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In support of hand grinding your coffee

A couple days ago, Oliver Strand of the New York Times Magazine blog offered his support for hand grinding coffee. I strongly agree with Strand’s stance on this matter.

Years ago, after buying pre-ground coffee for a while, like most people who delve into the world of grinding whole bean coffee, I started grinding my own coffee with a whirly blade grinder.  I’ve recently been asked why grinding your own coffee is preferred over buying pre-ground coffee.  The reason behind this extra step is that it keeps your coffee fresher longer because it keeps the bean whole and its insides away from oxygen until the moment you need it right before you brew. The more the surface area of a coffee bean (both internal and external surface area) is in contact with air, the quicker the coffee loses its flavor.  As such, the moment coffee is ground, all of its internal and external surface area becomes exposed to the air, and it begins to degrade in flavor quickly.  Even if you vacuum pack coffee after you grind it, it will still go bad quicker.  Roasted whole bean coffee only has a shelf life of a few weeks, so when you buy your coffee already ground (especially when you don’t know how long it’s been sitting on the store shelf), you should expect your coffee’s flavor to flatten shortly after the purchase.  Your best option is to buy whole bean, then grind precisely what you need right before you brew it, and your coffee will end up tasting better in the cup in addition to lasting longer on your pantry shelf.

Most people start grinding their own coffee with a whirly blade grinder that costs about $15, but it’s best to move on quickly.  These grinders use a metal blade to chop up the beans. The blade cuts up the beans, and you control the fineness by how long you let the grinder run.  What’s wrong with whirly blade grinders?  They tend to obliterate the bean instead of evenly grinding it, which can cause inconsistent brew quality.    Also, if you are grinding finely, there can be significant heat created by the blade. This can give your final coffee a burned taste.

Those who pursue the best flavor out of their coffee beans prefer to go with burr grinders because they grind more evenly.  The more evenly ground your coffee is, the better the final brew will be.
Burr grinders crush the beans between a moving grinding wheel and a non-moving surface. The positioning of the burr is what regulates the ground size, which allows for a more consistent grind.

Burr grinders can come in two forms:  wheel or conical.  Wheel burr grinders are the less expensive of the two burr grinders, operating with a wheel that spins very fast, making these grinders very noise. The higher speed rotation make these grinders more messy as well, plus the high speed can create friction and heat that can degrade the coffee’s flavor. I’ve personally found that I’m not satisfied with the grind I get out of the inexpensive wheel power burr grinders you get at most big box stores.  Most of these cheaper power grinders run in the $30-$50 range and sound like a jet engine.  I’m not a big fan of the loud noise they make or the fine dust mess.  And if you want to grind for espresso brewing, most of the inexpensive burr grinders won’t grind fine enough.

As such, if you want to go quality, I’ve found that the power grinders worth buying start around $150 and go up from there because they use conical burrs.  With conical burrs. the burr spins slower than the wheel model, which makes them quieter and less messy.  Again, though, you pay a premium to get a power conical burr grinder.  These days you can also find conical burr grinders made of metal or, even better, made of ceramic.  You pay more for ceramic burrs, but they don’t generate as much heat as metallic burrs.

So, what if you’re on a budget?  This is where hand mill coffee grinding comes in.  I’ve found that hand mill burr grinders are much cheaper than the quality power burr grinders on the market, and with most of them, you can grind as fine as you need.  They are usually adjustable using a flywheel or some other mechanism that adjusts the burrs. Using a hand burr mill grinder, you can grind the right amount of beans to the proper grind regardless of whether you’re making a French press coffee or an espresso.

I personally use a Zassenhaus hand coffee mill grinder at home and at the office, but these days the Hario hand coffee mill grinders are also looking really good.  In his NYT online article, Strand gives his input and some background on the Hario Skerton grinder, which I’ve found locally at The Coffee Ethic and Dancing Mule Coffee, or you can find it online at Sweet Maria’s or Amazon.com.  It generally runs around $50.  The older slim Hario hand grinder runs about $30 these days, and I’ve seen one recently at either The Coffee Ethic or Dancing Mule. I love my Zassenhaus coffee mill grinders, too, so if you’re in the market for a hand grinder, don’t forget to check them out — you can find them at Amazon.com, Sweet Maria’s, and on eBay.

Besides the fact that hand grinders are smaller, simple and downright pleasant, Strand puts it nicely:

It’s this meditative pacing that I enjoy most. Turning the hand crank isn’t exactly languorous — you’re working for a solid minute, maybe more — but it’s relaxing. Sure, there are some practical reasons to go with a hand grinder: it’s good on a trip (I travel with mine), it’s better than a blade grinder (as are all burr grinders), the coffee grounds have a brighter smell (perhaps because of the low R.P.M.’s). Though these are flimsy justifications for picking up another coffee gadget. If you get one, it’s because you want to linger on the ritual of making coffee.

My kids love my hand grinder and love to help me grind coffee.  On top of that, I tend to make my coffee via manual brew methods, such as French press and Chemex, and they enjoy the sights and sounds of the entire manual experience.  As Strand mentions, a hand grinder is also good for traveling and camping, too.  I’ll often pack up my grinder and seal up some whole beans in a Ziploc for a camping trip so I can make fresh ground coffee at the campground.

Granted, when I have a large group of people and several batches of coffee to make, hand grinding can get overwhelming. and someday I’ll be in the market for a higher-end power grinder for just that purpose.  But I stand beside hand grinding as my favorite method of making coffee, and I encourage you to check it out, whether you’re on a budget or not.