Upgradeitis, the Espresso Machine

It has been my experience that as people decide to upgrade their “barista” skills, the associated equipment upgrades invariably follow.   The first expense on many people’s minds as they start this journey is the shiny new espresso machine.  We often hear the comment, “I bought this amazing espresso machine, but I am not getting the results that I thought the machine would produce!”

The espresso machine promises the romance of Europe, or at least your favourite coffee shop, and is popular with all levels of coffee enthusiasts.  They can be purchased for as little as $90, and can cost up to about $5000 for a prosumer machine.  This article will not to focus on the machine, (another blog to follow) but rather to lead into the ‘grinder’ discussion.

There are many catch phrases about the value of your coffee machine versus the value of the grinder.  The simple truth is that far too often the grinder is thought of as something to buy later, if the funds stretch that far.   I would like to urge coffee lovers everywhere to consider the points below, and when upgrading equipment, consider the best coffee grinder you can afford, especially when spending considerable hard earned cash on the machine.

To produce quality coffee from ANY espresso machine, having a consistent grind is paramount.  Water is being forced through the coffee puck at 9 bar (or more) of pressure.  The water will follow the path of least resistance through the coffee puck.  If the grind has a spread of particle sizes, the water will ‘channel’ between the bigger particles thus potentially not evenly extracting the flavour compounds from the entire filter basket.

To achieve the best results in the cup, the coffee in the filter basket needs to be evenly ground, evenly tamped, (compacted), and consistently dosed.  The latter two points are relatively easily controlled by the barista.  The first point can only be addressed with a grinder that can deliver this quality.

A discussion for a further blog, espresso machine with built in grinder versus two discrete pieces of equipment.

The Spice Grinder

Firstly, a coffee grinder and a spice grinder are two different beasts.  Walk into your nearest small appliance retailer and you will be confronted with an array of ‘coffee grinders’ from about $29 up to around $250.  At the risk of offending half my readers, I stand by the following statement.  At the time of writing, one cannot purchase a coffee grinder for under about $150.

The small cylindrical item with a little clear ‘lid’ over a straight spinning blade is a spice grinder.  They are not designed for, nor are they capable of, producing the quality of grind for an espresso shot, (no matter the quality of the machine).

With the spice grinder mentioned above, the user is in control of how long the motor runs, this means that the coffee can never be accurately reproduced to the same fineness time after time. The beans will continue to get finer the longer the blade spins.  The second point worth mentioning is the fact that the blade simply smashes the beans into random particle sizes.  This means that you are left with some fine and some coarser particles.  One cup may taste good and the next doesn’t come close.  That is often simply the result of not getting the grind consistent.

The final deficit of the spice grinder is that the very fast spinning blade heats the coffee, degrading your carefully roasted beans.

The Coffee Grinder

Broadly speaking, coffee grinders use ‘burrs’ to crush the beans to a certain level of fineness dependant on how far apart the burrs have been set.  Burr Grinders fall into two basic categories, flat burrs and conical burrs.

Conical burrs generally operate a ‘fixed blade’, and ‘turning blade’ which are in an upright ‘cone marriage’.  Adjustment is made by moving these two components closer together or further apart, thus achieving an even particle spread.

Flat burrs operate in a similar way, they are simply a different design.  Instead of a matching cone configuration, two flat plates with ‘blades’ on each crush the beans.  Both types of burr grinder keep the coffee cooler than a spice grinder.

There are many opinions as to the merits of the two designs, let alone the materials the ‘blade’ components are made of.  It’s not my intention to get into this discussion, suffice to say that either one of these designs will give you a far superior coffee experience than using a spice grinder.

Why spend more than the most basic burr grinder?  The answer to this question is largely the grinders ability to get the level of adjustment necessary, and the quality of both the build and the burrs.  The more solid the build, and the better the burrs, the better the consistency of grind.

How much do you need to spend on the grinder?

If you have just spend $5000 on a beautiful new espresso machine, it would be fair to expect to spend up to $1000 for a capable grinder, or more if the budget allows.   It is worth every cent if you wish to get the most from your investment in the machine.  Once again, I stress the point that many people don’t consider the grinder to be of equal importance to the machine.  As a rule of thumb, if you are purchasing a machine from your local appliance store, a burr grinder priced between $150 and $250 will satisfy most people. If you have ventured in the world of the ‘prosumer’ machines, spending upwards of $2500, the sky is the limit in terms of grinder.  An entry level burr grinder will show its weaknesses at this level, and a spice grinder is now an insult to your lovely shiny new baby.

In conclusion, your choice of grinder will affect the taste of your favourite beverage, so why spend substantial funds on the machine if you don’t feed it with the best grinds.

If I have missed relevant points, please comment and let us know your thoughts and experiences, or if you need additional advice please ask and we will respond as quickly as possible.