Grinders -- good, bad, ugly

At some point in my coffee-drinking experience, I noticed that the ground coffee which I had bought several days earlier seemed to lack an essential 'something.' I knew the beans were fresh-I had watched the store clerk grind them. Still, by the end of the week, the coffee at the bottom of the bag no longer tasted or smelled like it had at the top of the bag.

So I bought a blade grinder and began grinding my own beans. What a difference it made! Grinding just the amount I needed for a cup or two gave me back that wonderful smell and peak freshness which can only be found in freshly ground beans. Moreover, I now had the means to produce the appropriate grind for whichever brewing method I used.

Here's a run-down on the various grinding methods available to the home coffee drinker.

Blade Grinders
Blade grinders are inexpensive, compact, and simple to operate, making them the first grinders that most people buy. They generally feature a clear plastic top that when removed reveals a small hopper housing a propeller-like blade. Most blade grinders must be plugged in, but a few are battery-operated.

Whole beans are spooned into the hopper, the top is replaced, a button is pressed, and the propeller whirrs around, slicing the beans into itty bitty pieces. After about 20 seconds or so (depending upon the finess desired and the sharpness of the blade) the button is released, the top removed and the grounds poured into the waiting brewing equipment.

Sounds simple, but in reality, the process is very imprecise and generally produces an uneven grind with some powder, some coarse, and some in-between.

Blade grinders can also 'scorch' the grind when the blades whip through the same grinds over and over again. This will produce a burnt flavor in your cup. If the grind is hot to the touch after grinding, you are likely scorching it.

New blade grinders can, with practice, produce the desired grind, but once the blades become dull, they simply smash their way through the beans, producing a grind of very uneven consistency. This can lead to some very bad grinding habits, such as holding the grind button down longer in the hopes of beating those larger chunks into submission, but the result is usually lots of very, very fine powder with some vey large, Swartznegger-tough chunks floating on top, and all of it scorched. This will not produce a tasty cup of coffee.

Burr Grinders
Burr grinders cost a bit more and take up a bit more counter space, but they more than make up for these 'faults' by quickly-often fully automatically- producing an even grind every time with no waste and no scorching.

A burr grinder has a wheel or cone with several cutting edges, called burrs. The wheel or cone sits in a matching receptacle that also has burrs. When a coffee bean falls between the two burred edges, it is quickly ground to a precise size and the pieces fall out of the grinder and into a holding receptacle.

All burr grinders have some sort of grind adjustment that, by moving the burred parts closer or further apart, lets you produce precisely the grind for your particular brewing method.

Many burr grinders provide a hopper for storing up to a pound or so of whole beans. The beans automatically fall into the grinding mechanism as needed, further automating the grinding process.

A burr grinder is a worthwhile investment that quickly pays for itself by automating the grinding process, eliminating waste, assuring an appropriate, consistent grind, and, ultimately, helping you to produce a better cup of coffee.

Ornamental Box Grinders
Those old-fashion wooden box grinders may look pretty sitting on the shelf, but they can be hard to adjust and impossible to keep clean (the oils soak into the wood and turn rancid), and they require considerable manual labor to produce a cup's worth of ground coffee. Unless you need the exercise, leave it on the shelf.

Spice Grinders
Yep, those tiny pepper mills and other spice grinders actually do a terrific job of grinding coffee beans, but like the box grinders mentioned above, they can give you quite a qhysical workout. Their saving grace? They are usually small and light enough to consider taking on a camping trip. Imagine how good freshly ground coffee can taste when brewed over a fire in your 1-cup camper's espresso maker! Mmmmm!