Kevin Sinnott’s interview with Behmor’s Todd Larrabee for CoffeeCompanion podcast
The missing mystery element in brewing is the grinder. There. I said it. Just like every heart doctor wonders if their newly released open-heart patient will exercise, every priest wonders if the just-forgiven sinner will truly repent and change their lifestyle, the coffee roaster must wonder how you’ll grind their beautiful fresh beans before brewing. To accomplish this you must have a good grinder. The word ‘good’ means it can effectively divide the bean into evenly-sized close-to-the-same-shape particles, and be as free as possible of the powdered particles the industry calls “pan”.
I often say that you can make excellent coffee using a simple Melitta manual drip cone, which retails (with a ceramic mug) for around $10. But, a grinder, now that’s a different story. Grinders at the lowest price end simply don’t perform well enough to be a fully functioning member of Team Coffee Brewing. Why is this? Let’s take it away from coffee to explain. If you’re making a stir fry, you know you must strive to consistently cut the vegetables. The reason you want them the same size is the heat will affect them evenly if they are. You’ll get cooked, crunchy vegetables. If they aren’t evenly sized, extremely large pieces won’t cook through and small ones will be overcooked.
In ideal coffee grinding, the pieces will also be the same size. This is necessary because contact time is identical for all those pieces. Larger pieces cause waste; you are not getting all their flavor; too small pieces will be over-extracted and dreaded bitterness occurs. The best grinders are produce grind size uniformity. The worst performing grinders are blade grinders. It is impossible to expect otherwise, as the blade is spinning and the beans are repeatedly and randomly struck. To expect any kind of uniformity is to expect order from chaos. Most readers here are not surprised at anything I’ve so far said, so let’s get going into examining these three grinders. They are all known as entry level, meaning they are lost-cost, but they are from well-regarded manufacturers serving the specialty coffee market.
Capresso Infinity 560 Stainless Steel Conical Burr Grinder $99 The first one is from Capresso. Capresso actually has a long history in this product category. Started in the 1990s by Michael Kramm, an ex-Krups executive and now retired, Capresso went around and scooped up ex-Krups vendors and created some new and innovative products. Some are excellent and others are, in my opinion, okay but nothing special. This grinder was recommended to me by Michael himself, who while no longer working at Capresso, apparently still follows them and thought highly of it. I requested a sample and have been using it quite a while before being able to test it.
NOTE: There are two very similar Capresso grinder products. What differentiates them is the burr material, which does the actual grinding. One is ceramic. The other stainless steel. My industry contacts have told me that stainless is generally acknowledged to grind more consistently at coarser (medium drip through French Press) grinds. I asked for Capresso’s stainless steel grinder.
Baratza Encore Conical Burr Grinder $129 The second model is from Baratza. Baratza practically owns the grinder market in the specialty world. Industry regard for their products is high enough that many shops use their costlier grinders, even though they are clearly aimed at consumers. While I’ve always assumed Baratza makes their grinders, I’ve noticed multiple countries of origin credited on their products. Do they really have multiple plants, or are they outsourcing? The model I tested is made in Taiwan, and uses a different burr set from the pricier Virtuoso models. However, Baratza is the leader and I was half expecting it to shame both the others, based upon their company’s reputation.
OXO ON Conical Burr Grinder $199 The final model I tested is from the new kid on the coffee gear block, but one you’ve no doubt heard of in their other categories: OXO makes those soft-handled kitchen gadgets that populate the kitchen hand tools section at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Suffice it to say I was more than a little surprised when I spied OXO at last year’s International Housewares Show brandishing prototypes for both coffee brewers and a grinder! Before these tests I had no impression of OXO’s design or manufacturing prowess. I owned but a single product of theirs; a non-powered can opener. Needless to say I was eager to test their first grinder.
Features compared All three of these grinders are more similar than dissimilar. They all feature simple overhead bins where beans can be stored and twist gauges to adjust fineness. The OXO grinder has one feature that is unique, even when compared to many costlier grinders than the others in this survey; An onboard scale.
Build quality and feel Again all three are similar, in that I could not predict which if any would fall apart or lose its ability to meet specifications by a certain date. If I were to nitpick, I’d suggest the Capresso had a slightly ‘plastic’ feel to it, but I’m not at all sure that another tester would feel the same way. Might be my taste. This is good news because it makes it simple to compare and decide for the right reason: which one grinds coffee the best!
Grind tests I brought all three to Modern Process. Modern Process makes many of the world’s industrial grinders. Name a large roasting plant that packages pre-ground coffee and I bet you they use grinders from this company. I’ve known Dan Ephraim, their CEO since I first wished to write about coffee. He was literally the first industry person I met. We are friends and he and his tester, Rasmy, conducted several tests with each grinder, using beans from Euro Coffee in Los Angeles. Then, each sample was place in a ro-tap device. In case you’re new to testing grinders, this device is a series of screens. The idea is to analyze what percentage of grounds are what size, so we can compare grinders to a theoretically perfect standard and also between each other. The best grinder is going to be one that has the largest majority of grinds that are the ideal size, with smaller percentages of smaller and larger sized ones. We set each grinder for what we all agreed by eye was a drip grind. The best grinder in this test was the Capresso. But, just as significantly, the others were darn close.
Conclusion I could live with any of these three grinders. They are all good choices. I was surprised at how similar, rather than different they performed. Baratza has done a good job with their entry level grinder, but it is not superior to either of the others. The OXO has the very useful scale feature, which will be a deciding factor for some, and helps simplify the measuring process, where many mistakes are made, so it is fairly associated with quality. Capresso leads the pack in both grind quality and price. Considering I’ve owned it the longest and used it quite a bit, it’s already proven its longevity and value. Just a few years ago, coffee enthusiasts would justly complain that there were few grinder options for the less well-heeled. Thanks in part to these three brands, this is no longer the case.
A commentary on enjoying specialty coffee and how it can be ruined by rules and regulations.
This is a story that, at first, seems silly to me. I mean there’s a package no one can identify and it turns out to be a coffee mug. Happens at my house all the time, but of course no one considers it suspicious. I get that the White House staff is a little edgier than my family and co-workers are. Not that I don’t have enemies. I suspect the balance coffee maker manufacturer will never really get over my review.
I do have concerns for the President. I’d like to share them here. I no longer have his email like I did when he was an easy-to-reach congressman.
- Don’t put anything in your mug except 100% fresh brewed coffee. This means from beans roasted no longer than two weeks ago and ground moments before brewing.
- Have them use a real quintessential American method such as the Chemex. It fits perfectly with your agenda. It was created by an immigrant after all, residing in a blue state. Maybe you can borrow the one residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I just saw it there, and it’s kept sparkling clean.
- If they try shenanigans like offering you a K-cup, tell them you need to keep your environmental record 100% pure. Let the next administration create a landfill mess, not yours. It was embraced by the majority for a brief time period, but it’s now on the outs with voters, but thanks to the work of an entire United States specialty coffee industry, it’s become passe. Even my own humble efforts to teach consumers through my blog and my CoffeeCon consumer event has brought the concept of simple brewing to many consumers.
- Make sure they serve you your coffee moments after brewing. Don’t let them leave it cooking on a hot plate or suffocating in a thermal carafe. You’re the President. We elected you to do a job and we expect you to enjoy the best coffee there is.
- Ask them to heat your mug with a little hot water, then discard it before filling your cup. That will bring it nearer the coffee’s temperature and keep your coffee nice and hot as you sniff the aroma, and sip it as you ponder the world’s problems and your solutions.
- If you want cream and or a sweetener. Go ahead. It’s a free country. However, my counsel to you is to sip a few sips absolutely free of any additives. You might be surprised.
- If you use cream, I urge you to use high fat cream from grass-fed cows. Low-heat pasteurized. It makes a difference in taste and your own health.
- Realize that your mug is holding the product of many, many people and is truly a global product.
Bless you, Mr President, for the important work you do. Enjoy your coffee. And, don’t forget to thank the auto repair shop who sent it to you. They bought a lot of them from China and they need to make their marketing dollars pay.
Author, The Art and Craft of Coffee
Creator/Host CoffeeCon The Consumer Coffee Festival
Nick Kohout of Arcaia showed me some scales that, frankly, did not impress me at first. I mean, they supposedly have some higher-end parts than comparable Bonavita scales, but does that excite anyone? I’ve had no problems with any Bonavita scales, not that I’m a barista, but I’m just being honest. Then he showed me how its timer keeps track of the contact time in manual brewing. Apparently, it detects when the water has gone through the grounds, and pauses the clock. Now I am excited! Their goal of connecting folks via the web so they can meaningfully compare their brews is also a step in the right direction.
Lots of new coffeemakers, some Kickstarter projects and others already developed and seeking coffee stores to recommend and sell them to customers. Gregory Bombeck’s Phoenix coffeemaker was one. Another was the Kinto coffeemaker from Japan. Saint Anthony Industries has one of the most beautiful cold brew makers I’ve yet seen, although the whole cold brew thing leaves me… oh, I won’t say it.
My own personal favorite was from 21 year-old Cameron Hughes of Invergo Coffee, of Garden City, New York. His brewer’s patented swiveling spray head may have cracked a problem that’s plagued automatic drip makers since George Bunn introduced the first Bunn-O-Matic in the 1950s, and that is how to effectively mimic the way you and I pour water so beautifully by hand. He also claims you can set the brewing temperature, not revolutionary, but makes me want to test his machine in my kitchen. My at-show tasting was compelling however. Remember, Orson Welles was twenty one when he became famous in radio. Post-moderns may prefer a Beatles analogy.
At the Remarkable Indonesia pavilion, they were tasting some interesting coffees. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of this country’s coffees. The flavor diversity is astounding, and I can only assume that it’s distance and the fact the only a select few green buyers (think Geoff Watts) ever makes the trek (20 hours-plus) to actually visit. My personal taste favorite was Bali coffee. I admit I have a guilty pleasure for some of their robusta varieties as well. But the news this year was their showing clips of a new film, Aroma of Heaven, created, written and lensed by cinematographer Budi Kurniawan. Budi K, as he introduced himself, is almost as interesting as his film. A compulsive shooter, he had a camera in his hand both times I’ve seen him. I predict this film will be a big hit among coffee enthusiasts. It deserves special mention for being the first film to not seem like a colonialist perspective, but rather an honest, if not bitter, but also not candy glossed look at coffee. Indonesia goes pretty far back in coffee history, by the way. Budi says a download is going to be available, but I’m pitching for some neighborhood showings (I know someone at CoffeeCon hehe). It’s a remarkable film, and thanks to a screening of it in entirety) I speak with confidence.
I’ve been trying to track down Breville products for reviews for years. Fortunately, a changing of the guard has opened transparency and Category Manager Alejandra Lin has pledged to get us some of their products that are promising. I’ve heard good things about their grinders, but talk (especially about grinders) is cheap. Let’s get one and do some measurements, which is what matters. Breville really had something that caught my attention. Alejandra told me their automatic drip maker has the ability to modify its contact time according to volume. As you may know, most automatic drip makers’ contact time between the grounds and hot water is optimized for one specific cup size, usually, but not always, the maximum. Make more coffee, it’s too strong/bitter. Make less, it’s weak/undeveloped. If the new Breville machine delivers, it will be front page news (here anyway!).
The show surprise was this new stovetop coffee roaster. Jung Park of Dr Mahn Coffee brought his new design from Korea, which seems to be experiencing a coffee renaissance of new innovations. Can’t wait to try it, remembering both the 1990s Palani Pan roaster and the importance of a kitchen fan when roasting over fire. What this country needs is a simple professional quality sample roaster on par with the classic Siemans Sirocco coffee roaster long out of production (spotted one last week on eBay, which was snapped up before I could say “Buy it Now”. I think I may have found it. Luke Kawa of Kawa Coffee had one, which is also extremely attractive, but how it roasts will be what interests me most, of course.
Remember a Netherlands company named Bravilor? They used to be distributed by Boyds. I always thought of them as a commercial version of Technivorm. They are about to introduce a consumer automatic drip coffeemaker. Seemed very robust, but not coffee samples at SCAA. Might be ready by CoffeeCon Chicago in July, according to Eric Covelli, Bravilor Marketing
VP. Had a delightful dinner with Kenneth Davids, famous author of many books on our favorite subject. One of our topics was the current Geisha coffee craze. According to Professor Davids, there are genuine attributes to the Geisha cultivar. One such sample (roasted here in Chicago by Big Shoulders) earned a whopping 96 rating in a recent CoffeeReview.com tasting.
Bonavita had their latest 5-cup maker and many other products on display. They’re an amazing coffee maker success story. I’m particularly interested in this size category because as more people buy specialty (read: expensive) beans, they’re going to take a closer look at over-brewing those twelve cups, when they each have a couple (read: 4). Marcus Boni assured me a sample will be sent and, of course, a review will result.
Jim Shanley is a farmer with a unique geographic location. He’s in California and his farm is aptly titled, California Coffee Farms, the first I know of in the continental 48 states. Hopefully I will try some soon.
Robin Thorum spoke to one of my favorite subjects, testing grinders. Mr Thorum’s company has done a lot of research on measuring irregular objects such as coffee grounds. According to him, laser measuring tools presume all ground particles to be spherical, which would be nice, but anyone can see this is not so. Ditto traditional sieve tests, where oblong grind particles outsmart screens and slither through, which gives inaccurate comparisons. What we want to measure of course is surface area. He claims his company, Coffee Laboratory, has developed a better, more accurate way to measure this surface area.
At the expense of getting a little sniffly, there were several awards given to longstanding coffee industry members that deserve mention here. First, Carlo Di Riocco, whose Mr Espresso is the curator of what many of us consider the true Italian espresso. Di Riocco started as an engineer, but combined his insistence on consistency with art. I compel anyone to find a finer drink. He’s also kept doing the right thing against various fads in espresso roast, preparation and serving, a combination that’s kept his product unique.
Oliver Strand was able to do what no other comparable media personality has, and that’s bring coffee to the pages of a big city newspaper, in this case the New York Times. The coffee people I know don’t always agree with him, but that fact is they read everything he writes. So do mainstream readers and that’s what’s most important. If coffee is really the next wine it needs to enter culinary arts columns nationwide. The best part to me is he is real. He really is a coffee enthusiast, not a poseur. I still cringe when I view how coffee has been presented on the Food Network.
Finally, La Minita’s Bill McAlpin was the first person I called after I read a Corby Kummer Atlantic article about coffee. After hearing my own enthusiasm for coffee and wanting to learn and write about it, spent an hour or more discussing it with me, and even introduced me to Ken Stevenson and others so I could get a proper education. I’ve met no more generous person than him in the years I’ve been a coffee scribe. The fact that La Minita defined what is now called a specialty coffee farm is possibly of equal importance. Oh yes, and the coffee is always great! Bill McAlpin was finally properly honored this year. I was surprised to see the outwardly cooler McAlpin get glossy-eyed while receiving his award. Mr Espresso seemed to foster a trend, making these normally staid awards a three-hanky one. Even I wasn’t immune from tearing up a bit seeing these greats get their just acknowledgement.
Finally, we surprised to see OXO, seemingly moments after the Chicago International Housewares Show. Claire Ashley and her team brought their new coffeemakers and accompanying grinder, which features a built-in scale. Lots of folks whispering about it, as I think it shocks them to think a large housewares company (admittedly mostly unpowered) might enter the coffeemaker sweepstakes. I keep telling folks, brewers are the power behind the glory in every great cup of coffee. Great job, SCAA. Another fun and productive trade event.