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18 August 2009 @ 03:27 pm
Adventures in Coffee!  
I haven't done one of these in awhile, but that doesn't mean my love of good coffee has diminished in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact.

For the past four years, now, I've done quite well with my little Starbucks Barista espresso machine (which is a repackaged Saeco Aroma, with the Bux name slapped onto it.) I know I've talked quite a bit in the past about the importance of a good burr grinder....huh, I guess I've never done a comprehensive post about burr grinders!

Wow.

Okay, well, allow me to sidetrack this post to talk about that for a moment.

A lot of people own what coffee obsessionists refer to as 'whirly-blade' grinders. You know the kind, with the rotating blades that look rather like a blender? Usually they cost about $10-15, although you could pay more for a "designer" name on one. (Please don't. A blade grinder is a blade grinder, is a...well, you get the idea.)

I'm sorry, but these cheap little devices are useless. Yes, useless. They are not really grinders, so much as they are choppers, and they chop the coffee beans into disparate sizes and non-uniform pieces, ranging from dust, to large and irregular. It doesn't matter how long you keep them on for, you'll just end up with more dust to go with your still varying in size larger pieces. Even gently shaking them while in use, as I've heard suggested, does not fix the fundamental problem - chopping, vs. grinding. This does not result in a well flavored extraction, ie cup of coffee. The larger pieces extract a weak brew, while the smaller, dust like particles will give a bitter flavor. While still (marginally) better than pre-grinding your coffee at the store (which is wrong on so many levels, it deserves its own paragraph), it isn't going to give you a truly good cup of coffee, and espresso is flat out impossible.

On that pre-grinding at the store business - first off, buying your coffee from the grocery store is not a good idea. Coffee beans, once roasted, have a flavor life of about three weeks. After that, flavor notes such as sweet, fruity, earthy, even caramel or chocolatey depending on the bean, disappear into stale, ashy, and bitter. Imagine your average grocery store shelf. Imagine how long those beans have been sitting there, and how long they spent in a warehouse before that, and where they were shipping from before that - I'm guessing your store bought beans are months old, not weeks. That doesn't even touch on the fact that these beans, often branded "premium", "gourmet" and other deceptive descriptives, are probably actually the cheapest dregs the company could buy. The "big five" coffee companies buy in bulk, and buy cheap. They don't buy the best single origin beans they can, because those cost significantly more. So, lower quality beans, old, stale, then pre-ground - your coffee has no choice but to be bitter tasting.

You can bypass the "old" and "lesser quality" by buying directly from a local or online roaster - they buy the best green coffee beans straight from the farms, and roast them properly, offering them for sale immediately so that you, the consumer, get the freshest roast possible. Unfortunately, the flavor starts to go within minutes of being ground. By buying the beans pre-ground, you're still losing out on those flavor notes. (And please, your local Starbucks is NOT your local roaster. I don't know how freshly roasted Bux beans are - I'm guessing not very, since they don't do on-site roasting), but I can tell you, they are almost uniformly over-roasted, which again destroys the flavor.)

But enough digression. I could go into the various origins of beans, but that's its own post. Back to the burr grinder discussion. A burr grinder does what a blade grinder does not - it grinds the beans between two conically shaped "wheels" that produce uniformly sized particles - no bitter tasting dust, no weak producing, larger, irregular bits. You have several options for at-home grinding for good quality coffee. You might see some $50 burr grinders offered at your local Wal-Mart or Target. Don't waste your money. These have plastic parts that don't provide the necessary stability or pressure to effectively grind the beans, and added to that, the plastic will wear down in a matter of months.

The most cost effective solution is a Kyocera Ceramic Burr-set Hand Grinder, imported from Japan. This will set you back about $75, and it really is the least you'll spend to have an effective coffee grinder. This baby features step adjustments, just like the more expensive electric burr grinders, so you can grind for espresso, french press, drip coffee, you name it! The drawback, of course, is the hand grinding part. You have to work for your coffee!

Note: not just any hand grinder will do! The older Zassenhaus hand grinders are great, and will set you back about the same as the Kyocera, if you can find them. I've heard some people have good luck with the Turkish mills, but these are not as adjustable as the Kyocera, and therefore, not as versatile.

The next step up I would recommend is a refurbished grinder from Baratza - $63 gets you the Baratza Maestro, but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND the Baratza Maestro Plus, instead, for $99. It has nearly twice the motor power, is heavier and more stable, and more grind capability. But neither of these will get you an espresso grind, despite whatever claims might be made about them. For that, the bare minimum grinder is the Baratza Virtuoso for $133, refurbished.

But really, if you're going to spend $133 because you want it espresso capable, I recommend the Vaneli Mini Pro II for $195. A far superior machine that really does cover the range of espresso to drip coffee. If you are serious about your espresso, or see yourself using your grinder for espresso more than any other form of coffee, I'd go the next step up for the Vaneli Mini Pro III, $249, which features "stepless" adjustment, for truly fine tuning the grind for pulling the best espresso shots.

On the other hand, you could search ebay and various coffee-related forums for someone selling a used Rancilio Rocky, like I did. I believe I paid about $220 for mine (they sell new for $350), and I haven't regretted it once. I love and adore my Rocky. And any espresso aficionado will tell you, the grinder is AT LEAST as important as the espresso machine. More, actually, because without the grinder, your fancy new espresso machine will just sit there looking...fancy. And not doing much of anything at all. But get the good grinder first, and then you can be enjoying really good french press, or single cup pour-over coffee, while you save up for the espresso machine.

I can hear the gasps now - $250-$350 for a coffee grinder?? Yes. Think about this - if you want espresso, none of the others will do (except that $75 hand grinder I mention in the beginning, which is certainly a very viable option!) Even if all you're after is non-espresso coffee, the better the grinder (more powerful, more steel parts, quieter, less static, etc) the more money it will be. Like so much in this world, you get what you pay for. Buy that $50 grinder with plastic parts. In six months, you'll be buying it again. I've been using my Rocky for four years. That's eight of those little $50 burr grinders, and it's still going strong. If you don't want to ever do espresso, go ahead and get the Baratza Maestro Plus for $99 - it's a good grinder, and it will serve you well. Just realize it won't be enough if you change your mind, and want espresso someday.

But say you do want espresso - say you want the grinder and the machine. Get the Baratza Virtuoso for $133, or spend a little more and be happier with the Vaneli for $195. Seriously, that is my number one recommendation.

And also realize that these are the minimum - I know many a coffee geek who've traded up on even my Rocky, for a commercially graded grinder that costs $450-800! I don't see myself doing this. I've been extremely satisfied with my Rocky, and have had no inklings of upgrade-itis, as it's called.

But that's all about the grinder. Now lets talk about the espresso machine. I don't really need to go into the faults of the $65 Krups, do I? See above, re: $50 grinders. The bare minimum for an entry level espresso machine is going to run you at least $200, if you find one gently used.

You can spend $300 on a decent Gaggia, which is definitely a good quality machine. But the Gaggia's in that price range have aluminum boilers, not my first choice, personally. You could also spend $250 on a Saeco Aroma, like my repackaged Barista (which Bux no longer offers). But you'd have to spend the extra $20-30 on a non-pressurized portafilter for it, because they ship it with a plastic, pressurized one that's supposed to make pulling a good shot "easier". Rubbish, nonsense - the pressurized kind isn't going to produce that crema that you're looking for in a good quality shot.

For that same money, I'd be taking advantage of this deal, for a Le'Lit machine. Italian import (as all the best are), all brass and stainless steel, gorgeous, and absolutely the best value for the money for an entry level machine out there today. It sports a 3-way solenoid valve (usually not found in this price range), a brass boiler, 15 bar pressure, and it's on sale for $300 and free shipping, currently. Normally, it retails for over $400, and the next step up, the Rancilio Silvia, for more than that. Some even say this little Le'lit is comparable to the Silvia. This is truly an amazing deal.

In fact, it's a deal I couldn't pass up. I've sold my little work horse, my lovely Barista, to a friend of mine who just couldn't convince himself to spend more than $200 on a machine, period. He's been waffling about it for two years. (It's been murder talking him into a decent grinder!) I've put that money toward the Le'lit, which I feel justified in doing after four years. I've enjoyed better coffee than I can get in a lot of cafes (*cough*Bux*cough*), and at $4/latte, I figure the Barista paid for itself within the first six months - no, REALLY. ($4 per latte x at least four a week x 52 weeks in a year is more than $800. Think about that when you ask yourself if you can afford a real home espresso set up.) Also, although the Barista retailed for $400 back in the day, I got mine for just a little more than what I'm selling it for, and it's retained its value quite well. Since the next step up from here, for me, would require a machine plumbed into the house with a double boiler for around $1000, (if I EVER get to that point), I think the Le'lit at $300 is a fantastic deal for the next ten years or so.

In closing, think about how much you spend on coffee in a week. In a month. I buy my beans green and home roast, which makes the coffee itself about half the cost, but even if I bought every three weeks from a roaster, that's still only about $5/week, instead of the $16-20 of buying a latte every day. As I state above, if you're a habitual latte/cappa/mocha drinker, you're probably spending anywhere from $700-800 per year on your coffee.

You could get yourself a helluva home set up for that same money.

Grinder- $195
Espresso Machine - $300
Milk pitcher/thermometer, espresso cups, tamper, coffee - $60

Having your own delicious coffee or espresso whenever you want? Priceless!
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"Connoisseurs of Difficulty"kistha on August 19th, 2009 06:33 am (UTC)
Those "coffee grinders" are excelent for spices and hard candy though.

Makes excellent stained glass cookies! Fine powder = equal melting time.
(Deleted comment)
rhienellethrhienelleth on August 19th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Hee! Welcome. I'm glad it gave you some ideas. :) If you or your friend have any questions about anything, I'm always up for coffee discussion! My husband is not a coffee drinker, and his eyes have been known to glaze over when I start talking about it. :D