As Jim has alluded to, I received a white Niche Zero grinder in early January and have been testing it since (just a fancier way to say I am using it to make coffee...:p ). Introduction:
Before getting onto the Niche Zero bandwagon, I already had a Monolith Conical
which is arguably the best single-dosing conical burrs grinder on the market and does everything I've had hoped for. So in theory I should be upgraditis-proof (emphasis on the in theory
). Yet I did have my interest piqued by the Niche Zero, for a few reasons other than to improve my quality in the cup.
First, the price was reasonably affordable (for an espresso equipment that is) and with the ringing endorsement from DaveC
, it was worth a try to 'play' with. Secondly, I was curious how it managed to achieve zero retention with minimal static, something that most single-dosing grinders have not been able to achieve without extra maneuvers like RDT and/or mechanically clearing out the exit chute. Lastly, I had a burning question that remained unanswered for the longest time - How important is grinder's alignment? Is good enough good enough?
Will a mass-produced grinder be able to stand up to a precision-focused grinder like the Monolith?
I ordered the Niche via the Indiegogo platform, which is a crowd-funding website. When the time came, I received a shipping notification from the Niche team and the grinder soon arrived on the week after. So the ordering process, albeit unconventional, was a smooth process. When the box arrived, the packaging was well thought out and the grinder was well protected within the double-box.First impressions:
Coming from commercial/prosumer-grade grinders, this thing is super lightweight! At just around 9 lbs/4.1 kg, I could easily lift it single-handedly like a medium-weight dumbbell and I am not joking! Try that with any other prosumer grinder! However, because it is so light, the build quality and longevity are of course a major concern at first (still is, but it will be an extended ongoing assessment instead).
Despite how unimpressively it looks (to say it feels like a toy when compared to the Monolith is not an exaggeration), boy, does it work as advertised! Measure your bean dose, pour it in, and you will get what you put in*. No muss no fuss!
*Within 0.1 g variance most of the time, except for the very first out-of-the-box grind where I lost about 0.5 g, presumably used to fill up the nooks and crevices in the grinder and won't be making into the cup.The retention (or lack thereof) is good. How about the performance?
I have no problem in getting even, delicious and consistent extraction. For me, there is no doubt the Niche will benefit from WDT. I am not as good as Jim in cocktail-shaking (which I perceive, rightly or wrongly, as a variation of WDT to homogenize the grind). Instead, I use a chopstick to stir the grind in the cup before transferring into the filter basket (this technique was suggested by other Niche user on the UK coffee forum).
I think the need for WDT/homogenizing the grind is a general trade-off for single dosing (we can go into more details with speculations but that probably does not belong in this review). Even with the Monolith Conical (and almost all other grinders I've used in the past), I do find that the extraction similarly improved with WDT. So this is not to be perceived as a shortcoming particular to the Niche. If you are using a darker roasted coffee (easier to pull) and are okay with minor visual imperfection on a bottomless extraction (which may or may not be noticeable enough in the cup), you might find it is perfectly acceptable or even desirable to skip this on the Niche entirely.Grind setting adjustment:
The grind adjustment is intuitive and repeatable. Despite looking similar to Mazzer-style adjustment system (i.e. spring-loaded burr carrier on a threaded neck), it is anything but! Adjustment is smooth and small adjustment is easily done. Going back and forth (still within the espresso range, but for different coffees) often landed me close enough to the dialled in extraction zone ('close enough' because I hadn't properly documented the numbers but at no time I feel like my extraction time was off/changed significantly).
There were a few reports from early adopters (out of the many units shipped) that the grind setting can creep under use. With a little creativity, a cable tie, and an exercise of self-discipline by sticking to one coffee, I can conclusively say that did not happen on my unit and the issue of grind setting creep is possibly isolated cases which may have been fixed now.Extending the grind setting pointer with a snipped cable tie and some transparent tape:
As confirmed by many others, it does sound relatively quiet and not-objectable when compared to louder grinders like Baratza Sette or Breville Smart Grinder etc.Quality in the cup/taste:
It is probably too early and the sample size is too small to draw a definitive conclusion. But like Jim, I saw very little/subtle difference when compared with 'titan' conical grinder. As Jim aptly noted (something I haven't thought of before), as a caveat, I am using a commercial spring lever which is known to be forgiving. So the taste difference/gap may be not as large as it would otherwise be using other machines (say the Semiautomatica).
I had the Niche Zero in a side by side comparison with my main grinder at the time - the Monolith Conical. From my non-blind impression, I did not see the cup quality being at all inferior to what I get from the Monolith. After dialing them in to similar metrics, my passing impression was that the taste were very close. If I had to say, the first sip of the shot from Monolith was consistently a tad more angular/sharp, where as the Niche's tends to be slightly smoother. Again, it is worth mentioning again the difference was quite subtle (to this unrefined palate!) and it may have been due to unforeseen factors (and perhaps the gap in difference could be enlarged or even inverted with a less forgiving machine!).
I also did extraction yield measurements on both (to satisfy the refractometry geeks :p ) and they were virtually indistinguishable - averaging about 20% extraction yield at a brew ratio of 1:2. Note that this is unfiltered refractometry reading using an Atago TDS meter, and for reference 20+/- 0.5% EY has always been my average baseline for the Monolith across most of my home roasts. I am under no illusion thinking that the Niche has a better alignment (more on that later), but rather, I think that is the result of the minor difference in the burrs design and that alignment probably does not matter too much beyond a certain threshold.Workflow:
Niche Zero is not a fast-grinding grinder when compared to commercial grinders. But it did make up for that in the ease of use in the work flow. i.e. it doesn't require much active effort from the user. On many single dosing grinders you'd be doing RDT, sweeping the chute, blowing out the grind etc. On the Niche, all you need to do is pour in your measured dose and watch the beans getting sucked in and chewed up by the 63mm Mazzer Kony burrs. There's nothing else you need to do. You don't even need to slide the portafilter onto the portafilter holder, because there is none! During this time (when the beans are being ground), I would usually do a quick screen flush on the espresso machine and then dry the filter basket, and the Niche would have completed the grinding process at this point.
One unique 'feature' of the Niche is that you are grinding into a separate stainless steel cup rather than directly into the portafilter. For me, it did take some mental adjustment in the beginning. But it is just a different work flow and does not feel any more cumbersome than grinding directly into a portafilter. This arrangement probably won't work in a commercial setting but for home, it is definitely acceptable (for me). On the Niche, I did try grinding directly into portafilter with a funnel to contain the ground, but it ended up being a more cumbersome workflow as there is more staticky mess (without RDT).
Occasionally (especially with peaberry coffees), there will be a bean or two that popcorns and resists getting ground (just jumping above the burrs). You can either let it be and the beans will eventually be ground. Or like Jim/I do, pulse the switch (turn off the switch for a second before turning on again). For a 18 g dose, the grinding process typically takes about 15-25 sec (about 1 g per sec), depending on how efficient are the last few beans being fed into the burrs.
I thought it was worth mentioning, I was seriously skeptical of the zero retention claim at first and was measuring the input/output religiously - I was just not used to getting zero retention without having to put in any effort! Now I have come to accept it and no longer weighs the output.
I have disassembled the Niche on a few occasions, and indeed found very little retention on the inside (around 0.5 g including the grind caked on the burrs).Alignment:
As pointed out by early adopters of Niche Zero, I can clearly see some movement of the outer burr carrier (along with the outer burr) when I push on it. Based on that, it should make horrible/unacceptable shots yeah? Try as I might, I couldn't prove that is the case. The extraction is consistent, and I am not under-extracting the coffee. What could be the explanation here? All I can think of is, beyond a certain point of 'precision', the design of the burrs will be more important than the 'alignment'. Perhaps conical burrs do have 'self-aligning' capability to some extent. Secondly, conical burrs are probably less sensitive to alignment when compared to flat burrs.
Over the last few years, the emphasis on burrs alignment has been quite enlightening. Yet at the same time it had caused some of us grieves by making us feeling insecure or second-guessing ourselves (Is my grinder aligned? Am I getting the best possible taste out of the grinder? etc. Those were true at least for me). Based on the experience I have with the two examples here, I think it is possible we might've gone a bit too obsessive in some cases. At least for my palate/setup and for conical burrs, I saw no significant benefit in obsessing over the minuscule precision improvement once it is within the acceptable zone/range. This is not to say alignment is not important - it is, but it is likely less important than what I had thought and there is certainly a point of diminishing return. You don't magically get god shots by having a perfectly aligned grinder alone, and it is not the end of the world if you don't have a perfectly aligned grinder. The taste and the result are still largely determined by the other aspects in the variables chain of espresso-making.
So is the Niche the perfect grinder for everyone? I don't think this is the case either. In the next part of the review, I will share more of my thoughts (more details about the grinder, possibly more on the shortcoming to balance out the review ;p ) and a mini summary (for whom the grinder will be best for in my opinion etc) to conclude my 2 months+ of daily usage. Of course, this is only my one-man opinion based on the unit I've received and I personally am looking forward to see if my take aligns or completely contradicts with others!
Feel free to ask in the comment thread
if you have any particular question or if you have something to share and to be included in this bench review!