I know how tempting pre-ground coffee can be. You scoop it into your coffee pot, press a button or two, and watch the magic happen – except the magic isn’t really there. Pre-ground coffee trades quality for convenience and deprives us from a complete coffee experience. There’s no way to bring the full experience back, but there is a way to keep it from leaving in the first place: grinding your coffee right before you brew it.
Grinding coffee is the solution to many problems, coffee freshness the chief among them. If you’re interested in elevating your coffee game in a powerful way, buying a coffee grinder is the way to do it.
Let me share with you why.
Coffee Freshness Is Fleeting
It’s important to remember that coffee beans are agricultural products. They’re not made in a factory. They aren’t modern inventions. They are organic. Coffee beans are the seeds of small cherries that grow on coffee plants.
Just like any agricultural product, coffee beans are best when they are fresh. Stale bread is dull and hard. Dry lemons have little flavour and no juice. Stale coffee beans are bitter and lifeless.
Fresh coffee, on the other hand, is bursting with ripe flavours, pleasant textures, crisp acidity, and a refreshing sweetness. Rich fruity flavours, complex spice notes, and sweet aromas are all available in fresh coffee but eliminated in stale coffee.
You get the point. Fresh coffee is the best coffee, so buying directly from roasters is ideal.
Once they’re roasted, coffee beans begin to release carbon dioxide that was once trapped within the cell walls. This release of gas causes a few things to happen.
1. Aromatic Oils Evaporate
As gases push towards the outside of the bean, they carry some of the natural aromatic coffee oils with them. This makes these oils available for rapid evaporation.
These aromatic oils are largely responsible for some of the most vibrant and sweet flavours we experience in coffee. When we sip coffee, these oils release aromas that interact with our sense of smell through small openings in the back of our throat. Our brain then interprets these aromas as flavours.
Rose, blueberry, jasmine, star anise, and melon are all flavours that can occur from aromas. The list of possible aroma experiences goes on and on. You don’t want these to evaporate. You want to preserve them until the moment your lips touch your mug filled with delicious coffee.
2. Oxygen Enters
Oxidation turns metal into rust. It turns a crisp apple into a brown one. It turns moist bread into dry bread. It produces fire in wood. It causes flavourful coffee to decay into bitter, ashy beans.
On a more specific level, oxygen causes coffee cells to break down, lose their physical and chemical structure, and become less and less flavorful. We often describe stale coffee as ‘muddy’, because all of the great flavours that once were featured by the coffee have dissolved into a dull, soupy, and indistinguishable flavour.
Without oxidation, food would remain fresh for weeks, months or years. Metals wouldn’t discolour and rust. Coffee would stay crisp and clear. But we’d be worse for it.
That feeling of bliss when you bite into a fresh, ripe fruit is beautiful. That peace you experience when a drink a fresh, vivid cup of coffee is breathtaking. Without oxidation, these experiences wouldn’t be extraordinary – they’d be normal and bland.
Despite oxidation’s ability to cause us to appreciate the freshness of foods and life itself, we’re constantly combating it. We don’t want stale coffee. We want our coffee to be fresh and lively.
The Pre-Ground Disappointment
Whole beans have two to three weeks of peak freshness before the loss of quality becomes rapid and dramatic. Pre-ground coffee, on the other hand, only needs about 30 minutes before it devolves into a sad, disappointing beverage.
Oxidation and decay happen so rapidly in pre-ground coffee because of the particle size. It takes oxygen less time to wiggle all the way into small coffee grounds than it does for bigger ones. When you buy pre-ground coffee, that first cup may not be so bad, but all the ones after it will be.
With any bag of pre-ground coffee, the top grounds are the ones that are exposed to the most oxygen, so they are the ones that decay rapidly between brews. Even if the second layer of grounds don’t come in contact with oxygen at first, they will as soon as you remove the topmost layer to brew, meaning you’re stuck in a cycle of using the most stale grounds in a bag.
To say it simply, buying pre-ground coffee is a quick way to destroy your daily coffee experience. Buying whole bean and grinding just before brewing is the way to go. Coffee grinding pre-brew preserves flavour and freshness and offers a sensory experience that is impossible with pre-ground coffee.
Pre-ground coffee limits what coffee brewer you can use dramatically. The grind size that most companies use when they pre-grind coffee is appropriate for your regular ole coffee pot, but not really anything else. If you want to try other coffee brewers, you need to be able to choose your own grind size.
Because of differences in mechanics and function, different brewers thrive with different coffee ground sizes. If you want to use a coffee maker to the best of its ability, you need to be able to grind coffee to its ideal grind setting.
Grind Size Tips And Brewer Examples
Here are some common matchups with coffee brewers and grind sizes. You can start here and make small adjustments as needed. I’ll share how you can do that later, but first, the pairings.
French Press – The mesh filter requires coarse grounds. Fine or medium grounds will get stuck in the mesh and create pressure when you’re trying to press the plunger down. Fine grounds especially will go right on through the filter and make your final mug muddy and sludgy.
Hario V60 – This pour over brewer thrives with a fine to medium-fine grind size. Since the filter is so thin and the draining hole is so large, the water has a tendency to drain too quickly, producing under extracted coffee. To combat this, we suggest the finer grind setting to slow the draining and encourage greater balance.
Chemex – The Chemex filter is quite thick, so this brewer thrives with a medium-coarse setting. The filter restricts the flow of draining pretty well on its own, so a medium-coarse grind size keeps the water from draining too slowly and brewing for too long.
Cold Brew – We suggest a medium-coarse to coarse setting for making cold brew coffee. This grind size allows you to brew the coffee for 12+ hours in cold water and is very forgiving. A finer setting would speed up the brewing, but could easily result in an over-extracted brew.
Aeropress – The Aeropress is particularly capable of thriving with a variety of grind sizes, but we tend to find a medium setting is forgiving and quick. A fine setting is possible, but it makes pressing the plunger very difficult. A coarse setting is also possible, but it takes much longer to brew with. A medium setting seems to be a formidable middle ground.
Espresso – Espresso cannot be brewed properly with any grind setting other than very fine. To make such a concentrated and balanced shot of coffee in half a minute, you absolutely must have very fine coffee grounds. Go any larger, and you’ll produce watery, under extracted shots that are sour and imbalanced.
As you can see, different coffee makers thrive with different coffee ground sizes. There’s no doubt about it: pre-ground coffee bars you from being able to use any of these brewers to their fullest potential. Another win for owning your own coffee grinder!
Dialling In With Your Grinder
If you own your own burr coffee grinder, you have a powerful tool that enables you to improve your coffee over time. Instead of picking a grind setting and sticking with it, you are able to make small grind setting adjustments based on what you taste. We call this process of improving our coffee “dialling in”.
Before I show you how you can do this at home with ease, you need to know how to taste extraction. There’s balanced extraction, under extraction, and over-extraction – knowing how to taste these will empower you to brew better coffee.
Over Extraction – When coffee grounds release too much into the brewed coffee, we call the brewed coffee over extracted. The ‘extra stuff’ is usually bitter, dark tasting, and has a way of muting the bright and sweet notes we love in fresh coffee. If your coffee tastes bitter, dull, or generally unexciting, it may be over extracted. It needs less extraction to keep the bitter tannins from coming out of the grounds and into your cup.
Under Extraction – When coffee grounds don’t get to release all the good stuff, we call the brewed coffee under extracted. The first things to come out of coffee grounds are acidic, bright, sweet, but overpowering. If your coffee tastes sour or generally way too intense, it is probably under extracted. It needs more extraction to balance out the intense flavours.
Balanced Extraction – When coffee is just right, it tastes sweet, flavorful, has a crisp acidity, and soothing mouthfeel. There’s bitterness and sourness, but they compliment each other to form a well-rounded sensory experience. This is what we’re after!
Here are two examples of how dialling in works:
- You brew a cup of French Press coffee. You enjoy it, but you notice a slight bitterness that is unpleasant. The next time you brew your coffee, you coarsen the grind setting to slow down the rate of extraction (because big grounds take longer to extract than small ones) but you brew for the same amount of time. When you taste it this time, you can tell that it is more balanced and delicious.
- You brew a cup of with your Hario V60 pour over cone. You enjoy it, but it seems a bit too sour and you think it could be more balanced. The next time you brew, you fine the grind size a setting or two to reduce the draining rate (which means more water and coffee contact time, which means more extraction). This time, the coffee tastes well-rounded and delightful.
Dialling in is how coffee enthusiasts and professionals transform good coffee to great coffee – and it’s only possible with a reliable coffee grinder. The ability to make small adjustments over time is empowering and enables you to enjoy your coffee more and more, no matter the method.
Not only does grinding right before brewing preserve fresh flavours, but owning your own coffee grinder can enable you to use any brewer you want and empower you to brew better and better coffee.
What Kind Of Coffee Grinder Should You Get?
There are hundreds of coffee grinders out there and sifting through all the information can be pretty daunting. Lucky for you, I’m going to break down what you need to look for what avoid to help make the selection process simpler.
Let’s begin with the one thing you absolutely need to avoid at all costs.
Blade Coffee Grinders, The Enemy Of Balanced Coffee
If I sound dramatic, just you wait. Blade coffee grinders are hardly coffee grinders at all. They are simply a grinding chamber with a spinning blade inside. When you press the only button, the blade spins rapidly, chopping up whatever is in its path.
Chopping – that’s what they do. The word grinding just isn’t appropriate. The blades chop the beans up into grounds of all shapes and sizes with no precision or pattern. It’s madness!
Grounds created with a blade grinder are not fit for any coffee brewer. The large boulders, fine grounds, and everything in between all extract at different rates making balanced coffee a pipe dream. It’s impossible to brew rich, balanced coffee when your grounds are all over the place.
Low price tags entice many to buy blade grinders from supermarkets, but they do not enable you to experience a coffee’s fresh qualities because the coffee is bound to be imbalanced. Without having any control over the grind size, you are not able to dial in your brewing or thrive with any coffee brewer.
It’s a trap set. Don’t fall for it.
The only kind of coffee grinder you need to worry about is the burr coffee grinder.
Burr Coffee Grinders, The Only Good Option
Burrs are fundamentally different than blades. Instead of chopping up beans at random, burrs funnel whole beans down a grinding path that gets smaller and smaller. The beans are ground progressively smaller as they go further through the burrs. This method of grinding produces uniform coffee grounds.
The distance between the two burrs can be adjusted easily, which means you’re not limited to a single grind size or grounds of a thousand sizes. You are able to choose the grind size that fits best with your coffee brewer.
They are consistent, they produce uniform grounds, and they are easily adjustable. These are non-negotiables when it comes to coffee grinders. Anything less is not worth your energy or money.
Manual VS Electric Coffee Grinders
The next big thing you need consider is whether you want a manual or electric coffee grinder. Unlike with burrs, I cannot tell you which one is objectively better. It all depends on your own circumstances, values, and goals.
Manual coffee grinders are small devices made with only a few parts. They are easy to maintain, portable, and often quite affordable. The simple construction and lack of electricity make them affordable, but at a cost. It takes some elbow grease to grind coffee by hand. It’s not going to wear you out if you only brew a couple cups a day, but when you need to brew large batches for several people, it can be a bit tiring.
Electric coffee grinders are built to be able to grind lots of coffee with ease, relieving you from the burden of hand grinding, but the luxury will cost you. Unfortunately, most electric grinders aren’t convenient to travel with and are more fragile due to the complex construction, gears, and wires. They make daily grinding a breeze, but they remove you from the grinding experience that hand grinders offer. Still, if you brew a lot of coffee, the ease of electric grinding could be a major advantage.
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Manual grinders are great for coffee lovers on a budget or people who like to take their coffee on the road with them. The simplicity and portability of manual grinders make them a great travel companion.
Electric grinders are great for families or people who brew lots of coffee and don’t need to bring their coffee gear on their travels. Not having to grind coffee for several minutes every time you need a few cups is a luxury that‘s probably worth the additional cost.
Grinding For Espresso
If you’re brewing for espresso, an electric grinder is a worthwhile investment. Grinders built for espresso are extremely precise, very consistent, and often allow you to make micro adjustments to dial in your coffee.
Since espresso is so concentrated and finicky, the ability to make micro adjustments is very important. Even if you cannot see the change in size, these adjustments can completely alter the flavor of your shot.
Grinding for espresso with a manual grinder is possible, but can be difficult. Lower end grinders can take quite a bit of time to grind coffee so fine, and they often don’t have the ability for micro-adjustments. However, the Lido E and Comandante are two manual grinders that are built with espresso in mind and can get the job done with ease.
If you’re in the market for an espresso grinder, we suggest investing one that’s designed for espresso specifically. The burrs will function slightly differently and may even be shaped differently to improve uniformity and consistency. Lower end electric grinders may not have the appropriate burrs to achieve such a fine grind setting.
A Few Coffee Grinder Suggestions
We’re very proud of our coffee grinder selection here at Alternative Brewing. We’ve got grinders for the budget brewers, the travelers, the home enthusiasts, the designers, the minimalists, and the regular joe. If we sell it, we believe it’s a quality product (thus, no blade grinders).
Here are a few grinders to help you get the ball rolling.
Rhinowares Hand Grinder – This little manual grinder packs a punch. It’s thin and easy to hold, grinds with consistency and uniformity, and won’t upset your wallet. If you need a grinder to travel with, this is a great one to consider.
Hario Skerton Hand Grinder – This hand grinder isn’t quite as small as the Rhinowares grinder, but it has a larger capacity, making it a great option for grinding large batches of coffee for cold brew or pour over coffee.
Baratza Encore – Widely considered the best entry-level electric grinder, the Baratza Encore is well built, consistent, and will leave you satisfied. If you need a grinder that will grind coffee for non-espresso methods with stunning performance, the Encore is a solid option.
Compak K3 Touch – If you’re in the market for an espresso grinder that allows for super accurate grinding and micro adjustments, but small enough to fit into any kitchen, this Compak grinder may be right for you.
These are only a few of the great coffee grinders we offer. I suggest you take a glance at our other coffee grinders and see what works best for your unique circumstances, goals, and values.
You now have all the information you need to grind coffee in a way that will improve your brewing and take your coffee to the next level.