It would be difficult to drive more than a few miles without passing several national coffee chains and, if you're like millions of consumers, stopping by for your daily favorite. Other espresso lovers skip the Green Mermaid in preference to their own homes because it's more convenient and because their own espresso is much better than what is available at commercial cafés.
While it may not seem obvious at first, one of the most important selections of your equipment ensemble is the coffee grinder. It's tempting to overlook the grinder and focus on the espresso machine because of its strong visual appeal and numerous options to consider. Don't fall into this trap. Reducing coffee beans to coffee grounds is the noisier and messier part of the job, but your espresso won't reach its potential unless it's done well and consistently by a top-notch grinder.
To save you the trouble of wading through a vast array of coffee grinders ranging from department store close-outs to commercial espresso grinders, this feature spotlight heads straight to the top and reviews the crème de la crème. Or what I suggest may be your "permanent cure" for upgrade fever. Are you ready to check out the last grinder you'll ever need?
Then let's get it on!
The review first turns to the Mazzer Mini doser model (third coffee grinder pictured below on the right) and the doserless models Type A and Type B (last two grinders pictured on the right).
The Mazzer Mini is an immensely popular choice among espresso enthusiasts. In the world of commercial cafés, the Mazzer Mini serves as a secondary grinder for decaffeinated coffee or the main grinder for lower-volume establishments. It's an example of combining pleasing form and excellent function. Three years ago Mark Prince's espresso grinder detailed review on CoffeeGeek.com declared "the Mazzer Mini simply cannot be beat." Many agree, including me, that it set the standard by which all consumer grinders were measured.
Since then, other grinders have come to the market, notably the Macap M4 (first grinder pictured above). The number of similarities between it and the Mini is striking. The Macap improves on some areas. One significant distinction is its choice of either incremental grind adjustment or stepless settings. The Macap also pushes the aesthetic pleasure up a notch by featuring a chromed housing and thick smoked-plastic hopper and doser. Paired with an espresso machine brimming with similarly polished eye candy, your home café can border on functional art.
Although the Cimbali Junior is the shortest of the six grinders by a hair, it's the heaviest and in many ways the most "serious" looking. Its design gives consideration to styling, but make no mistake about it—this grinder is all business. Years ago, Junior was only found in cafés since its pricing put it out of the reach of all but the most influent home baristas. Thanks to added competition and the buying power of e-commerce retailers, the Cimbali Junior is priced today in the same ballpark as the Mazzer and Macap.
All six of the grinders featured here are commercial quality; some argue they are "overkill" for home use. I concede that may be true for capacity and durability, but in terms of grind quality, serious espresso fans emphatically agree on one point: The coffee grinder is a key factor separating ordinary espresso from the extraordinary.
Resist the temptation to economize on the grinder in deference to your espresso machine selection. Smart shoppers decide on the grinder first and then choose an espresso machine. Each time the day's cloud of worries cluttering your thoughts is whisked away in a wave of enjoyment of fine espresso, you'll complement yourself on a wise decision.
Really, it's true.
The principle elements of making espresso are captured in four Italian words:
- Mano dell'operatore (hand of the operator)
- Macinadosatore (grinder-doser)
- Miscela (coffee blend)
- Macchina espresso (espresso machine).
Each of these elements plays an important role and the strength in one rarely compensates entirely for the weakness in another.
I've ordered these factors by what I believe are their relative importance. You may be surprised to see the espresso machine ranked last. This isn't to suggest it isn't important— it obviously is —but rather recognition of your ability to adapt your barista technique to obtain the best result. To put it another way, above a certain level in espresso machines, the majority of improvements are more about quality of materials and workmanship, capacity, and ease of producing the desired result than an "absolute potential." What further proof does one need than sampling a half-dozen commercial cafés? Practically all cafés purchase from among the best equipment available, but invariably a few outshine their peers thanks to their superior baristas.