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.
In what seems to me a blink of an eye, I went from the nonstop energy of CoffeeCON 2012, my event for coffee consumers everywhere, to the 2012 International Housewares Show, the world market for new coffee appliances. In the coming weeks and months I’ll be sharing video’s, pictures and thoughts on CoffeeCON but first you’ll want to see and hear what manufacturers are doing to brew the world’s best beverage. After years of coffeemakers playing second fiddle to beans, coffeemakers are getting more attention and Housewares is my number one trade event to find the new and improved. I’ll be focusing on different manufacturers’ latest and greatest during the coming weeks at this blog.
My first video report from Housewares 2012 comes from Krups. This manufacture outdid themselves this year by bringing out an impressive array of coffee machines. The first one I looked at was Krups on Request. Bucking the trend for single serve coffeemakers this machine allows you to brew as little or as much coffee as you would like, up to 12 cups.
What’s different about this machine is that it automatically pours the coffee through a spout, a bit like a water dispenser, rather than into a coffee carafe. It has an internal removable steel carafe with a special heating system to keep coffee hot.
Next I looked at the Krups KT600 Silver Art Coffee Machine. Beautiful to look, what I call coffee jewelry. I don’t know how it brews yet but it will certainly draw guests attention in your kitchen.
Of course being Krups there was an extensive line of grinders of all types. I was impressed that most of them were conical burr grinders.
Speaking of conical burr grinders there is one built into the KRUPS Barista EA9000 One-Touch Cappuccino Machine. This fully automatic machine was one of 60 finalists in the first annual IHA Innovations Awards. It seems to have everything a machine of this quality should have for making the perfect Cappuccino.
Take a look at the video report posted below. While the machines make a statement and I enjoyed my conversations with the great people at Krups, until I test them I can’t give you a review of any of these products. I can however at least give you an introduction. There are lots of machines so let me know which ones you want to know more about so I can plan my in-depth review calendar.
During the coming weeks you will see more from different manufacturers from the International Housewares Show 2012.
Here’s a classic case where the marketing department tried to get a basically very good machine to do something it was not designed to do. The packaging indicates it as a way to make an espresso beverage for several people at once. Meanwhile, the product styling makes it look like just another automatic drip machine, which it definitely is not.
What Is It? — The Krups Moka is, if anything, an attempt to make a large quantity of something called a Moka. Moka is a problematic word. To much of the world, it means chocolate or a coffee bean varietal from Yemen. In Europe, it means a sort-of stovetop espresso beverage. The Krups Moka is none of these. It is a slightly pressurized automatic drip machine, a sort of hybrid. I would hesitate to compare it to a stovetop Moka and it is certainly not any kind of “mass espresso” machine.
I decided to test it according to drip standards, although, as you will see, it is really in its own category and you will be happiest if you regard it for its own value, rather than attempt to slot it as a preexisting type.
Temperature — The Krups Moka T8 works like an electric water kettle. The water boils and that pressure forces it up and over the grounds. Most automatic drip brewers are designed to deliver the water to the grounds at lower-than-boiling temperatures; the standard is 195 to 205 Fahrenheit. Here was see boiling or very near it water, with somewhat long gaps between as the water is boiled in pulses.
Level but don't tamp
Time — This makes it very difficult to determine the exact water/grounds contact time. The time from when the water first hits the grounds until the last drop leaves is something like seven minutes. If boiling water is truly in contact with fine grind coffee for this duration, we could expect some pretty bitter coffee, couldn’t we?
Almost a mouse tail
Grounds saturation — The Krups Moka T-8 does a very thorough job of getting all the grounds wet. The combination of a sealed grounds chamber and the pulse flow of pressurized water makes sure no flavor is left behind. There are also six exit holes in the filter basket, encouraging a quick escape once the water has contacted with the grounds.
Spent grounds are bone dry, just the way you want them.
Cup tasting — I have observed that lighter roast coffees seem to handle higher brewing temperatures. George Howell, Terroir.com, has many beautiful light roast coffees. He buys micro lots of prize winning coffees and it shows in both the cup and my monthly charge card statement. He’s got a long-term relationship with La Minita Costa Rica coffees. I put sixty grams of fine grind La Minita in the Krups unit and it tasted fine, with surprisingly no bite that one might expect using these high brew temps. What really surprised me was putting some Boyds coffee preground in this brewer. It’s ground for auto-drip and it’s a comparatively dark roast. I’d expected the unit to favor lighter roasts, but this coffee compared favorably to the La Minita. It’s a blend and a complex one, far more than I realized. My previous cuppings had been in a Technivorm.
I expected light roasts to taste right, but I didn’t expect a darker-than-average coffee to shine. But, the Boyd’s Rip City Blend, tasted about as good as any coffee I sampled. Perhaps a greater surprise is that it’s pre-ground. I know some of you are going to be shocked, but it’s true. I was pondering why, and I think part of the reason has to do with the excellent grind pre-ground coffees have. It’s one area where they exceed almost any grind possible at home. Also, as Randy Layton expressed to me as far back as when we served on the Specialty Coffee Association’s Technical Standards committee, as well as in our recent video Coffee Brewing Secrets, he thinks that coffee needs to rest after roasting before it extracts to its potential. I know I’m speculating, but it seems possible that high pressure brewers require more exact grind in order not to impede their flow rate. That’s a guess, but the results I got with the Boyd’s sample was as complex a cup as I’ve had, with absolutely no bitterness.
Conclusion — The Krups Moka is not for everyone. Many consumers won’t understand why it takes nearly five minutes just to heat the water up before its first burst. Nor will they appreciate that the seemingly overside bottom water boiler is not truly a warming plate. The first cups will be piping hot, but the coffee won’t keep warm for hours like it does with some auto drip machines. The exact placement of the brewer under the hot water release valve is critical. I misaligned it once and it was quite a mess. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult, but it’s non-standard.
What sets the Krups Moka T-8 apart most though is the outstanding cup quality. I truly wish they’d reintroduce it to Americans as at home coffee is getting more serious. Perhaps they will. Meanwhile, check the auction sites. It’s a winner.