Everything You Need to Know About Grinding Coffee

coffee grounds

We’ve often been asked why we ship whole beans, and the reason is simple: whole beans best hold the freshness of the roast. They do this by emitting CO2 from the moment they leave the roaster, and this gas forces out the oxygen and moisture that otherwise quickly break down the integrity of the beans.

There’s a bewildering array of grinding options, but there’s no need to geek out to enjoy well-ground, freshly-roasted coffee. There are two key types of grinding mechanisms: blade- and burr-based. In the former, a propeller-like set of blades spins, dicing the beans until the grounds reach the desired consistency. In burr-based grinders, there’s a flat or conical structure, and the coffee is literally pulverized by the burrs.

In a pinch, anyone can grind coffee. Blade-type grinding can be done in blender (I’ve done this in a Vitamix), and burr grinding can be simulated with a high quality pepper mill (empty the pepper first!) or even with a mortar and pestle. Coffee geeks will cringe, but the effects are the roughly the same. If you ask them, however, they’ll recommend you purchase your own grinder, specially made for coffee, and the general consensus is that burr-based grinding is the preferred method.

Why the preference for the burr? First, there’s a consistency to the size of the output; second, the process generates far less heat than blade-based grinding. But third, and most critical, the act of pulverization effectively multiples the surfaces of the ground coffee. There’s no chemical change to the coffee, but the best way think about the difference is to think about why we crack pepper, or grind cinnamon by hand: pulverization enhances flavor by creating new surfaces (as opposed to reducing to powder through sliding) to engage during brewing.

For folks who want to keep things simple, the next key variable in the grinding process is the coarseness of the grind. Here’s a handy map of how fine to grind:

  • Coarse (think large salt crystals) – French press, percolators, or a vacuum pot.
  • Medium (large sand) – Flat-bottomed drip coffee makers.
  • Fine (sugar or salt) – Conical drip coffee makers.
  • Finer (sugar just short of powder) – Espresso machines.
  • Finest (confectioner’s sugar) – Turkish coffee.

Folks into the more bespoke brewing methods like the Clever or Chemex will have their own preferences and a broader grinding spectrum in mind, but fine and medium (respectively) will work well.

Personally, here are two inexpensive grinders I highly recommend:

1. Capresso Burr Coffee Grinder #559. At $50, a great value and a workhorse. We have one at Bean Box HQ.

2. Hario Skerton Grinder. Slightly less, and a manual grinder, I recommend this if you’re brewing for one, appreciate great aesthetics, and don’t mind a morning coffee workout. On weekends, hand grinding is part of my own ritual of coffee brewing.

Along the way, don’t forget to literally savor the process. Fresh whole beans have a unique scent, and once ground the coffee is even more engaging to the senses. Before you brew, warm up your palate with your nose, and enjoy!


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