention than many of the mid-price grinder options, which means less mess and more accurate coffee brewing.
- Best coffee-geek grinder: Fellow Ode Coffee Grinder ($299) – This beauty is definitely a conversation starter, so you may need a “no talkie before coffee” sign in the kitchen. Its 64mm flat burrs are vertically oriented for speed and accuracy, and are controlled by an advanced motor layout that is designed to stabilize the burrs’ RPM for a quieter, quicker, and even grind.
While a good burr grinder has the potential to take your coffee lifestyle to the next level, it helps to set your grinder up for success by storing your beans properly: No matter how good your grinder is, you can only make stale-tasting coffee with stale coffee beans!
Whole bean coffee should be treated something like a fresh loaf of sourdough bread: Its biggest enemies are light, moisture, and oxygen, and in order to keep it fresher for longer, it should be stored in a cool, dark place, preferably an airtight container away from any sources of light or heat.
The best possible storage vessel for coffee has both a vacuum-sealing property to remove any oxygen present in the container, and is airtight to prevent additional oxygen from seeping in. A simple airtight container is second-best, but in lieu of these options you can keep your coffee in the bag it was sold in, so long as the bag has a one-way valve on it, and you are careful to squeeze out any air before sealing it tightly and putting it away.
“Should I put my coffee in the freezer?” is the age-old question, and the answer is actually, “it depends.” Freezing whole beans isn’t a great idea because your grinder burrs should never, ever get wet: The beans will start to defrost the moment they are taken out of that cold storage, and they will start to sweat almost immediately—even if you can’t see it. However, you can potentially freeze ground coffee: For the best quality, portion ground coffee out into individual bags or containers so you can grab what you need and avoid thawing and re-freezing the whole batch over and over.
Now that you’ve got your brewer and matching Ebb filters, a great grinder, and fresh-roasted beans from your favorite local roaster, you’ll be totally unstoppable when you step up to make your next cup. We love to see it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ever Meister is a coffee professional, journalist, and educator who has worked in the specialty coffee industry for 20 years, doing everything from making and serving espresso to selling green coffee to conducting training sessions and writing marketing strategies. Meister is also the author of New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History (The History Press, 2017).