A grinder that grinds beans to a uniform size for optimal extraction is the single most important piece of equipment for making good coffee. Even the best coffee beans run through the best brewing process will taste overly bitter and sour with uneven grounds. After more than 40 hours researching the category and testing nine top-rated coffee grinders, the Baratza Virtuoso was by far the best grinder for making coffee at home. Of the nine models we tested, it produced the most uniform grind consistency, with an output comparable to that of the $2,500 Mahlkönig EK43 commercial-grade grinder. Our science editor couldn’t even tell the samples apart after examining them under a microscope.
The Virtuoso may appear homely compared to other machines in the $200 price range, but its simplicity is a virtue. Its only controls are grind size, an on/off button, and a timer dial so you don’t have to hold the button down for larger batches. There’s no built-in scale like you’d find in the OXO On or automatic dosage adjustments like those in Breville’s Smart Grinder Pro. But neither of those machines came close to matching the Virtuoso’s grind consistency. Besides, we didn’t find those features to be all that useful in our testing. Our only significant complaint is that its open-top grind receptacle has a tendency to leak coffee dust onto your counters. Overall, the Virtuoso is just a simple-to-use and very accurate grinder that will pummel whole beans into the correct particle size you need for whatever method you’re brewing with.
If the Virtuoso is sold out or you don’t want to spend that much on a coffee grinder, the Baratza Encore typically sells for around $100 less and delivered the second-best performance among electric grinders in our testing. It actually uses the same motor as the Virtuoso but has less-precise grinding burrs, no timer switch, and a plastic body instead of a cast zinc one. It works the same and also has the coffee-dust-on-counter issue, but is a bit louder during use due to its lighter housing.
We spent more than a month just researching this project to truly understand what makes a great coffee grinder. We met in-person with the coffee director of Joe New York, one of New York’s best coffee shops and roasters, and also chatted extensively with one of the brains behind Counter Culture Coffee’s technical services operation. Counter Culture’s training center also helped with testing by providing some equipment, beans for testing, and endless expertise. We also emailed and chatted with numerous experts and baristas throughout the country. Before we began contacting people, we read more articles that we can possibly name that discussed the idiosyncrasies in coffee grinders and why some features are better than others.
Mind you, this isn’t the first time I’ve researched coffee. I worked for more than five years as a barista in both Portland, Oregon, and New York City. I was trained extensively by Stumptown Coffee for my first job and then worked alongside and trained with a Northeast Barista Champion finalist. Now, as a journalist, I write about coffee. I’ve written two other guides for The Sweethome as well as for other outlets.
Making good coffee seems simple. All you need are roasted coffee beans and hot water. But the grinder is the necessary mediator between these two ingredients to ensure the final product actually tastes good. A grinder breaks up coffee beans into individual, ideally uniformly-sized, coffee grounds. These pieces are then steeped in water to extract a certain amount of coffee solubles from the beans into the water. Like steeping tea, this extracted coffee content will ultimately flavor the water to taste like the coffee we know and love.
Burrs work by using two serrated pieces of metal or ceramic that are positioned a specific distance apart from each other (depending on the grind) and rotate to crush the beans to the exact size you want. The grind mechanisms on pepper mills are usually burrs. There are two different types of burrs: flat and conical. The difference between the two is in their shape, and there’s still a great deal of debate over which one is better. Flat burrs look like two parallel rings and conical burrs consist of a cone that is inserted into a ring. In both cases, there’s a gap between the two parts and one of the burrs rotates against the other to crush and shear the beans until they’re small enough to fit through the gap between them.1 However, there is unanimous agreement that either type of burr is better than any blade grinder. Instead of a blade spinning to chop a whole bean into tiny and randomly-sized slivers, burrs “shear” the coffee into more exact particles.
But don’t assume that anything labeled as a burr grinder is actually a burr grinder. For example, nearly every expert we talked to believed that there was no way that Amazon’s bestselling burr grinder, the Cuisinart DBM-8, could actually use burrs at its low price point. We brought it in for testing and found it actually performed pretty much identically to the even-cheaper blade grinder we used as a control. If you take it apart and look at the “burr,” it’s easy to see why this is the case: The “burr” is actually just a plastic disc with blades mounted on the sides to chop up beans as they pass through.
Our testing showed that Baratza’s Virtuoso coffee grinder is the best grinder anyone who’s not making espresso could ever want or need. It grinds beans more consistently than any other in its price range. Out of the nine competitors, it had the most coffee grinds of optimal size and the smallest amount of too-large chunks and too-small fines. In fact, its output was virtually indistinguishable from the commercial-grade grinder we brought in as a control.
We found that 81.2 percent of the resulting coffee grounds fell in the optimal size range. That is virtually identical to the sample we took from the Mahlkönig EK43 to use as a control (82 percent optimal grounds), and 20 percent superior to the second-best Baratza Encore (61.2 percent optimal grounds).
The magic behind the Virtuoso’s performance lies in its made-in-Liechtenstein, hardened-steel conical burrs. No other grinder in its price range came close to matching its performance when it came to achieving an ideal regular grind.
We tested every machine using a Keck Sand Shaker, which separates a batch of grounds by individual particle size using a series of sieves of increasing fineness from top to bottom. We set it up so that the two sieves surrounding the middle chamber would capture the ideal grind size, dumped 25 grams of ground coffee into the top, and shook until grinds were no longer consistently falling into the bottom chamber (about 2-4 minutes depending on the amount of fines). We tested for two grind settings, calibrated to the output we got from Counter Culture Coffee’s Mahlkönig EK43 grinder: one on a “regular” grind for drip2 and one on a coarser French press grind. Each grinder was run on its corresponding setting according to its owner’s manual—if anything looked egregiously off, small adjustments were made in the grinder’s favor. The goal was to find the grinders that performed closest to the EK43 control grinds. Once testing was completed, the Virtuoso was a solid performer for French press, but stole the show for drip settings.
This graph illustrates grind precision. On the X axis we have the size of individual grinds from largest to smallest, and on the Y axis we have the weight of the grounds at the size. The ideal graph is a bell-curve in the middle, indicating that overall most grinds were a very similar size. Notice the Virtuoso’s impressive results compared to other grinders in the $200 price range, like the Breville Smart Grinder Pro and the OXO On.
What was even more extraordinary, however, was how the Virtuoso ranked next to a multi-thousand dollar machine that specialty coffee programs use. We ran the same amount of coffee through a Mahlkönig EK43 grinder. The results of the Mahlkönig batch were almost identical to the Virtuoso batch—the Virtuoso’s grind for a drip machine was as accurate as a professional-grade grinder.
We also had Sweethome science editor Leigh Boerner examine samples of the Mahlkönig and the Virtuoso under a microscope to see a difference. She didn’t. “It was pretty much impossible to ID unlabeled photos based on ground shape,” said Boerner. “I also didn’t find any evidence that grinds from the Mahlkönig were any ‘flatter’ than those from the Virtuoso.”
Many coffee geeks say that the difference between one grinder and another is the shape of each particle and that this makes a difference in taste. The Mahlkönig is considered the crême de la crême of grinders, and if you can’t see a difference in particle geometry between it and a Virtuoso, Baratza is doing something right.
The Virtuoso’s performance on the French press setting wasn’t quite as impressive, but the same is true of all the grinders we tested, including the Mahlkönig. Only 40.8 percent of the Virtuoso’s output fell into the ideal size range compared to 54 percent for the Mahlkönig. This was enough to make it the second-best grinder at this setting, but it was still far behind the Breville Smart Grinder Pro’s score of 52.8 percent.
As for speed, the Virtuoso was plenty fast—taking 10 seconds to grind 25 grams on a French press setting. This made it the second-fastest machine overall, but all the grinders came within a few seconds of each other, so it doesn’t make a big difference. Some will argue that faster is better because it means the grinder creates less heat, but this is not important on a home-use grinder that only gets used once or twice a day.3 What was surprising, however, was the fact that the cheaper Encore took 14 seconds to grind the same amount of coffee despite having the exact same motor. It just goes to show that the burr makes the difference.
Using the Virtuoso is as simple as it gets. You simply twist the hopper (the plastic funnel that holds the whole beans) until the notch at its base reaches the grind setting you want, then twist a dial timer or hold down the button in front to turn it on. The timer is consistent, but it doesn’t actually correspond to any times—just a bunch of blocks from shortest to tallest to indicate how long the machine will stay on for. If you care about the precise amount of ground coffee you want (which you should if you want good coffee), you need to weigh the whole beans, then put them into the empty machine and run the timer function until the beans are all ground. Then you’ll end up with an equal mass of ground coffee. You could leave a bunch in the hopper and grind some of it, then scoop out only as much as needed, but then you end up with excess grounds that will go stale.
Finally, there’s the fact that when you buy a Baratza grinder, you’re buying a grinder made by a company that only makes quality grinders specifically for home users. Thus, repairs and maintenance are refreshingly easy. For instance, if your grinder is in need of any part you need only go to Baratza’s website to see an entire list of its parts available, including spare burrs, which need replacing every few years—more on that later. If the grinder needs to be fixed outside of the two-year warranty period, or if you want the company to replace the burrs for you, you can send it back yourself and pay a fixed $45 fee.
The Virtuoso is not the cleanest of machines. While other models have a smaller opening to funnel fresh grinds like a bottle, the Virtuoso’s grinds receptacle is basically a rectangular cup. And there’s a slight gap between the cup and the bottom lip of the grinding mechanism that allows statically charged grinds to fly out the machine and all over your counter from time to time. Similarly irksome, some of the Virtuoso’s grinds remain in the machine unless you give it a smack. I found that as many as 2 grams of coffee could get trapped in it before hitting it out.
The Virtuoso’s hopper—the plastic container that holds the whole beans—is also less accessible than others. Most hoppers pop right off if you tug upwards, but the Virtuoso needs to first be set to the coarsest setting in order to be released. And it doesn’t have a stopper to prevent beans from spilling out the bottom when you take the hopper out. This may sound like a minor issue, but for people that want to store their coffee in the hopper instead of the bag, this could prove a challenge. For instance, if the machine were to jam and you needed to remove the hopper with coffee still in it, you would have to invert the entire machine first. Otherwise all of the beans will fall out the bottom. Other grinders, like the Breville and OXO, use simple “lock” and “unlock” switches. This made it easier to get to the burrs for cleaning and made it potentially less of a pain to get extra coffee beans out.
Finally, because the Virtuoso is a “stepped” grinder with only 40 discrete grind-size adjustments, it isn’t ideal for dialing in that perfect espresso shot.4 As Prima Coffee notes in their review of the lower-end Baratza Encore, the grinding mechanism is capable of producing a consistent-enough fine grind for espresso, but if you really want to get the perfect shot, you’d be better off upgrading to something like the Baratza Preciso. It uses the same grind mechanism as the Virtuoso, but adds 10 micro steps of adjustability between each of the 40 steps (for a total of 400) and comes with a filter PortaHolder that’s an add-on for the Virtuoso.
Coming at a close second is the Virtuoso’s cheaper cousin, the Encore. It had the second-most-consistent grind profile, beating out all the machines in the $200+ range except the Virtuoso.
The machines are very similar-looking, but Encore does look just a bit less refined than the other. All the same, our testing showed that the Encore did a good job grinding coffee—especially when it came to normal drip batches. Its precision was not on a par with the Virtuoso’s, but it’ll still make a good cup of coffee. With a much more palatable price tag of about $130 at time of writing, the Encore is a solid choice for anyone wanting a solid, even grind for their morning coffee.
Where it’s noticeably less accurate than the more-expensive competition is with coarse grinds, which were a bit uneven in our tests—about the same as the OXO, but not as consistent as the Virtuoso or Breville. But out of all the sub-$150 machines, it was by far the best.
Every expert we talked with said that $100 is likely the bare minimum you would have to spend to get a truly passable coffee grinder. Going cheaper gets you into false burr territory, like the Cuisinart DBM-8. We decided to see if that was actually the case and tested a few cheaper models—all of which claimed to have burrs. We found only one to be an actual solid machine: the Capresso Infinity. Joe Coffee’s Amanda Byron said that the Capresso is the type of machine she would recommend to a family member who just wants a reliable, simple grinder.
The Capresso Infinity retails for about $100 at time of writing and gives an even and solid grind. While its results weren’t as great as the Encore, it did perform about as well as the $200 OXO. We think the Encore is worth the extra $30, but if that’s simply not in your budget, this is as cheap as you can go before encountering “false burr” grinders that are actually blade grinders in disguise, like the Cuisinart DBM-8. It was particularly good at coarser French press settings. It’s also a few inches shorter than the other grinders, which helps it fit into tighter spaces.
If you are just one person who only requires a single cup of coffee each day, a manual grinder is definitely a money-saver. Every expert we talked with echoed this sentiment. But if you ever want to make a multiple-cup batch of coffee, it will take a grueling few minutes to grind the coffee and your arms are going to be sore afterward.
Among these, we prefer the Hario Coffee Mill Slim. Its thin, hourglass shape makes it easier to crank and grip when compared to other manual grinders like the full-sized Hario or the popular Porlex stainless-steel-encased ones. And it’s cheaper, too. When testing on the drip setting, the Hario actually outperformed every electric grinder except the Mahlkönig and Virtuoso, with 64.8 percent of its grinds falling into the ideal size range. However, French press performance was mediocre: Only 29.6 percent of its grinds fell into the ideal size range because it left a ton of big chunks.
Be sure to clean your grinder out from time to time. If you’re using it regularly, once a month is a good call. The owner’s manual of your grinder will explain how to do so. Baratza grinders even come with a brush.
The burrs themselves also need to be replaced. For a home-use grinder that has hardened-steel burrs (this includes all of our picks), you can expect them to handle between 500 and 1,000 pounds of coffee before needing to be replaced, according to Baratza’s Kyle Anderson. If you make a pound of coffee a week, this will take more than five years. But that’s just a rule of thumb. If at any point after a couple years you start to notice an excess of fine grounds, this is probably because your burrs are getting duller. Replacing them in the Virtuoso is easy and the burrs themselves currently cost about $40 for the set (ring and cone).
Ceramic burrs can last much longer between changes, which is why they appeal to professionals. For example, the higher-end Baratza Vario and Forté can handle 1,000-1,500 pounds between changes, and the industrial-strength Mahlkönig EK43 can go a whopping 14,300 pounds between replacements.
We also tested a few more expensive machines that are tailored for the more-enthusiastic home coffee maker. OXO recently introduced a line of higher-end electrical appliances, including a coffee maker that was just given official certification by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (which is a designation few home coffee machines have). The OXO On Conical Burr Coffee Grinder (also called the Barista Brain in some places) costs about $200 at time of writing, and while it features an integrated scale that allows you to program coffee by number of cups or weight, we found that it produced less precise grounds than others in its class. In fact, the Baratza Encore, which is currently around $80 cheaper, performed better. We liked the built-in scale, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the relatively inconsistent performance.
Breville is another company that is often mentioned as a worthy grinder maker. It makes a suite of coffee grinder products that range from around $180 to $230. Its Smart Grinder Pro is a very well-reviewed machine and has been featured in quite a few other coffee grinder roundups, including favorable writeups in Serious Eats and Wired. The interface allows you to program the number of cups/shots being made, and the machine automatically measures the amount of beans required, adjusting for grind size and brew strength. Our testing showed that the Smart Grinder Pro is indeed very accurate at grind size, particularly at coarse strength, but not as accurate as the Virtuoso, which sells at around the same price. We almost made the Breville a secondary pick for French press enthusiasts, but the Smart Grinder Pro had a few red flags: namely a weird rubbery smell that occurred after every grind session—a problem experienced by other editorial and customer reviewers alike—and a harder-to-use grounds receptacle.
As for grinders we opted not to test, Breville’s regular Smart Grinder and Dose Control Pro both use the same mechanisms as the Smart Grinder Pro so we’d expect them to perform similarly (and face the same issues). The Dose Control Pro is a bit more appealing since it’s usually cheaper than the Virtuoso, but it’s designed specifically for espresso and doesn’t even come with a grounds container.
Bodum’s Bistro Electric is another popular sub-$100 grinder, but we think the Capresso Infinity is the better buy in this price range because it has two more grind settings (16 versus 14), a longer track record (more than 3,000 reviews vs about 1,000), and a built-in timer. Users also complain that the coarsest setting is not enough for French press whereas Capresso Infinity owners by and large praise its French press performance.
A big thank you to Counter Culture Coffee’s New York Training Center for lending us their expertise in testing design, letting us use their Malkhönig EK43 grinder, and providing beans for testing.
Originally published: December 14, 2015