Since the subject came up (Thanks to Big George BBQ), let talk about grinders.
I am going to say something here that may make you think I'm nuts (if you don't already
The grinder is the most important piece of coffee equipment that you can own.
You're probably thinking "But Ronelle... What about the coffee maker on my counter? isn't it important?" Yes, it is important, but it is possible to make a great cup of coffee with a simple filter cone and some way to make hot water. You don't need anything more than that, but you have to have a good grinder.
Why is the grinder important? Well, let's start with the obvious. Without it, you're going to have a hard time making coffee when you have whole beans on hand :). But it goes beyond that. You could use a couple of rocks and smash the beans and get a cup of coffee out of the smashed beans, but the quality will suffer. To understand why, let's take a short look at what really happens when we brew coffee.
To keep it simple, when coffee is exposed to water, soluble coffee solids and oils are extracted from the bean and into the water. The amount of soluble solids and oils that enter the water is influenced by several factors. Let's concentrate on two for now. The first is water temperature. Hot water extracts more solids and over a shorter time. It is possible to make coffee using cold water, and this process can make some very good coffee, but it takes several hours to do so. This isn't practical for every day use. We'll talk more about temperature when we get to our discussion on brewing techniques.
The second factor, and this is the one most relevant to our grinder discussion, is the size of the coffee particles. The smaller the particle, the faster the extraction process. So, if there are different size particles they will extract at different rates. This is a concern because coffee that is over-extracted is bitter, and coffee that is under-extracted is sour. If we have very small and very large particles in our brewer at the same time the smaller particles will be over-extracted and the larger particles will be under-extracted and both of these affect the cup.
So, the main goal of our grinder is to produce as even a grind as possible. This gives us particles of a similar size so the all reach the optimal extraction level at the same time. This gives us a much better cup of coffee. Our ideal grinder also has to be easy to adjust. Different brewing methods require a different size particle, or a different grind level. For example, with the average drip coffee maker the water is in contact with the coffee for about one minute. In order to get a proper extraction we need a finer grind since there is less time for the process to occur. As another example, in a percolator the water is in contact with the coffee for a longer period, and is also recirculated through the coffee over and over again as part of the percolation process. Because the contact period is longer, and repeated, we use a coarser grind.
Hopefully all of that makes sense. If not, please ask questions.
Now, let's look at the types of grinders. There are two different types of grinders commonly available: the blade grinder and the burr grinder.
Blade Grinders use a blade (doh!) to slice the beans into smaller pieces. These are the least expensive type of grinder. With grinders, like a lot of things, you get what you pay for! Blade grinders are not capable of meeting our two requirements above. The "ground" coffee will contain pieces of varying sizes and will also contain a lot of dust that is created when the beans are sliced up. The dust particles will over-extract severely and make the resulting cup bitter. In addition, the way that you control the level of the grind is by how long you run the grinder. The longer it runs the more the beans are hitting the blade and the smaller the grind. There is no real control over the grind level and little chance of repeating the same results.
Burr Grinders use rotating burrs to grind the coffee. The grind level is controlled by the spacing between the burrs. This can be set precisely and the setting will be the same every time. In addition, since the burrs are even across their surface (unless they have been damaged), the resulting grind is very even, with uniform particle size and little dust. There are two types of burr grinders on the market; flat burr and conical burr. Both do a good job but conical burr grinders are preferred. In a flat burr grinder the burrs turn very fast and can create a lot of static and more of a mess. In a conical burr grinder the burrs turn slower and the conical shape helps move the coffee into the hopper so they are less likely to clog. Conical burr grinders are also quieter.
So... i think it is clear from the above that my recommendation is to buy a burr grinder, preferably a conical burr grinder. If you already have a blade grinder you don't have to rush out and replace it. Using any grinder to grind beans at the time of brewing will give you much better results when compared to using pre-ground coffee, especially if the beans are fresh roasted. To understand this statement we have to look into how coffee ages. I plan on going into this in more detail in another thread, but basically, once coffee is roasted it immediately starts to deteriorate. The biggest culprit in this deterioration is air. Exposure to air will allow many of the flavor components in coffee to escape, and grinding the coffee increases the amount of surface area that is exposed to air by thousands of times. Most serious coffee geeks will grind minutes before brewing. So, even if you are using a blade grinder, grinding right before brewing will give you a much better cup than using pre-ground coffee.
If you don't have a grinder, I strongly recommend buying a decent burr grinder. As i mentioned before, you get what you pay for. More expensive grinders will provide a more even grind and have better adjustability. Cheaper grinds will produce more dust, be noisier, produce a lot of static, and have fewer steps of adjustments. expect to pay at least $60 for a low end burr grinder with the high end pro-sumer models selling for over $500! If all you are interested in is brewed coffee, not espresso, then you can forget about the very expensive grinders. Their capabilities are wasted on brewed coffee, but are mandatory for producing excellent espresso.
Breaking things down further, you can buy an electric burr grinder or a hand-held burr grinder. Hand-held grinders have a crank that you turn to grind the coffee. This takes longer, but they are much less expensive.
If you're still with me, you are probably wondering when i will get to recommending some grinder. Well, thanks for hanging in there.
Here are some grinders that I have used or have reliable information on:
Hario Skerton - About $40. This is a well built hand grinder that is capable of producing an espresso grind but works well for brewed coffee.
Zassenhaus Turkish Mill - About $80. Another excellent hand grinder. This is my travel grinder.
Electric Burr Grinders
Cuisinart Supreme Grind - $50. This is the least expensive burr grinder that I can recommend. It works, but is noisy and generates a lot of static, which can be messy.
Capresso Flat Disk Burr Grinder - $50. Similar in capabilities to the Cuisinart above, but seems to produce less static.
Capresso Infinity - $90. This is the least expensive conical burr grinder commonly available. It has 16 adjustment steps and is fairly quiet.
Starbucks Barista - About $120 at Starbucks. I'm not sure if Starbucks still sells this grinder but it was made for them by Baratza. Baratza has refurbished Baristas available on their web site
for around $80 (plus shipping)
Baratza Maestro - This is a step up from the Starbucks Barista. it has a larger motor and more adjustment steps. The Maestro is available from several web sites for $99.
Baratza Maestro Plus - An upscale version of the Maestro with a timer, a more powerful motor and still more adjustment steps. the Maestro Plus sells for $149. Baratza occasionally has refurbished Maestro Plus at $90. This is the grinder that I use for brewed coffee.
There are others available, but I don't have enough experience with them to give good advice. There are excellent consumer reviews of all types of grinders at Coffeegeek.com
If you are looking for a new grinder a good source is Whole Latte Love
. They have good prices and free shipping. I am not affiliated with them in any way, just a satisfied customer. they also offer refurbished grinders that can be a good value.
If you have questions about grinders in general or a specific model, please ask!