Blade Grinders versus Burr Grinders
Moving ever forward on the path to your perfect cup, the next step is learning how to grind coffee and decide which grinder to use on the whole coffee beans. The common debate you’ll find on this issue is blade grinders versus burr grinders. Blade grinders are exactly what they sound like: machines that “grind” through the use of a fast-moving blade. You may already have one of these bad boys in your kitchen and commonly refer to it as the spice grinder.
A burr grinder, on the other hand, crushes the beans between two surfaces, often a moving wheel and a non-moving surface. There are two types of burr grinders (wheel and conical), but for now we’re going to discuss these in a general sense. We are, after all, just starting out.
What you want to know from the get-go is this: blade grinders are cheaper; burr grinders are more expensive.
In some cases, burr grinders are much more expensive. Blade grinders will run you anywhere from $10-$40 at the upper-most limit. Burr grinders will run you anywhere from $30-$300, maybe more. The lower level of burr grinders will often be either manual grinders, or entry-level machines with less-than-perfect track records.
While blade grinders are by far the more economical choice, they do come along with a fair share of negatives, which is why many coffee lovers will eventually buy into a high-rated Burr grinder.
Blade grinders have two major downsides: lack of grind consistency and excessive heat production.
Most blade grinders will not have a “grind consistency” option, which means if you’re looking for a coarse grind, medium grind, fine grind, or somewhere in between, it’s all down to your eye and luck. Beyond the choice of consistency, there’s the larger problem of uniformity of grind. Though you may be shooting for a coarse grind, there will be a fair amount of fine coffee powder that comes along with it.
I can still remember the first time I researched the differences between grinders. As I read about grind consistency and heat production, all I kept thinking was, “Bull! This is all a bunch of nit-picky bellyaching, and I’ll never be able to tell the difference anyway!”
I wasn’t sold. I didn’t consider myself a coffee connoisseur, and I doubted I could taste the difference between coffee grounds from a burr grinder versus a blade grinder.
I was wrong, and here’s why: The consistency of the grind effects the extraction rate of the coffee. The more surface area there is (fine grounds), the quicker coffee flavor and aroma is extracted, and the less surface area (coarse grounds), the longer it takes. Over extraction of coffee is what often causes that bitter, acidic flavor many people associate with coffee. So imagine you have coarsely ground coffee that you determine needs at least 4 minutes of steeping time, but mixed in with that is a large amount of coffee dust (fine powder from the grinding process) that will be over extracted if steeped for 4 minutes because it has more surface area. Simply put, your coffee flavor will suffer.
Similarly, the production of too much heat will negatively effect coffee’s flavor. Picture that blade spinning at incredibly high speeds. When it does, it gets hot and can actually “roast” the coffee a little, causing the resulting brew to have a burned, over-roasted flavor.
After that list of cons, you may think I’m going to suggest avoiding blade grinders, but that isn’t the case. Generally speaking, you won’t need one of the expensive burr grinders unless you are planning on making espresso (which calls for a very fine, uniform grind), using an advanced and equally expensive espresso maker. In fact, my brother Mike (co-founder of Grind Brew Love) uses a blade grinder. He has developed an interesting method to keep heat production down and gets a fairly uniform grind as well, which involves short “pulses” of the blade combined with shaking the canister to evenly distribute the grounds. He even argues that his method produces less coffee dust than using my cheap burr grinder–and he may be right about that.
Of course, many of the areas where blade grinders suffer are the same places burr grinders excel.
They do not create too much heat during grinding, they have many coarseness selections, and they create superior uniformity of grounds. What comes along with this, as mentioned earlier, is a higher price tag. The lower priced burr grinders are a step up from blade grinders, but will lack in grind uniformity, often creating a lot of coffee dust.
When choosing which grinder you want to purchase, it’s important that you consider where you are in the brewing world.
If you’re just starting out and have purchased your first French Press, you are probably best served getting a blade grinder. It won’t be perfect, but it will certainly be a step up from brewing pre-ground, store bought coffee in a cheap auto-drip machine. As you move forward, you may consider buying into the lower level of burr grinders too.
If, on the other hand, you like to jump in with both feet, and you have the money, get a high-rated burr grinder. This is also true if you’re planning on brewing espresso and already have (or plan on purchasing) an expensive espresso maker.
What you should absolutely not do is get caught up in the never-ending cycle of research. I’m notorious for over-researching products. If I am planning on spending even $25, I may spend weeks reading reviews, doing background research, and basically driving myself nuts. The truth is, most grinders have one-star reviews. There’s always someone who hates a product, even if it has universally positive reviews.
At the end of the day, this is your path to walk, and you should do so at your own pace. Choose the grinder that fits your needs and budget. You can always upgrade later.