Changing how you grind coffee is the single most effective way to upgrade your coffee’s quality. There are many components to brewing coffee: the type of water you use, whether you use a drip brewer, percolator, or french press, etc. But to really understand why grinding coffee is so essential, I find it’s helpful to remember the ultimate goal of brewing coffee in the first place:
To release and transfer the coffee bean’s flavor to your finished cup of coffee.
This is where grinding your coffee becomes so important. And of course, most people either don’t do it at all (they buy pre-ground coffee) or use an inferior grinder (blade grinders). In general there’s three ways consumers enjoy their coffee at home: pre-ground, blade grinders, and the best method: burr grinders. We’re going to look
Burr Grinders: The Best Way to Grind Your Coffee
Burr Grinders are the holy grail of brewing coffee. “They are the number one thing people can do to ‘change their world’ when it comes to coffee is to fix their grind situation” according to David Latourell of Intelligentsia. Burr Grinders work by “pulverizing” the coffee beans between two plates, or “burrs”. The result is coffee grinds of a uniform size, no heat generation and a deliciously flavorful finished cup of coffee.
Conical vs. Flat Burr Grinders: Which is Better?
Flat burr grinders have two flat plates, or ‘burrs’ that press against each other and pulverize the coffee beans into a uniform grind. There’s another type of burr grinder (and it’s usually more expensive), called a conical burr grinder, where there’s one flat burr and one cone-shaped burr. So which one is better.
Generally, conical burr grinders are considered to produce higher quality coffee beans for two reasons: 1. they pulverize the bean over a larger surface area and 2. they take longer, which prevents heat build-up. Conical burr grinders are usually more expensive than flat burr grinders, which can go as low as $40. So it’s up to you how to decide how much improving the quality of your coffee makes sense for your budget. Latourell recommend the Baratza Virtuoso, which goes for
about $230. The Virtuoso is on the high end of consumer coffee grinders, and indeed you’ll likely find the Virtuoso in a lot of smaller coffee shops around your city.
If you have a coffee grinder at home, chances are you have a blade grinder. They use fast-moving blades to chop up the coffee beans and create coffee grounds. The amount of time you grind them for determines how coarse (for French Press) or how fine (for Espresso machines) you want the coffee. Unfortunately, blade grinders suffer from two fatal flaws: uneven coffee grounds and heat.
- The violent chopping of the blades creates an uneven mix of large and tiny coffee particles. The result, in your finished cup of coffee, is uneven flavor. Some particles are too small to contribute any flavor, and some are too big for the oils to be released.
- the blades generate heat from friction, which starts breaking down the coffee particles before you start brewing.
If you’re going to use a Blade Grinder, use these tips to get the best quality coffee grinds possible:
- grind the coffee as late as possible, ideally right before you pour the water (or press ‘brew’ on your machine. This can minimize the damage.
- If you are grinding coffee for use later (i.e. for camping). Use a sealed, airtight container
to keep out air.
- Also, you should store it where heat won’t be a problem.
How Long Do You Grind the Coffee For?
Some blade grinders have automatic settings, but if you have a manual grinder then you need to know how long you can grind your coffee. Depending on your brewing method, you may need large coffee grinds (i.e. French Press) or extra fine grinds (espresso). Coffee grinds are measured in ‘microns’, with larger numbers referring to larger coffee particles. You can use this handy chart for reference:
- French Press – 900 Microns (6-9 seconds)
- Percolator – 800 Microns (7-10 seconds)
- Metal Filter – 700 Microns (10-12 seconds)
- Paper Filter (cone-shaped coffee makers) – 500 Microns (12-15 seconds)
- Espresso – 300 Microns (15-19 seconds)
- Turkish – 100 Microns (19-22 seconds)
Pre-Ground Coffee (shudder!)
The convenience of pre-ground coffee can’t be denied. But there’s a steep drop-off when it comes to flavor. The natural oils located inside a coffee bean are fragile and begin to degrade the second they are exposed to air. That glorious aroma you smell after grinding coffee? That’s flavor escaping.
When you grind coffee the delicate flavor-creating particles start to break down right away. These particles can degrade completely in as little as 20 minutes. They are broken down by the air, heat, and any liquids. Even though the Folgers can is sealed to keep out the air, the damage began second that coffee was ground up.
Changing your grinder is the most expensive part of the coffee brewing process, but it’s also the best way to send your coffee to another level. If you’re serious about grinding, then check out this guide on how to brew a great french press, to get the most out of your quality ground beans.