Bunn LPG versus Baratza Vario with Steel Burr

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Postby another_jim » May 07, 2013, 12:07 pm

This post is mostly about how hard it is to compare grinders. But it also compares the Vario and Bunn for cupping or 4 minute steeping brews using coarse grinds.

I've been using the LPG as a cupping and brewing grinder for about four years; but I've been blown away, the last two years, with how good the pour over brews tasted from the steel burred Vario. Since the Vario is also fast, quiet and has no grind retention, I recently bought one to see if it would serve as a cupping grinder. For this, it has a few drawbacks. As noted by others, the steel burrs grind much more slowly than the ceramic burrs, and there are static issues with the container. In terms of preparing a cupping, the Vario is a tad faster overall than the LPG, but not by much. A Bunn G series or Guatemala would be much faster.

The standard for cupping is 50% pass through on a 20 gauge sieve. I've set my Bunn at a slightly finer 60% pass through, at which I best like its taste, and have left it there ever since I got it. The Vario guide suggested an initial setting of 9 for FP, which, very impressively, produced a 52.5% pass through. I set it a little finer until I got 60%, and presumably, the same average grind size as the LPG.

Then I compared three different coffees, blind cupping. The two grinders were easy to distinguish, and on the second and third go round I was able to pick out the Vario cup for each coffee without any trouble. The problem was simple: the Vario grind was overextracting slightly, veiling the taste of each cup with a bitter-sweet caramel note. (To those who prefer something balanced more towards the roast, the Bunn would have been underextracting slightly).

After a few more tries, I set the Vario at 9.d, which yielded exactly 50% on the 20 screen, and made the cups very similar in terms of extraction and balance. Now I could compare apples to apples.

The Vario was a shade better, with just a hint less of an astringent edge, and slightly better definition of flavors. The difference is minimal, not even close to the difference between espresso or home grinders and proper brew grinders; but it was consistent throughout. Given that the Vario's grind is slightly coarser in terms of screen measurement, but extracts similarly, I surmise that its distribution is tighter, and it has slightly less fines.

Compared to a Bunn G series or Guatemala/Tanzania, the Vario would be a very slow grinder for cupping purposes, but I can confirm that with the steel burr, the taste is right up there. Just as the ceramic burr punches well above its weight class for espresso; this steel burr does the same for brewing. Baratza is to be congratulated for finding the right recipe for making a good hobbyist grinder -- use their own expertise in home grinders for the overall design, then get Mahlkoenig and Ditting to design the burr sets.

So should people throw out their Bunns to get Varios? I don't think the difference in taste is enough to justify it; on the other hand, Bunn grinders were never designed to sit on a home counter, so maybe that will tip the scale for some members.

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Postby yakster » May 07, 2013, 12:31 pm

Thanks, Jim for posting this comparison. A Vario with steel burrs would be a nice addition, but since I picked up a Grindmaster 890 with what I believe are Mahlkonig burrs for not much more than a set of Baratza steel burrs I think I'll stick with that for now (once I finish cleaning it up).

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Postby jbviau » May 07, 2013, 1:08 pm

+1 on the thanks. Very useful info. Now, could you be convinced to pit the Vario[+steel] against, say, a Preciso and/or an OE LIDO at some point? :wink:
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Postby JohnB. » May 07, 2013, 1:18 pm

Another alternative if you already own an LPG or can find a cheap used one is to replace the Bunn "pressed" style burrs with the Ditting/Mahlkonig machined burrs designed for the Ditting KF804.

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Postby jonny » May 08, 2013, 2:18 am

jbviau wrote:+1 on the thanks. Very useful info. Now, could you be convinced to pit the Vario[+steel] against, say, a Preciso and/or an OE LIDO at some point? :wink:

This sounds familiar. Do we need a "Can it Beat the Vario?" thread? :wink:

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Postby cannonfodder » May 08, 2013, 11:04 pm

I have been using my Bunn for a few years as well. Vast improvement for non espresso brewing over espresso centric grinders.
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Postby jbviau » May 09, 2013, 9:12 am

jonny wrote:This sounds familiar. Do we need a "Can it Beat the Vario?" thread? :wink:

Yes, please! The issue came up often enough in the other Vario[+steel] thread, e.g. Baratza's New Vario Burrs for Non-espresso Brew Only

donnedonne wrote:Since nobody to my knowledge has yet performed a direct comparison between the Preciso & and the metal-Vario for drip/coarse-grind purposes, I thought that I'd pass this along:

Joyce from Baratza says that the Preciso produces fewer fines than the metal-Vario.
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Postby Netphilosopher » May 09, 2013, 10:01 am

a #20 sieve is 850 micron, (.841mm or 841 micron) right? You're talking US sieve number, right?

(I have a hand sieve, there's some variation in the definition of US #20, in my accompanying manual it says the #20 is 0.03" or 762 micron, but most of the universal tables call the #20 (Tyler or US) something more like 841 to 850 micron). MPE Chicago's reference table says #20 is 833microns.

50% pass through is technically coarser than SCAA recommendation for cupping:

But I question whether they actually have it right. I think 50% pass through is the right answer.

If you look at the math, 70%-75% pass through on a 840micron screen implies somewhere around 600micron average grind - something I consider fine to very fine drip (to get here on a calibrated Ditting requires a setting of 5 1/2 or so, which is quite fine). This produces a pretty deep dissolution and fairly high strengths in a cupping.

For example, if I find a grind that produces 20% extraction with a 17.4 water brew ratio (1.25% strength) on an auto drip machine (for me that's a Ditting around 8, Bodum around 4-5, LIDO around 2.0), this only produces a strength of 1.1 - 1.15% in a cupping or an immersion method of brewing. These are approx 50% retained/50% pass through a #20 sieve.

If I go finer as recommended (Ditting 5, Bodum at approximately pourover icon or "0", LIDO around 1.25, 70-75% pass through, 25%-30% retained on #20 sieve), I get overextraction in a drip (strengths closer to 1.40%, calculated extractions above 22%) and strengths closer to 1.25% with a cupping, along with elements of bitterness.

Interesting, anyways.

(BTW - I know the recommendations for cupping are 8.25g coffee per 150ml, but the true mass water brew ratio is more like 17.4, not 150/8.25. The water VOLUME is hot, or about 96% less dense. Additionally, the water is added to the coffee in the cup, and the coffee does take up some more room so the actual added water to bring the whole slurry to 150ml is actually even less. Cupping seems scientific and accurate at first, but there's still a huge variation in the true brew ratio, not to mention the roughly 6-10g of evaporation that occurs in the cup during the 1/2 hour cupping.)

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Postby another_jim » May 09, 2013, 3:10 pm

You're right; and I should have mentioned it. It was 50% in Sivetz (1970s and 1980s). I tried the 75% figure, and the result indicates that the people who wrote this were using a very odd grinder indeed (in terms of a skewed particle size distribution). For the Bunn, the 75% grind was fine enough for a drip brewer, in the cup, the cap of grinds fell apart and sank within two minutes, and the taste, even after a short 3 minute steep, was murky.

A 20 screen is a useful gadget to have for roughly setting up a grinder for FP or cupping; but I think the final result has to be done by taste. As I said, the most balanced and clearest flavor (also the most similar), came with the Bunn at 60% and the Vario at 50%.

For cupping, you cannot calibrate the grinder to each coffee; instead you have to use the same grind setting for all coffees. Just like the cupping roast, you pick the setting that lets you best distinguish the coffees, not the one that necessarily tastes best (although for the good coffees, the methods that produce best taste and most distinct taste are always close, probably as a matter of logic).

Since the Bunn was set to that level; I got the Vario to the same taste balance to compare them. After tasting the coffees, it felt like I had made a fair comparison. I admit this is a pretty half-assed way of comparing grinders; but I don't know anything better. I've tried using equal screen size or extraction yields, and the results have been useless. One grinder was always way worse than the other, in a way that was easily corrected by ignoring the physical measures and resetting the grind by taste.

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Postby JavaMD » May 09, 2013, 4:15 pm

I put a set of steel burrs in my Vario-w which I have paired with a Bunn Trifecta MB and noticed less bitterness and better taste after swapping out the ceramics. For pour over or press coffee it really seems to be the better set of burrs ....