A coffee grinder just has to turn whole beans into coffee grounds. Don’t all coffee grinders do this? Here’s what you want to know.
There are large differences between coffee grinders. Besides differing designs and price points, coffee grinders can differ in the way they grind coffee, adjust the grind size, how they’re operated and how much they grind. Different grinders are for different uses so pick choose carefully.
Let’s look into the differences between coffee grinders and why they matter.
Are all coffee grinders the same?
Is any coffee grinder just a coffee grinder? Or are there differences besides the looks?
There are many different ways coffee grinders can differ from each other. Here are some of the differences we’ll explore more below:
- Manual and electric
- Blade and burr
- Grind size adjustment
- Grind dosing
- Ceramic and stainless burrs
- Brew method
- Conical and flat burrs
Let’s look at those differences in detail.
Manual and Electric Grinders
The first difference you should know is the difference between manual and electric grinders. The name already suggests what the difference is here.
A hand grinder doesn’t have an electric engine. There is a crank on top of the grinder. You turn the crank which transfers that rotational force to the burrs through a driveshaft. Most hand grinders are held in your hand and so are quite compact and not too heavy. Some manual grinders are mounted to a table but those are quite rare. Hand grinders do take some effort but it does give you a more hands on feel while making coffee.
Electric grinders have an electric motor that turns the blade or burrs. That means you can simply push a button to grind the coffee and it comes out ground. This makes your life really easy. Electric grinders can be a bit noisy but usually they’re done quicker than hand grinder so it’s not a long process. Electric grinders are larger appliances which take up space on your countertop. They are also more expensive than hand grinders for the same quality. That’s because hand grinders have fewer parts. The motor is just one of those parts you have to pay for.
If you’re getting started with grinding your own coffee and you’ve got a small budget, go for a hand grinder. You’ll have to put in two minutes of effort to get fresh grounds but under $100 you’ll get a much higher quality manual grinder than an electric one.
Blade and Burr Grinders
Another very important difference to know is how the grinder actually breaks up the coffee beans. There are two main ways grinders can do this:
The blade type grinder is very cheap and often one of the first grinders people get. They are basically spice grinders. There are blades like a blender but the blades are closer to the bottom of the container so no beans can get stuck under the blades. All blade grinders are electric. The motor will spin the blades at high speed and smash apart the beans. This leads to an inconsistent grind size and very little control over the size. The longer you turn on the grinder, the finer the grounds will become. However, the finest grounds will get finer but you’ll still have bigger chunks in there as well. So it’s very hard to get to the correct grind size for your brewing method with a blade grinder.
Burr grinders are a much better way to grind your coffee. Burrs are basically small millstones. There is one attached to the grinder and the other one can turn. You turn the burr by hand or by turning on the motor. The burrs have teeth that cut the beans rather than smash them up like a blade grinder does. The teeth start coarse and get finer towards the bottom. The shape of the burrs also pushes the grounds out of the other side. The grounds have to fit through the burrs before they can get out so the end result is much more uniform than a blade grinder. You can easily change the desired grind size by changing the distance the burrs are away from each other.
Grind Size Adjustment
Pretty much all burr grinders have a way to adjust the grind size. Only grinders that are built in into coffee machines don’t always have an adjustment option.
While it might seem like there is no difference here because pretty much all grinders are adjustable, there are quite large differences in how they are adjustable. Some are adjustable in steps, others are stepless. The mechanisms how to adjust the grind setting are quite different. On some you turn a button or a dial. On some hand grinders you have to disassemble half the grinder to adjust the grind.
The ease of adjustment definitely differs between grinders. If that is a problem depends on how often you plan to adjust your grinder. If you’re happy with dialing your coffee in once and then leaving it on that setting for a long time, it doesn’t really matter. If you like to play around with different brew methods and optimizing the taste, an easy grind size adjustment is a good thing to have.
Also, there are differences in how far grinders adjust and if they’re stepped, how big the differences are between the steps. Stepped grinders can have very big steps where one step results in a large difference in grind size. Others have many small steps. Smaller steps are always good but usually this costs more.
The range of grind settings is another thing to look out for when buying a grinder. Some are better for espresso while others are more for pour over and similar.
Not all grinders grind the same amount and they don’t all start and stop in the same way. A hand grinder obviously only grinds when you move the crack so that is pretty easy to use. Usually you’ll put the amount of beans you need for your brew in the grinder and grind until all the beans are done. Hand grinders usually have a pretty small capacity so you only put the beans you need in.
Electric grinders can be quite different. The bigger electric grinders have a large hopper on top. You usually still grind the amount you need but you can put a large amount in the hopper. These are the more traditional grinders for coffee shop use or even home use. These grinders decide in different ways how much to grind before they stop. Many just have an on off switch so you have to stop it in time. Others grind for a certain amount of time. A rare few grind by weight. If you have a grinder with a large hopper, it’s harder to change the type of beans.
Many high end home grinders for coffee aficionados have moved to being single dose grinders. Which means you put the amount of beans you need in the grinder (so you’ll have to weigh out the beans before putting them in). Then when you turn on the grinder, it grinds until all the beans are ground and then turns off. With this type of grinder it’s very easy to change the beans.
Ceramic and stainless steel burrs
The burrs in a coffee grinder can be made from two different materials. Actually there are a few high end grinders that use exotic materials like titanium but those are quite rare.
By far the most common materials the burrs of coffee grinders are made from are ceramic and stainless steel. In general, ceramic burrs are cheaper than stainless steel. Ceramic burrs work very well and even have a few benefits over stainless steel.
- Ceramic burrs start of a little less sharp than stainless steel ones but keep their sharpness longer.
- Ceramic conducts less heat. You want to keep your grounds as cool as possible during grinding to not change the taste. This is a very minimal effect though.
- Ceramic doesn’t corrode or deteriorate with moisture.
Ceramic burrs can break if something hard gets run through the grinder though.
There are two big benefits to stainless steel burrs though. You can see them in more and more high end grinders for a few reasons:
- Stainless steel burrs start out much sharper than ceramic ones. This leads to a higher grind uniformity which coffee lovers generally consider as being better.
- Stainless steel burrs produce less fines. Fines are very tiny particles of coffee that get created by breaking up the beans. They produce a harsh bitterness in your coffee which most aficionados try to avoid.
High quality stainless steel burrs wont rust in most normal situations and that includes cleaning with water.
Ceramic burrs are good for most people. The longer lasting nature alone is enough to choose ceramic for most people.
We already touched on this with the grind adjustment but different grinders are optimized to grind for different brewing methods. Some can do it all but many are just for espresso or for pour over. In general, you can divide grinders in ones that can grind well for espresso and ones that can do pour over, French press and other methods that require coarser settings. As said there are a few that can do everything but if they really do everything well, expect to pay for it.
Specialized espresso grinders often don’t go all that coarse. That said, they can usually still do pour over coffee. However, French press and cold brew can be an issue. The same is the case with grinders that are for the courser sizes. They can go fine enough for espresso but they don’t have enough adjustability to really dial in the espresso to its full potential.
So make sure you know what you want your grinder to do before you buy one. Which brew method do you want to use, which grind size does that brew method require and then look for a grinder that does that well. You’ll have to dig around on forums or Reddit a little bit to find out which ones are good for what. Manufacturers have a way of pretending that their grinder can do everything perfectly which is rarely the case.
While design doesn’t directly have anything to do with the functioning of the grinder, it is important for people. Coffee grinders can be quite pricey and it’s something you’ll have to look at every day. So just like other kitchen appliances, it’s better if it looks nice as well as functions properly.
Design is personal. There are ones that look very classical all the way to ones that wouldn’t look out of place in a space ship. Most good grinders will look like a normal modern kitchen appliance which is great for most people.
Of course the material choice differs too. Some are mostly plastic while others have metal or stainless steel parts. Of course nicer materials cost more money and don’t necessarily say anything about the actual quality of the coffee grounds that come out but usually there is a correlation between price and overall quality and design.
Conical and flat burrs
Now we’re getting into the details that are not too important for everyone. Remember the burrs from earlier? Most of them are conical. That means the middle one looks somewhat like a cone with the top taken off and teeth. The one that’s connected to the grinder is hallow and the two fit together.
Flat burrs are both horizontal and while they still grind beans in a similar way but the grounds are pushed out the sides. Many coffee aficionados think flat burrs create a more uniform grind size which is desirable. Other people argue that the slightly less uniform distribution of a conical burr creates deeper tasting coffee.
However, for most people, the conical burr is perfectly fine and you’ll only have to worry about it once you get really deep into coffee nerd territory. Flat burrs are usually reserved for high end grinders. In that type the burrs can be changed to the liking of the user. Conical burrs are a bit easier to dial in, maintain and do a great job for 99% of the population. And for the other 1% it’s more a matter of taste than an actual big difference in taste/quality.
Grinders tend to retain some of the grinds in the machine. Hand grinders tend to retain very little, just a bit of dust between the burrs. Electric grinders are a bit more complicated which means more places for grounds to get stuck.
You want as little retention as possible. Old grounds don’t brew good coffee so you want to get the old grounds the next day. Also, if you want to change the grind size of the beans, any retention is bad. If there is too much retention you’ll have to flush the grinder with the new beans/grind size. This is a waste of coffee nobody likes.
The last difference is hard to quantify but there is a wide range in qualities of coffee grinders. Even if you have two grinders with the same features named above, they can be made to completely different standards.
The use of materials, construction and production location have an impact on the quality of the grinder. Better grinders will look nicer, feel better, grind smoother, are quieter and produce finer coffee grinds. This not only results in better coffee but also a better experience along the way.
Of course a higher quality grinder will also tend to last longer, have better customer service, has better parts availability and because of all those things cost more.
What’s important for choosing a coffee grinder?
You might be a bit confused by now. There are clearly a lot of differences but which ones are important? Here is a little summary of what’s important so it becomes a bit clearer. I’m assuming you are looking to buy your first or maybe first ‘real’ coffee grinder and aren’t a coffee aficionado already.
- Decide on your budget first. Once you go down the rabbit hole and don’t have a set budget, you’ll probably end up with something more expensive than you wanted. An entry level hand grinder costs about $35.
- Decide if you want a manual or electric grinder. Electric is easier but if you have a budget under $100 I’d recommend going for a manual grinder, you’ll get something much better for your money.
- Avoid blade grinders. An entry level hand grinder with ceramic burrs isn’t much more expensive than the basic blade grinders but produce much better results.
- Think about the brew method(s) you’ll be using. Most grinders are great for pour over, French press, cold brew, etc. However, if you want to brew espresso, you’ll have to find a grinder that does fine grinds well and is adjustable finely. This tends to be a more expensive grinder.
- Stepped or stepless adjustments are both fine as long as the grinder is adjustable.
The cheapest way to start grinding your own coffee and have decent results is with an entry level manual grinder. I started with the Hario Skerton (Amazon) with good success but the Hario Slim is a bit cheaper and also a good option. You can read more about my experiences with the Hario Skerton in this post.
If you can spend a little more than that, the TimeMore C2 (Amazon) is a significant upgrade over the Skerton. It’s about double the price but you also get a much nicer grinder that grinds more consistent, smoother, looks better, feels better and will likely last longer. It’s still well under $100 so it’s within the realm of starters and much better than a $100 electric grinder.
If you’re willing to spend a little more than $100, the Baratza Encore (Amazon) has been the go to entry level electric grinder for quite a while now. It’s simple but does what it does well for a good price. It’s design isn’t great but inoffensive to the eyes and the Encore has a compact footprint so it fits in most kitchens. It has good burrs and a really simple grind size adjustment.