A burr grinder is a must for the coffee aficionado
Coffee experts can't stress this strongly enough: A great cup of coffee stars with the grinder. You can have the highest-end coffee or espresso maker money can buy, but if you don't start with a perfect, fresh grind from high-quality beans, you may as well save your cash. In fact, CoffeeGeek.com has worked up a handy chart for how to plan your espresso maker/coffee grinder budget to get the optimal setup.
In the preamble to that guide, Mark Prince notes, "I've often said that I can make a better shot of espresso with a $200 espresso machine and a $400 grinder than I can with a $2,000 espresso machine and no grinder (or a blade grinder)... and it's absolutely true."
However, plenty of people manage to soldier on with a less expensive or less high-end coffee grinder and are very satisfied with the resulting brew. And don't forget, you still need a good coffee maker as well. We cover coffee makers, single cup coffee makers and espresso machines in separate reports. Check them out to find the perfect pairing for your grinder.
Types of grinders; or, all things blade and burr
Blade grinders chop beans with a spinning blade attached to a motor. These models are relatively cheap as far as countertop appliances go -- most cost less than $30. They tend to be simple, plastic, push-button machines, although some have multiple settings. Blade grinders are also useful for other tasks such as grinding spices, seeds or nuts. If you do so, however, the grinder must be cleaned thoroughly between uses to avoid mixing flavors in your coffee or spices. Some users report keeping two inexpensive blade grinders handy: one for coffee and one for spices. And let us make one thing perfectly clear: Plenty of folks are perfectly happy with the way a $20 blade grinder grinds their coffee beans, especially drip-coffee drinkers.
Burr coffee grinders are for the serious coffee aficionado. Burr grinders have two gears that slowly crush the beans into particles. Most have ceramic burrs, which are thought to stay sharper longer than other materials. Ceramic burr grinders can come with either conical burrs or flat plate burrs. Some don't like flat plate burrs, saying they can heat up too much, but most high-end grinders have technology to keep that from happening. Many experts say there is no difference in grind quality between the two styles, so that is not a make-or-break consideration, just a difference in style
Burr grinders are more expensive than blade units, but most experts agree that the added expense is worth it to get the most precise grind -- a necessity for specialty coffees and brewing techniques like espresso, French press, pour-over, or Turkish. Many burr grinders have upscale metal constructions, and they have a solid, weighty feel. Small, portable burr grinders start as low as $35 or so for a manual model, but can go up to $700 or more, depending on the number of settings, build quality and grind consistency. Many owners opting for the top-priced models say they expect their grinders to last a lifetime.
Dosers versus doserless grinders
Some upscale grinders have dosers -- a chamber that is separated into sections. The sections rotate so that each one can be filled with a single dose of ground coffee. Although dosers make it possible to grind, hold and dispense enough grounds for several cups of espresso, home baristas who only plan to pull one or two espresso shots a day probably don't need one. Even those who use their espresso maker more often say they prefer doserless grinders because they don't like the idea of the beans sitting in the machine and perhaps getting stale. Doserless machines are also easier to clean.
Stepped versus stepless grinders
One last consideration when you're looking for a top-quality burr coffee grinder is the difference between stepped and stepless grinders. Stepped grinders have preset notches to make it easier to switch between different types of grinds. So, for example, instead of trying to finesse where you want to set the grinder for drip coffee, and then again later for pour-over, it has numbers or settings for that. Stepless grinders, on the other hand, give you an infinite number of options for your grind, so you have total control of every part of the process. Though stepless grinders are more difficult to use overall, owners say, that's not as big a concern if you don't switch among different grinds very often.
How we chose the best coffee grinders
To determine our Best-Reviewed coffee grinders we analyzed expert and owner reviews as well as professional tests. Some are older tests and reviews, but are still valid because many of these coffee grinders are so durable and so popular that they have been around for many years without any significant changes. Mark Prince's tests and analyses at CoffeeGeek.com were an invaluable resource, as was the expertise and hands on experience of other coffee-loving experts. We also looked at a few roundups where testing methodology was unclear, but, like some of the other resources we list above, were done in collaboration with outside coffee experts, which boosts their credibility. Just as important as the experts' experience is owner reviews. When it comes to coffee, there are some extremely knowledgeable amateurs out there who give excellent feedback. It's also interesting to see what newbies have to say when they take their brand-new grinder for a spin.