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.
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 $30 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.
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.
One last consideration when you're looking for a top 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 use it 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. These are more difficult to use overall, owners say, although not if you don't switch among different grinds very often.
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 Lauren Crabbe writing for Wired.com and Liz Clayton at SeriousEats.com. 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 their 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.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Blade Coffee/Spice Grinder: This is a case where inexpensive does not equate to cheap. These little workhorses can grind coffee beans, spices, nuts and seeds; one would be a great addition to your kitchen.
Best Burr Coffee Grinder: These top-of-the-line coffee grinders are for the serious coffee aficionado and are an absolute must for the best-tasting brews, say experts.
Best Manual Coffee Mills: Manual coffee grinders are just small, burr grinders that deliver high performance at a very low price.
Best Coffee Grinder for Espresso: Espresso drinkers are the hardest coffee fans to please. For them, we found the highest-rated coffee grinders to achieve the perfect grind.
Buying Guide: Want to avoid buyer's remorse tomorrow morning? Our Buying Guide will help you decide which grinder you need, and tell you what to look for in a coffee grinder.
Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the best coffee grinders, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.