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Baratza Vario Grinder - Second Look

Postby shadowfax on Mon Mar 09, 2009 1:24 pm


I apologize for the delay to anyone that's been on the edge of their seat waiting for this ( :lol: right). If you've been following the reviews of the Baratza Vario, then you've no doubt seen the First Look that I gave about 6 weeks ago. PT's Coffee has graciously sponsored our informal review of this grinder by providing a pre-production unit for review, plenty of their amazing coffee, including their signature espresso blends, as well as a few bags of their Special Prep Sidamo, which has proved one of the more exceptional coffees that I've had the pleasure of drinking. I'd like to thank PT's for donating their coffee and helping me out with any questions I've had.

Unfortunately, my pre-production unit had some problems with grind quality that I think may have been the result of some misalignment of the burrs. Of course, you can read about all that in the previous thread. You'll find that I got in touch with Kyle Anderson, the man behind the Baratza Vario, and he and Mark Prince tried to troubleshoot the grinder, unfortunately to no avail. However, Kyle offered to send Dan and I review units directly, and so the grinders Dan and I later received were sent straight from Baratza.

About a week and a half ago, Dan received his Vario, and soon took it up to Counter Culture Coffee, only to see it easily bested by CCC's Robur, producing very unimpressive shots. Dan continued to work with the grinder, and later reported much improved shots over its initial showing at CCC. He took it back the next Friday, and they pitted it against the infamous Mazzer Mini. The result: A dead heat.

Now that I've had my final unit for a few days and Dan has his for over a week and a half, we thought we'd start a clean slate for the grinder with a new thread, aptly titled the "Second Look." So, without further ado, here are my findings so far, presented with photos to help out on some of the questions that have been posed by owners that may have had some confusion about some of the subtler parts of the grinder.

To start off, a number of people were confused about the grinder interlock mechanism. Here's a short set on that:

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Back side: mate the long, narrow rib of the hopper to the slot in the rear of the grinder throat.

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Front side: mate the shorter, thick rib on the opposite side of the hopper to the slot in the front side of the grinder throat. Push the hopper down into the throat, and rotate clockwise.

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Closeup of the goal: Make the long, skinny rib push this button.

Note that if the grinder won't turn on, you can remove the hopper, start the grinder in manual mode (it will count up on the digital display), and press this button. If the grinder still doesn't turn on, you've got a problem.

Note: I ran about a pound of old beans through the grinder to season it. I did this by grinding in ~30 second bouts with about a minute rest in between. The grinder got pretty darn hot. At the end, it wouldn't turn on when I tried to run the supplied Urnex Grindz through it. It wouldn't turn back on for several minutes. However, after it cooled down, it ran as normal, and the burrs sounded the same as before (started to change sounds at the same settings, etc.).

While I was seasoning the grinder, I got plenty of grind samples to look through. This grinder doesn't have the same "sawtooth," monster-particle issue as the pre-preproduction unit. That's a good sign! I also got to look at what the static is like.

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After banging the thing against the trash bin to get all the grinds out, this is what I am left with.

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Which reminds me--Baratza has certainly advertised their Mahlkönig burrset on the grinder. This sticker made me think of the Intel Inside stickers that are plastered on so many computers the world over.

Now, before I touch on grinding for espresso, here's some more photos of the Vario, of various aspects of the final version that I didn't touch on in my previous coverage.

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The Portaholder, at its highest setting. It doesn't really hold my portafilter up, and seems like it was designed more for a La Marzocco portafilter as its smallest portafilter.

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The naked portafilter in the portaholder. I had to bend the portaholder's fork up slightly (quite easy to do) to get it to hold the thing even close to level.

For the rounded bowl of the Elektra A3 portafilter, the fork is more cumbersome than helpful. It doesn't really hold the portafilter at the right angle or place, and it encumbers movement during dosing. The housing is nice; it's easy to remove, and it does a decent job at catching stray grinds. I took the fork off of mine, and I like it better that way.

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Cord management: nifty, works well, and it's one of the very handy features of the grinder that I really like.

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Random closeup of the exit chute for the grinder. Not much to see, other than that it's quite small. I can fit a pinky up there and wriggle it around to purge the grinds that get trapped. Smaller hands may fare better. It feels like there's a flap up there of some kind, which may explain the reduction in clumps.

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The grinds chamber, redux. No real difference, other than this is a totally clean grinder.

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The grinds chamber, redux, part II: upper burr.

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Assembled: the last thing that beans destined for the Vario ever see.

You can see how much metal there is in the grinds path (for the benefit of anyone who's interested in the Vario as a grinder that eliminates metal from touching the coffee).

Here's what things look like in the testing lab (A.K.A. my dining room), just before I make a huge mess of the place:

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I've wanted to get a good impression of the grinder over the weekend, but I have been thwarted by coffee that I am unfamiliar with, and good coffee that is getting somewhat past its prime. My Bella Vita is pulling fairly close on the Robur and the Vario, but it's not very nice on either of them due to its age. I've refused point blank to put any of my Los Luchadores in the Vario. I only have 12 oz. of the stuff, and it's giving me enough trouble as it is. The whole weekend it was grass, grass, and lemongrass. Finally this morning I got ginger in the shot, and maybe a hint of butterscotch in the macchiato, using the Robur. Anyway, enough of that tangent...

All that to say, I don't know much about this grinder's cup quality yet. The results in the cup so far are reasonably encouraging, as are Dan's reports. Confirming that, the pucks look better than last time:

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The big flakes are gone; it looks like a normal puck.

On the other hand, my grinder can just barely pull a ristretto with the beans I am using and a normal dose, and certainly can't choke the machine without some serious updosing. I got all kinds of messy gushers dialing it down. I've ended up all the way fine on the right (macro), and about 2-3 notches from the very finest the grinder goes on the left (micro). I believe that this may indicate that my grinder isn't quite calibrated optimally, which is an issue some others have complained of (e.g., James Hoffman noted that his Vario couldn't grind coarse enough for French Press). If it becomes an issue, I'll have to contact Kyle and see about adjusting the calibration.

Finally, here are a few more random observations I've come to thus far:

  • As I alluded to, it seems like the Vario is quite capable of producing a balanced cup. On too-old Bella Vita, I am getting better-tasting (though worse-looking) pours than I was with the same coffee before. This seems like a good sign--with some fresher coffee, I expect the pours will improve.
  • It looks like its apparently clump-free grind is slightly deceptive; I think it will still be a WDT candidate. it certainly seems to be rather sensitive to how you dose, and it's very possible that I just need to work with it more and find a good method that yields channel-free pours without getting out my yogurt cup and dissecting needle.
  • Whatever they did to solve static isn't working for me right now. I still get pretty significant messes on the counter; grounding the hook and fork doesn't seem to have helped for me. Holding the portafilter very low (without the fork) below the chute, which helped me before, seems to help for this unit as well. Static seems to be a very touchy problem for grinders, and I suspect your issues with it will vary sharply with your climate and coffee choice. Your mileage will certainly vary on this one.
I think that's it for me, for now. As Hal mentioned in the first look, it's too early to draw sweeping conclusions about this grinder, particularly about the parts that are most important--how good is it for espresso, and how good is it for cupping/press pot/etc.? If you're looking for the answers to those questions, there's no getting around that you're going to have to sit tight while the reviewers and early adopters get more experience.
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Postby tribe3 on Tue Mar 10, 2009 6:45 am

humm... A second "inconclusive" look. A politically correct way of saying that the grinder doesn't cut it
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Postby Bluecold on Tue Mar 10, 2009 6:59 am

shadowfax wrote:Note: I ran about a pound of old beans through the grinder to season it. I did this by grinding in ~30 second bouts with about a minute rest in between. The grinder got pretty darn hot. At the end, it wouldn't turn on when I tried to run the supplied Urnex Grindz through it. It wouldn't turn back on for several minutes. However, after it cooled down, it ran as normal, and the burrs sounded the same as before (started to change sounds at the same settings, etc.).

Not surprising the grinder overheated. The max. duty cycle is 25%. And waiting 1 minute after 30 seconds gives 33%. Which is more.
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Postby HB on Tue Mar 10, 2009 7:03 am

tribe3 wrote:humm... A second "inconclusive" look. A politically correct way of saying that the grinder doesn't cut it

Not really. If you peruse the other threads in the Bench forum, you'll find that we don't rush to conclusions. This vs. That shootouts are fun and make for good reading, but I have more confidence in evaluation results spread out over 2-3 months.
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Postby RE*AC*TOR on Tue Mar 10, 2009 7:17 am

The big flakes are apparent on grinds from my unit.

Picture about 2/3 way down http://theotherblackstuff.ie/?p=383
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Postby dsc on Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:48 am

Hi guys,

I was just about to mention David's flake problem which means that Nicholas's one wasn't just a one time thing. I'm not sure why that happens, but I would bet my money on the way the burrs are held which seems to be inefficient. Maybe tougher/harder beans move the burrs further away and this lets out some of the coarser stuff into the basket?

Overheating after 30s of grinding? Seriously? even with a minute of pause in-between? and I heard somewhere this is suppose to be a light-duty commercial grinder. Light-duty as in 'don't use more often than once per hour'?:)

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Postby Wenxell on Sat Mar 14, 2009 9:59 am

I've been using the Vario since I received it (last Friday?). Being relatively new to the concept of quality grinds (was using a Krups not realizing it was not an espresso grinder), it took me quite a while to get the grind setting right. My technique for tamping was miserable until I read the WDT article. While I don't use that technique, I am paying attention to the distribution and that has helped tremendously. Once I figured that out, I was finally able to settle on the correct grind (as far as my limited experience can tell). One morning before work, I ground my first shot and ran it through and it was finished in less than 15 seconds. I was baffled. Then I looked at the setting on the Vario and both levers were on the coarse settings. I accused my kids of playing with the levers. They laughed at me thinking I had gone of the deep end. Well, the next day, I was grinding and the levers started moving down all by themselves! Has anyone else experienced this? I know others have commented on the lack of tactile locking of the levers into each setting. I was grinding Ethiopian that I roasted in a Whirly Pop. It was a very light roast and grassy (yuck). But thats another story. The reason I mention this is I think the beans are harder than correctly roasted beans and this is causing the levers to move down as the beans push on the burrs. Grinding these beans results in a very loud, clunky noise while store bought beans are quieter and smoother sounding. Does this sound reasonable?
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Postby dsc on Sat Mar 14, 2009 10:07 am

Hi Wendell,

it might be a faulty model, or the thing I was talking/worried about earlier (ie. the way the burr changes position). We still don't know how the whole slider/lever mechanism works, so it's hard to tell what's going on, but your problems and the fact that some models produce coarse grinds when grinding on a fine setting might be an indication that the grinder can't handle bigger/harder beans.

Nicholas/Dan: have you tried grinding some elephant beans with the Vario? Nicholas if you have any of the Los Luchadores you can try. I think peaberries are also a bit tougher than normal beans.

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Postby shadowfax on Sat Mar 14, 2009 4:43 pm

I cupped Los Luchadores at a little south of French press. I didn't have any trouble grinding with it. Several of the blends I have run through the grinder have also contained peaberries, and I haven't noticed any trouble with them. I would guess that it's a problem with something not being tensioned right on Wendell's grinder.
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Postby Marshall on Sat Mar 14, 2009 9:02 pm

shadowfax wrote:All that to say, I don't know much about this grinder's cup quality yet.

Then shouldn't this review have waited until you do? Baratza has a lot riding on this product, and many prospective buyers will Google their way to your Second Look.

Instead of a lot of random, largely negative, observations about secondary features, didn't the manufacturers ultimately deserve that it be tested in the cup with fresh coffee you feel competent with?
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