If there's one obstacle between you and your coffee it's how to get beans dissolved into water, and without a coffee grinder on your side, you're going to lose the battle. Though there are a lot of lazy-man's-beliefs about what's suitable for home coffee brewing, there's one essential truth: grinding fresh, and grinding in a good coffee grinder, is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to make your good coffee taste great.
"Ground coffee is not just coffee ground up," says barista and grinder engineer Michael Elvin of Olympia Coffee Roasters. "You need to have the right fineness/coarseness to get a good extraction. If it's too fine for the method of brewing, your coffee will be harsh and medicinal. Too coarse, your coffee will be thin and more like tea than coffee."
So whether you're still wed to the idea of months-ago-ground coffee in vacuum-tight tins, or if you proudly grind at home with a blade grinder, or run it through the giant machine at the supermarket (you know, the oily behemoth that smells like Irish Cream blend?), you'll benefit from at least a little of the science behind why grinding fresh and grinding evenly are so critical. You've heard the preaching, but it's true: a conical burr grinder is the only real way to ensure even particle size, and any other whirly-blade mechanism will offer uneven results at best.
And though there are certainly those times for all of us (tropical vacation, sleeping roommates) we'll feel the need to grind ahead (Elvin suggests that when traveling, you buy small amounts of coffee at shops en route and have them grind it for your brewer) your coffee will never have as much flavor than it does when grinding right before you brew. Alright, the basics dispensed with, let's look at some of the best choices on the market for you to start dropping holiday hints about before it's too late.
1. Baratza Virtuoso
I frequently recommend Baratza's wide range of reliable, durable home grinders. The Virtuoso falls in the middle of their spectrum of "best you can afford" to "whoa, that's a lot of money". With a sturdy, weighted base, this machine feels like the powerful device a grinder should, and its variety of grind settings (from espresso to super-coarse for French Press) make it versatile enough for most home needs. Burrs are easy to clean (and also cheap and easy to replace, when the time comes) and customer service is excellent. An all around no-nonsense grinder that does a great job with small countertop footprint. Can be adapted (with extra items to purchase) to take a portafilter for home espresso baristas.
2. Hario Skerton
What's that you say? Living off the grid? Even with easy access to alternating current, the Hario's iconic Skerton hand-mill is a fantastic way to get your coffee beans into smaller pieces. As hand grinders go, it's one of the best—small but with a good capacity in the grinds chamber, reasonably priced, and its durable ceramic burr set produces consistent and evenly-sized coffee grounds at a variety of settings. Adjusting the size of your grind will take a moment of getting-to-know-your-grinder time, but it's an easy machine to learn and love. The jar is designed to be held between the knees while grinding, for maximum ergonomics, and the bottom glass receptacle doubles as a storage jar that you can keep any excess grounds in for later if you need to.
3. Hario Ceramic Slim
Doing the Skerton one better—or smaller anyway—is Hario's other manual grinder, the ceramic slim. This taller, skinnier model is easier to hold in your hand, but can only retain a smaller amount of grinds in its plastic chamber. That said, the chamber's got premeasured doses on it to make your repeated use while on the go that much easier. It's so small and light it makes the ideal travel grinder, fitting harmoniously into an overnight bag next to your Aeropress. This model is also slightly more intuitive to adjust grind size with than the Skerton. With fresh ground coffee this easy to make on the go, finding hot water is suddenly your only obstacle.
4. Baratza Vario
A meeting of the supergrinderpowers, this high-end home grinder uses Baratza's ease of use and domestic footprint combined with German grinder pro Mahlkönig's superior ceramic burr set to offer a truly fine prosumer grinder that's as good for espresso as French press—or the more than 200 settings in between. It's portafilter-ready (but has a standard grounds-collecting chamber if you need it) and offers the ability to grind only exactly as much coffee as you want through digital dosing. Unfortunately, you can't remove the whole hopper from the top and swap it out (like in a real coffee shop), but it does almost everything else.
5. Breville Smart Grinder
This recent entry into the home or very-slow-cafe marketplace is a real charmer, essentially attacking the Vario market at a more approachable price. Though it offers a much narrower range of grind sizes, it adds technology that automatically recalibrates the amount of a needed coffee dose as you surf for the ideal grind setting. Intuitive and clever, this may be a problem-solver for many geekier home baristas and a sturdy, attractive machine for the casual aficionado set. Hopper comes off for easy swapping, and the little guy also comes portafilter-ready with extra grounds storage containers to boot.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org