Next Grinder Upgrade?

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
avaserfi

#1: Post by avaserfi »

Hey all, I've had a Vario-W since early in its life cycle. It replaced a used Mazzer Mini at the time. I use it to pull a couple shots of espresso a day, maybe a little more some days, but pretty light use. After the first few years of use, its required various maintenance as quality slips (plastic parts moving over time?). About 4-5 years ago it couldn't grind sufficiently for espresso and I sent it in for refurbishment. When I got it back the issue was still present, so I was sent a replacement refurbished unit. Its done okay, but recently a number of issues have popped up and at this point two shots pulled within 5 minutes of each other act differently enough that it is clear the grind isn't staying consistent. A few days ago the grinder stopped working, I think a belt might have busted - it makes a very high pitch sound while running and the burrs do not spin.

I'm not really excited to spend a bunch of money on a grinder, but have never been fully satisfied with the Vario-W between it breaking every 18 months and inconsistent shots. I've read that there have been lots of updates to the internal components over the last few years. Will they really make that much of a difference? I'm waiting to hear back from customer support, but I'm contemplating sending it in for some upgrades (or doing them myself, depending on cost).

Alternatively, are there other options these days that are worth considering? To be honest, I'm willing to drop the ability to grind by weight for a more reliable grind. I've tried doing some research, but have been out of the game so long its overwhelming. My espresso machine is a plumbed in Expobar Brewtus IV.

Thanks

User avatar
Jeff
Team HB

#2: Post by Jeff »

Lots of options out there. To help narrow things down a bit knowing some of these might help people

Do you have a budget in mind?

What characteristics do you value in a shot of espresso (taste and texture both are fair game)?

What sorts of beans do you grind for espresso? Classic Italian or "comfort" roasts? US filter roasts? European or Asian filter roasts?

What do you think about spending 30-45 seconds per shot with a hand grinder?

avaserfi (original poster)

#3: Post by avaserfi (original poster) »

Jeff wrote:Do you have a budget in mind?
I don't yet. It really looks like the grinder world has changed a ton. Last time I looked it was spend over $1k for a few commercial options, find a used SJ or the Vario came out. If I replace the Vario, I probably won't want to spend more than $500.
Jeff wrote:What characteristics do you value in a shot of espresso (taste and texture both are fair game)?
In the shot itself, I hope the grinder is consistent from cup to cup and relatively easy to dial in. For flavor and texture - I generally judge by comparing the nose of the fresh beans to that of the shot pulled. I really prefer when there is continuity from the beans to the cup.I like seeing a decent crema that provides some good creamy body and as balanced a cup (sweet/acid/bitter) as the coffee will allow. I tend to find the vario becomes more insipid and thin overtime and the second shot of the day tends to run 20-30% faster than the first which causes it to be overly bright.

I tend towards pulls in the 35-40 second range. Generally 17g in a VST basket yielding about 36-40g of coffee. Of course that changes depending on the bean.
Jeff wrote:What sorts of beans do you grind for espresso? Classic Italian or "comfort" roasts? US filter roasts? European or Asian filter roasts?
We have a number of great shops around where I live. I tend to grab a bag of whatever is recommended, fresh and in season. Often single origins light to medium roast, with the occasionally darker roast mixed in.
Jeff wrote:What do you think about spending 30-45 seconds per shot with a hand grinder?
I'm not necessarily opposed to it, but I'm not sure I'd love it either.

baldheadracing
Team HB

#4: Post by baldheadracing »

I still use my Vario (non-W) regularly, but it is modified with the Forté metal grind chamber and upper burr carrier (both of which Baratza installed), the flipped flapper needed for single dosing, the Ditting steel burrs, and Alicorn alignment. I think that this combination is better for medium and lighter roasts than a stock ceramic-burred Vario, albeit less forgiving of less-than-meticulous puck preparation. The steel burrs also do not have as wide a "sweet spot" as more conventional espresso burrs, so they are harder to dial in.

However, I have never experienced what you have experienced between first and second shots that was due to my Vario, even when it was stock.

Under $500, the Pharos hand grinder will give more crema, and is more forgiving of puck prep. A large conical burr remains the easiest to dial in IMO. I've only recently changed to the (now over-priced) big conical burr'd Weber Key because I don't want to setup a Pharos in my office space. (The Pharos essentially needs to be attached to a counter, and it takes up quite a bit of desk space. )

There are also now compact electric grinders using 48mm conicals at low rpm that are finding favour like the Lagom Mini. (These use different burr designs and lower rpm than conventional 48mm conical electric grinders like the Bezzera BB005.) I have no experience, but such a grinder might work out well if you switch to a single-dose workflow.

If you do switch to a single-dose workflow, then the obvious choice if you go up in price a bit is the Niche Zero. There are also fans of the DF64, but the DF64 has never appealed to me - too much pfaffing about for me, but it is cheap if you can put up with its foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Good luck!
-"Good quality brings happiness as you use it" - Nobuho Miya, Kamasada

User avatar
Jeff
Team HB

#5: Post by Jeff »

The Niche Zero is a great grinder in that price range. It doesn't need anything out of the box and is a pleasure to use. It is a bit above your target price at 565£ (about $625 today) delivered US.

The Lagom Mini, with either the Obsydian or Moonshine burrs comes in at just over $400 delivered US. I prefer both espresso and filter from what must US roasters would consider very light and don't have a problem with acidity in my coffee. I chose the Moonshine burrs. More classic tastes my prefer the Obsydian burrs. The Mini is not a heavy-duty grinder. It should be good for a couple of shots in a session, but isn't built to server a half-dozen espressos in one session.

There are a new crop of hand grinders in the $200-400 range, with many providing excellent grind quality and sufficient adjustability for espresso. Times have changed since the choices were basically Skerton or Porlex. Grinding up through medium roast for espresso is generally easy. Grinding European or Asian light filter roasts for espresso can be a bit jarring.

avaserfi (original poster)

#6: Post by avaserfi (original poster) »

I just noticed I could get a good condition super jolly or mini E used. Those are a bit cheaper than the Niche although for single dose home use the Niche seems to be nicer these days.
baldheadracing wrote:I still use my Vario (non-W) regularly, but it is modified with the Forté metal grind chamber and upper burr carrier (both of which Baratza installed), the flipped flapper needed for single dosing, the Ditting steel burrs, and Alicorn alignment. I think that this combination is better for medium and lighter roasts than a stock ceramic-burred Vario, albeit less forgiving of less-than-meticulous puck preparation. The steel burrs also do not have as wide a "sweet spot" as more conventional espresso burrs, so they are harder to dial in.
It sounds like you've basically turned your Vario to the Vario+ internally. How does it compare and would you say it was worth the cost? This is a strong consideration for me since it will be the path of least resistance. What did Baratza charge for the upgrades? I'm still waiting to hear back from their Customer support, but it seems like these upgrades along with a refresh could solve a number of my issues.

Have you used a Niche Zero before and compared to your modified Vario?
baldheadracing wrote:However, I have never experienced what you have experienced between first and second shots that was due to my Vario, even when it was stock.
Jeff wrote:The Niche Zero is a great grinder in that price range. It doesn't need anything out of the box and is a pleasure to use. It is a bit above your target price at 565£ (about $625 today) delivered US.
My wife really likes the look of this one. For the price is seems pretty solid option too.
Jeff wrote:There are a new crop of hand grinders in the $200-400 range, with many providing excellent grind quality and sufficient adjustability for espresso. Times have changed since the choices were basically Skerton or Porlex. Grinding up through medium roast for espresso is generally easy. Grinding European or Asian light filter roasts for espresso can be a bit jarring.
Maybe I haven't been paying as much attention in the last few years, but what exactly are European or Asian light filter roasts? I'm not 100% familiar with the terminology these days. I guess I got a little comfortable with my setup and let the coffee world pass me by.

User avatar
Jeff
Team HB

#7: Post by Jeff »

TL;DR -- If you're pulling comfort espresso blends, the beans generally don't cause issues with hand grinding.

As far as I know, there isn't a standard for what a "medium" or "light" roast is. The lighter the roast, generally the harder the beans. Harder beans take more force to grind. With most of the filter-roast beans I've gotten from US roasters, they've been medium or medium-light on the scale of a roast-level color meter, even if the roaster is calling them "light". The European and Asian roasters' filter roasts can be even lighter than these. These can be hard enough to cause the handle of a hand grinder to "stick" or "jam" and you need to back off before continuing. This is more of an issue with fine grinds like espresso than it is with coarser filter grinds.

*sigh*

#8: Post by *sigh* »

The vario is one of the best options in the $500 range. The upgrades they have available are well worth it and certainly improve and already great grinder.

I know you mentioned you had some inconsistency, have you tried to align the burrs at all in your vario? Sometimes things get out of whack and can cause issues, especially for espresso.

baldheadracing
Team HB

#9: Post by baldheadracing »

avaserfi wrote:... It sounds like you've basically turned your Vario to the Vario+ internally. How does it compare and would you say it was worth the cost? This is a strong consideration for me since it will be the path of least resistance. What did Baratza charge for the upgrades? I'm still waiting to hear back from their Customer support, but it seems like these upgrades along with a refresh could solve a number of my issues.

Have you used a Niche Zero before and compared to your modified Vario?
A Vario+, but with steel burrs. I was one of the first to retrofit the Forte grind chamber after Nuketopia did it so the price I paid in 2019 was for a flat-rate full refurb plus the price of the Forte parts. I just looked and can't find the bill, and I think that Baratza does individual quotations now.

It was worth the cost to me as my stock Vario would not grind fine enough for espresso after I had fitted the steel burrs back in 2015. I have no experience with the ceramic burrs after 2015 and my memory isn't that good - all I remember is that the ceramics did a mediocre job for everything non-espresso.

Note that Baratza is not going to do Jake's Alicorn alignment procedure - it is not economically feasible for them to do that on a refurb. You'll have to do that procedure yourself.

As for the Niche Zero - I've never used one. I have a few :oops: conical grinders with burrs from 38mm Tre Spade to 83mm Mazzer so I've never felt the need. The Niche's Mazzer Kony burrs (and Niche burr rpm with Niche flow control disk) are suited to a wide variety of espresso roasts, whereas the Ditting steel burrs on the Vario shine with light espresso and filter roasts. (Again, I don't remember much about the ceramic burrs.)
avaserfi wrote:My wife really likes the look of this one.
That would make up my mind :D.

Seriously though, between the two brand-new, I would take a Niche over an Alicorn-aligned Vario for daily espresso. (Again, I don't remember the ceramic burrs.) The only exception would be light roasts intended for filter coffee, where I would take the aligned Vario with the steel burrs over the Niche.

... and Jeff is right, we don't have standard roast levels (outside of roasting nomenclature like colour measurement and timing of roast milestones). However, by "light roasts intended for filter coffee," I think that we're both referring to roasts so light that they would result in a sour-tasting mess when pulled in traditional equipment like a Brewtus and a Vario (ceramic burrs). A light roast is impossible to crush between your fingers, but crunches easily between your teeth. A light filter roast requires a noticeable amount of jaw effort to crunch through. (The lightest roast - a "white roast" - feels like it will break your jaw when you try to crunch through.)
-"Good quality brings happiness as you use it" - Nobuho Miya, Kamasada
★ Helpful

MatGreiner
Supporter ♡

#10: Post by MatGreiner »

I had short experience with a Niche and agree it's a great grinder at the +/- $600 area it was introduced in. I also have a Vario refurbed once and Alicorned, now happily used for pourover or decaf. My Vario serves very well, but Niche > Vario.

Looking at new prices, the [non-hand] grinders I'd consider are all over $600. There are crowded fields of depends-what-you-want-no-wrong-answers between $650 and $1,200.

As for weight--an accurate timed dose meets my needs. Check reviews if this is important to you. Many grinders can deliver within a few tenths of a gram most of the time. I use a scale to stop brewing, so use the same scale to set dose.
LMWDP #716: Jeez, kids! Don't swing on that!