Niche Zero Grinder Review

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
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another_jim
Team HB

Postby another_jim » Mar 10, 2019, 3:48 pm

Ten years ago, when we did the Titan Grinder Project, several of the commercial conical grinders, those by Macap, Fiorenzato, and Compak, cost around $800. They were low volume items, used by very few cafes. Once their virtues for high end espresso became obvious (we at HB may have had something to do with it), their cost went up to around $1500. This was also the cost of the first single dosing grinder built for hobbyists, the Versalab.

In the last ten years, we have gotten a far wider choice of titan conicals and flats, including many single dosing models built expressly for hobbyists; but except for some outstanding manual models, the minimum price of entry remains around $1500.

Enter the Niche Zero:

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It's a crowd sourced grinder that, to put it impolitely, looks like an overgrown Krups blade grinder that got hit by a truck. But it contains the superb 63mm Kony conical burr, a quiet DC motor, geared down to drive the burrs at 330 rpm, and a tilted single dosing design (the "hit by a truck" part). And all for a cost of around $700 and a two month wait.

So is the Niche a legit single dosing titan grinder sold at a basic grinder price? Stay tuned for the assessment by the folks who brought you the original Titan Grinder Project, HB.

There is already a very complete review of the grinder's design, build and specifications by DaveC. So our review will be a pass around, and focused on comparisons to other grinders, subjective taste and ergonomic impressions, and some blind taste testing. At HB, we go public with reviews after an initial private assessment to make sure the effort is worthwhile. In this case, Sam (samuaellaw178) and I purchased grinders and have used them, Sam for a few months, me for a few weeks, confirming what is already a substantial assessment by early adopters.

Bench threads are kept closed, so once the review is done, it's easy to read. As an experiment, I've opened a comment thread in the Bench section. Please post your own mini-reviews or questions for reviewers; we'll incorporate the good posts into the review thread in a readable format. The first adopter's thread contains information about ordering, add ons, and other matters that are not part of a review, please continue to use that thread for such information.
Jim Schulman

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another_jim
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Postby another_jim » Mar 10, 2019, 6:43 pm

Comparison with the Compak K10 WBC

Single Dosing: I use the Compak for single dosing only, and have been doing so for the past 10 years. My habit is to dose into baskets outside the PF (I use weakened retaining clips in my PFs, so the baskets are easy to pop in and out). This is useful for blind espresso tasting, which I do a lot of, since I can use matched baskets, discretely marked at the lip, that can be shuffled, pulled, and tasted with great ease. Think of a PF with a non-removable basket as a an 18th century musket, and this system as having cartridges.

To prep a basket with the Compak takes on average about 70 seconds. Most of the time is spent pulsing the grinder to clean out the grind chamber and thwacking the doser. Despite this time, I haven't been tempted by single dosing grinders since early models tended to need WDT, be staticky and messy. Over the course of trying them, I came to the conclusion that grinding directly into the basket, then dealing with the static, mess, and clumps, was a huge waste of time disguised as a time saver.

One of the big innovations of the Niche, as far as I'm concerned, is the cup that is machined to fit a 58mm basket (search the early adopter thread for adaptor options too other basket sizes). I use this as a cocktail shaker, and after a few shakes the clumps are gone, there's no need for WDT (I grind fine, YMMV). So weighing the dose ahead, grinding, doing the cocktail shake and prepping the basket averages about 55 seconds. Not a big time gain, but the whole procedure is more pleasant. The Niche is the first single dosing grinder whose work flow I really enjoy.

Noise and Grind Speed Noise is a wash; both grinders have a lovely soft growl as they grind, and no sound at all when the beans are done. The Compak is about three times as fast as the Niche for pure grinding speed. I've experimented with insets to prevent popcorning of the final beans on the Niche, but they don't make much difference. If I'm in a hurry, I pulse the grinder as soon as most of the beans are ground to help the stragglers into the burrs. This too isn't much of speed up. In any case, the tidiness of the grinder more than makes up for the popcorning of straggler beans.

Grind Adjustment No contest here, the Niche is a hands down winner. I was "yeah sure" skeptical about the claim that one could move back and forth between espresso and drip grinds with no degradation in grind settings. So far, after about 15 back and forths, this has been the case. Here the virtue of conical burrs figures. The threading of the Niche burr carrier is a little wider than on conventional espresso grinders, making the adjustment much easier. But there is no real penalty in properly adjusting the grind in the fine grind/low dose (or special basket) espresso range, since the conical burrs are far more forgiving in this regard than flats.

I pulled out my Elektra Semiautomatica, a dragon machine with no fine temperature or pressure control, so that the dose and grind settings have to do all the work, and the Niche was still perfectly good for dealing with the challenge. Since this is the unforgiving machine on which I did my part of the TGP testing, it makes for a more meaningful comparison than using the much more forgiving preinfusing and profiling machines available now.

And the big one .... Taste: The results here are preliminary, just a quick exploration to see if the Niche can play with the big boys. I spent a week doing side by sides of the Niche and Compak on the Bianca, roughly 15 pairs of shots, using various coffees from Dragonfly, and I honestly couldn't tell the difference. All the shots were so close to identical that saying one was better would have been forced. The results were as if they came from the same grinder.

So game over, and the Niche joins the ranks of the Titans? Not so fast ... It occurred to me that the Bianca might not the best machine for testing grinders; since with all its on the fly profiling capacity, it could probably get a full extractions out of beans cracked like pepper with a frying pan. That is why I pulled out the Semi and spent the weekend doing side by siders with it. And here's where I got the puzzle: if I set the Compak and Niche grinds so the same dose delivered the same dwell and flow rates, the Niche had consistently and easily tasteable higher extractions than the Compak.

It got so that I could tell which shot came from which grinder even trying a new coffee. The effect was consistent over several grind setting and doses. This is something I've not run into before; and I've been working on the assumption that if you get the same flow from the same dose, you'll also get the same extraction. Needless to say, my preference for the shots depended on the coffee. Softer, sweeter coffees tasted better at lower extractions (from the Compak), more angular coffees tasted better at higher extractions (from the Niche).

For those of you who make high extractions your holy grail, chuck your EKs and SSP burred hulk grinders, and get a Niche. It's tweaked Kony burrs are an extraction monster. But for the rest of us, especially me, this is a puzzle. How should I do side by side testing? Everyone reading this, please feel free to comment (in the comment thread)
Jim Schulman

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Postby another_jim » Mar 11, 2019, 2:57 pm

More Comparisons with the Compak K10 WBC

Protocol: Today I did 6 paired comparison shots, 2 each at 12, 14, and 16 grams, on the Elektra Semiautomatica, using a marmalade and toast flavored Huehuetenango, a light-medium roast done to the end of the first crack, and roasted for 2 minutes 45 seconds after the first crack onset. The coffee tastes bready and stale if it is too pulled too soft, and citrusy if pulled too angular. It is a delight when you hit its sweet spot. On the Niche, the grind settings were 12, 14.5, and 17 for the three weights (maybe with just the right basket, I can get the scale numbers to equal the dose grams 8) ).

Results: In each pairing, the Niche had a softer taste, and I was able to pick it out at each round. The difference in taste became less obvious at the higher doses/coarser grinds as both coffees became more angular. The Compak hit the sweet spot at 14 grams, the Niche at 16.

Discussion: Given that this is the second round where the shots were consistently distinguishable on the basis of the softness or angularity in taste; I am confident that this is a real difference between the two grinders. How general the difference is, whether it's just a difference between these two particular grinders, or the grinder models, or even the two burr sets, remains to be seen.

Another interesting thing, which needs to be replicated, is that the Niche's taste changed slightly more for each change in dose/grind setting than did the Compak's. This can be good or bad depending. For beginners or people using a wide range of doses and baskets, a grinder with less taste change to grind change, like the Compak, is easier. For people who dose precisely, and use a narrow range of dose weights, a grinder where small changes in dose are amplified in taste, is easier. Please note that in this respect, both grinders are at the slower changing end, with flat burr grinders, especially small ones, being faster changing.

Unless I get specific requests; this will be the end of my regular taste testing. The overall grind quality of the Niche is the same as the Compak's, and it peforms like a large commercial conical grinder. Durability aside, I will have no problem recommending this grinder as a match for almost all coffees and machines for those who single dose.

This does leave the issue of using it with very challenging light roasts on profiling machines. This is a controversial area that I may not be fully qualified to explore, since the current consensus is that large flat burr grinders are better for this purpose. Later reviewers will be able to make this comparison. Next week, I'll move back to using the Bianca with some very light roasts, and will report how well the Niche fares at this.
Jim Schulman

samuellaw178
Team HB

Postby samuellaw178 » Mar 11, 2019, 7:04 pm

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 :lol: ). 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.

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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.

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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:

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Noise: 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.

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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. :lol: 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).

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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!

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another_jim
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Postby another_jim » Mar 13, 2019, 10:31 pm

Cupping comparison with the Vario with brew burr, my cupping grinder.

The video is raw footage of the cupping; it is long (33 minutes) and quite boring unless you want to see what a blind coffee cupping is like. The set up is as follows. I blind cupped three coffees, two cups each, one ground by the Niche seet up to a French Press (aka cupping) grind, one by the Vario set similarly. Ideally I would pair up the cups correctly, identify the coffees, and distinguish the grinders correctly in each pair. Pairing the coffees correctly is a 1 in 15 shot, correctly IDing them puts it up to 90:1, correctly IDing the grinders in each pair puts it up to 360:1.

The video is more enjoyable if you don't know the outcome, so I'll link to the video first, and put the write up in afterwards (somehow, the spoiler tag is gone).



The coffees were a washed Yrgacheffe, a dry process Brazil, and a honey processed Geisha from Panama. I paired the coffees correctly, but confused the Geisha with the Yrg (it tasted more vividly floral, and remembered it being duller, due to the honey processing). I found the Vario clearer for the Geisha and Brazil, but harsher for the Yrg.

The results are far better than I expected. The differences between the grinders were small enough that I was able to distinguish the three coffees, all lightly roasted and mildly floral, and pair the same coffees from each grinder. The Vario with brew burr is an excellent cupping grinder, so the Niche did extremely well. The claim that this is an all purpose grinder seems to be more than just hot air.

In terms of cupping mechanics, both grinders are very convenient. But the Niche has a slight edge; it is quieter and faster (the Vario ceramic burr is fast, the brew burr is slow).
Jim Schulman
★★ Quite Helpful

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another_jim
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Postby another_jim » Apr 08, 2019, 4:56 pm

On Saturday, I took the grinder to a local meetup, and I passed around three paired shots of a wet processed Yrg, one done on the Niche, the other on a Monolith Flat with Mythos burrs. The results were odd. There is an idea about that titan conicals produce softer shots than titan flats. In our case, the Monolith Flat was softer than the Niche at 12 and 16 gram grind shots (the Elektra Semi likes low doses), but Niche was softer at 14 grams. The 12 and 14 grams shots tasted best, the 16 grand shot was underextracted and cartoony on both grinders. Nobody had much of a preference between grinders, since they brought out the same taste notes at the same clarity.

This was a short test, done in the context of a party, so just a minor data point, But in its defense:
-- It was blind (I was pulling shots and getting people's opinions without telling them what they were drinking).
-- Everyone drinking the shots agreed on how to characterize the taste differences. We had been using the same Yrg to play on some manual levers, so the tasters were familiar with it.
Jim Schulman

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another_jim
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Postby another_jim » Apr 09, 2019, 3:39 pm

The grinder is now on tour with other HB reviewers. Here are my final conclusions:
  • Kony conical burrs with roughly equal performance for espresso to all other titan conical grinders
  • Single dosing system is ultra convenient. Compared to the Monoltiths, for instance, the wider mouth, straight down spout, and 58mm catch cup make for a slightly more ergonomic experience
  • Build quality is a good domestic countertop standard; sound but not to the commercial or boutique standards of higher priced grinders. I'll be using the grinder for my daily shots from now on, so check back in a couple of years for reliability.
  • Grind quality for brewing is good, but not as good as high end specialty brew grinders. It is very easy and repeatable to change grind settings. Therefore, there is no other "all in one" grinder that even comes remotely close. However it is a good deal more expensive than most budget "all in one" grinders.
  • For someone looking for an uncompromising, single dosing espresso grinder on a budget, this is it. It will be replacing my Compak as my daily grinder.
Jim Schulman
★ Helpful

samuellaw178
Team HB

Postby samuellaw178 » Apr 12, 2019, 11:39 pm

Blind tasting comparison of Niche Zero with EK43, and other tests

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Last weekend, a couple of us HBers in Melbourne (Sam, Luca, John, Julian and Shauvik) got together to test the Niche Zero.

In the gathering, we have the following line-up:
(i) ACS Vesuvius as the espresso machine that does the shot pulling duty
(i) Niche Zero - the star of the day
(ii) Mazzer Kony (dosered - stock) - a few years old by now but has only been used domestically
(iii) EK43 with coffee burrs - Luca has spent quite a bit of hours in aligning the grinder using the marker method

We also have other grinders available : Comandante C40 MK3, Helor 101, Baratza Forte with steel burrs. But unfortunately we did not get to go through all of them due to time constraint.

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Photo: Calm before the storm...

Part 1 - The not-so-useful refractometer test

One of the very first tests we did was to pull some espresso shots and measure the TDS, just because Luca has a VST refractometer and I was curious if it would give a different conclusion than what I got previously with Atago refractometer. Our main focus was not to get the refractometer readings, but rather to dial in the grinders and to get a feel for the machine and grinders combination.

As for the beans of choice for this exercise, Luca had some mixed 'garbage' sacrificial beans laying around which he thought didn't taste good and/or slightly older. To set the context, I tasted some of the shots and my, some of his 'garbage' beans were actually pretty drinkable for my standard!

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Photo: One of the shots pulled using Luca's 'garbage' beans. The roast was definitely on the lighter side but I thought some of the shots were pretty aromatic. By the way, the timer doesn't reflect the actual shot time - it kept going after the shot has been cut.

Table: The results recorded in the session. Note that these shots were on the long side, as they were pulled to match the EK43. Longer shot typically yields higher extraction yield (EY).
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Outcome: It did appear that the EK43 consistently extracted a little more than either the Kony or the Niche, but not by much. The Kony and the Niche Zero were almost indistinguishable in terms of EY%, which is not surprising given they have the same burr set.

Note that we initially got almost 23% EY from the Kony for its second shot of the day. Turned out the Kony retained quite a bit of older coffee (it's a stock grinder which means the anti-static and finger guard were still in place) and took about 3 doses to get the old coffee in the grinder to be completely exchanged.

Honestly, the result wasn't all that surprising and the observations mirrored exactly what I saw at home (using Atago refractometer). A few caveats though: (i) Due to me (the barista) being in a new environment/machine and that we weren't being extremely meticulous with the measurement, I would put the margin of error to be somewhere around a generous +/- 1% EY :lol: (ii) the sample size was small and too limited to draw any useful conclusion (n=2 for each). We were more keen on the blind taste test to consider spending any more effort than this.

So this observation supports the idea TDS measurement is usually a pretty meaningless measurement by itself unless something has gone extremely wrong e.g. massive under-extraction (which you could also tell by taste in most cases).

All that this has proven is that the Niche can extract coffee just as well as any other capable grinder, at least on paper. But does it?


Part 2 - Espresso blind taste test - dark roast (Niche vs EK43)

Our plan was to do blind taste tests for both dark roast and light roast. We started with the dark roast first because we thought it's easier to get the E61 grouphead hotter for the light roast (just by flushing) but cooling down (for darker roast requiring lower temp) would be a much slower process.

We originally purchased 1 kg of commercial dark roast (not shown) for the dark roast tests. However, it turned out that the roast was darker than most of us prefer and the coffee was on the fresh side ( 5 days post roast). Lucky for us, John brought some of his roasts (which was on the medium-dark spectrum) to be used for the dark roast espresso comparison.

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Coffee for the blind taste test :
(Left) Lighter espresso roast from Genovese - Ethiopian Guji Hambella (Roaster's note: jasmine aroma, sweet flavours of melon, tangerine, black tea, and cherry).
(Right)The darker roast is a blend roasted by John on his North TJ-067 roaster (Sam's note : chocolatey but not ashy, good body, a classic comfort blend with hints of brightness)


Methodology:
For the espresso comparison, we set the dose to 18g using a VST 18g basket, since that seems to be the 'standard' dose for many HBers. Our first task was to decide on the brew ratio to be used for the blind taste. So we pulled a couple of shots with the EK43 at a variety of brew ratio and extraction time, and then tasted the coffee. We all agreed that the shot tasted pretty good at 18g in/26g out (1:1.5 brew ratio, in about 35s). We then dialed in the Niche Zero to reach the same extraction parameters (18g in 26 g out, in about 35s).

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Photo: Something that has been observed over and over again : darker roasts do provide visually more attractive crema, with abundant tiger mottling/stripes and more vivid colour.

For the actual blind taste test, we pulled 4 shots consecutively, as quickly as I can into labelled cups (masking tape taped at the bottom). To normalize the temperature effect in influencing the taste evaluation, I pulled the shots in the order of -> Niche, EK, EK, Niche.

All four cups were shuffled until we couldn't tell which cup came from which grinder/order.

Our tasks were divided into two parts:
Level 1: Can we distinguish which two cups came from the same grinder (pairing test)?
Level 2: Can we guess which grinder the shots came from, and any taste preference?

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Photo: This is the format how we blind tasted the shots from two different grinders - four shots placed side-by-side and shuffled. Note that in this picture we were doing the long black tasting (too busy sipping espresso to be taking photos!)

The first part (level 1) 'seemed' fairly easy to us initially (that is before the answers were revealed), since we had tasted quite a few of shots from each grinder prior to the actual blind test and we all thought the differences were obvious : a big flat grinder and a conical grinder, it can't get any more different than this. Identifying the grinder in a blind test would require a certain level of familiarity with both the grinders, so I wasn't expecting most of us to guess them correctly.

Outcome: To our utmost surprise, most of us weren't able to even get past the first level. Out of the five of us (1/5), only Luca managed to pair the cups correctly. Even though Luca got them right, he commented that he too was struggling to put forth his guesses confidently since the taste differences were so subtle (and perhaps that this is not his usual preferred roast level).

Winner: None/Luca :lol:

There were two issues that became apparent in this blind test - 26g of espresso isn't really enough for the five of us (duh!), and that the layering effect of espresso may be affecting our judgement. So we decided to stir the espresso in the subsequent tests.


Part 3 - Long Black/Americano blind taste test - dark roast (Niche vs EK43)

Methodology:
Since we ran into the shot volume issue described above, this time we decided to dilute the espresso into long blacks for the blind test. Also, we were almost running out of the dark roast coffee at this point. So to play it safe, we pulled two shots instead of four: one from the Niche, one from the EK43. Each shot was stirred and split equally into two cups (four half-espresso in total), which were diluted with equal amount of hot water.

All the four cups were again shuffled for blind tasting. Similar to the first blind taste test, we first try to pair the cups and then try to guess which grinder the shot came from.

Outcome:
Perhaps the dilution was making the shot more distinguishable, or that we got really lucky, 4/5 of us managed to pair them correctly (maybe our palate is still working after all) AND 4/5 of us also guessed the grinder correctly. However, we all agreed the taste difference were so small, and getting them correct could've been by chance. Most of us had no strong preference of one over the other.

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Photo: To make sure what we were tasting was not due to the difference in TDS, we measured the coffee afterwards, and they came up to be fairly close : 1.38% and 1.41% TDS.

Winner: Tie

Part 4 - Espresso blind taste test - light roast (Niche vs EK43)

Methodology:
For the light roast espresso test, we used a commercially available light roast meant for espresso (not a super light roast as you would get for filters). The dialing-in method was the same as with the dark roast. First, we dial in by tasting the shots at different brew ratio using the EK43 . Once we got the taste/balance that we're happy with, we then match the flow rate using the Niche Zero. This time, the brew ratio we settled upon were close to 1:2 brew ratio (18g in and 36-38g out). As these are longer shots, shot volume was much less of an issue for the blind tests.

So again, four successive shots were pulled as quickly as possible, shuffled and blind tasted.

Outcome: This time, 2/5 of us got them right.

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Photo: Luca's 'custom-made' whiteboard for making notes during the blind tests. :lol:

Now, this is surprising to me. With a lighter roast level, I thought it would've been a piece of cake to pick up the difference and to pair the cups right. As a reference, all the five of us are definitely knee-deep in this coffee hobby, probably as much as most HBers out there (three of us were espresso drinkers and home roast, one was obsessed enough to take on Super Popcorn roaster project, and another one is a Q-grader/brewer cup champion, who regularly travels the world to taste/seek excellent coffee). I was totally expecting us to do better than 2/5, even if by fluke. Needless to say, we were quite humbled by the results.

Food for thought:
Does that mean the Niche Zero pull shots that were indistinguishable to the EK43? I don't believe this is the case. A more likely explanation is that the magnitude of difference was really so small that it could be easily overshadowed by other factors. During the blind tests, the shots were stirred/cooled down and the crema had mostly dissipated (in a wipe-mouthed cup), so these might've reduced the difference in the taste. Most of us don't have regular experience in blind cupping. So maybe we could improve with more practice, maybe not...

However, this puts forth a very compelling case : it is likely most average home baristas won't be able to tell the difference either, without being trained and spending a lot of time in learning the minute differences.

More importantly, when we were dialing in and optimizing the extraction, we could clearly taste the coffee going from almost undrinkable (not dialed in correctly) to excellent (after dialing in). So, our consensus was - if you want to achieve excellent coffee/espresso, you may be better off by improving your techniques, rather than putting the blame on the machinery. The dialing in process showcased a lot more taste-able differences in the shots than when different equipment was used. So there is no point in over-obsessing about equipment, provided you have a decent grinder, which the Niche is undoubtedly one.

Lastly, I was quite surprised by the potential effect of mindset (either subconscious or preconceived notions) on our taste perception. When we were tasting the shots non-blinded, we all thought we could tell the difference easily. Yet, for some reasons, we struggled to different extents during the blind tests. This has been a humbling and eye-revealing exercise and I highly recommend you to do the same if given the opportunity.

Part 5 - Brew tests (Niche vs EK43 vs Comandante)

At this point, our palates were pretty much shot and were fatigued from the previous tastings. Julian & Shauvik also had to leave early so all we could muster next was a non-blind side-by-side brewed coffee tasting in cupping bowls. We used three different grind settings from the Niche, two from the Comandante and one from EK43. The grind size was just a touch finer than for drip coffee.

Outcome: One conclusion that was apparent to us : if we are serious about improving the coffee quality, we would be much better off spending money on seeking better coffee that we like and optimizing the extraction parameters, rather than putting that $1-3k price difference into equipment/gadgets. All of the grinders produced a similar level of coffee quality (none stood out as particularly bad or good, other than one cup that was ground too finely and over-extracted).

Winner : Again, none

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Photo: We used cupping 'bowls' with slightly finer than usual grind for the brewed coffee comparison.


Some final conclusions:

  • The Niche did unbelievably well in this session and held its fort against a vastly different, more expensive grinder (the dear of the current coffee trend).
  • The Niche was really easy to dial in, and the minimal retention makes dialing in a cinch. Even when I was in a completely foreign environment with an unfamiliar machine, I was able to dial in the Niche to the target brew ratio within 3 attempts (often 1-2).
  • The holy grail in espresso is arguably to achieve consistency. In this regards, without a doubt, the extractions from the Niche Zero grinder were consistent enough throughout the session. When pulling the consecutive shots for blind tests, I was fully expecting having to re-pull some of the shots (in case the extraction time was different/off), but that was not the case at all. For reference, the workflow I've used was to grind into the provided cup, pour the grind into the basket using a funnel, WDT and tamp.
  • Last but not least, for average (or even advanced-level) home baristas, I do see the Niche Zero as being a more than adequate grinder : with its easy work flow for single dosing, approachable price-tag, consistency in performance and excellence in taste quality. If the manufacturer is able to keep up the quality and the Niche can maintain its performance reliably for at least 5 years, I don't think it's a stretch to call the Niche Zero a game-changer for home barista/consumers.


This gathering wouldn't have been possible without the people behind it:
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From left to right: Shauvik, Luca, Julian, John
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The barista (Sam) gets special treatment with a photo all to himself! Well almost, that's Luca behind attempting to steal the limelight ;P (thanks Shauvik for the photos)

Credits: Thanks again to Luca for hosting us, to Shauvik for some of the photos, and to everyone (including John and Julian) for volunteering your time in contributing to this enjoyable afternoon!
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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » May 18, 2019, 8:49 pm

Before. For years I've been using a dosered Fiorenzato Doge Conico commercial grinder with 68mm burrs. Workflow was always a compromise. The horizontal exit chute is a retention monster. Light roasts of dense beans stall if loaded in a hopper. A motor shop tested an add-on capacitor, and it still stalled. They recommended rewinding the motor for more torque. So my workaround has been single dosing, using a cake decorator bulb to empty the grind chamber and a Rocket Giotto air blower to empty the chute. I was getting by. Then the burrs went dull and I started getting channeling and sprites. I ordered new burrs. Although I'd seen the Niche early adopter thread I hadn't followed it. Then saw our Niche Zero review and asked Jim if I could take a look. Frankly, I was in the market for a new electric grinder.

Jim's Niche Zero arrives. It was so light compared to my commercial grinders, but when I turned it on, it had a nice quiet purr. It sat solidly on my counter with soft plastic feet and a lower center of gravity. My wife liked its smaller size and quiet operation. I used a very light commercial roast I'd thought was underdeveloped to start the dial-in. I expected it would taste sour as it had with my Doge. The channeling disappeared but my lever machine nearly choked. The second shot had proper flow and pulled sweet and fruity flavors. The single dosing was a very welcome change, and adjustment was so easy. I immediately ordered my own Niche Zero.

Jim had broken the switch on his, dropping it on a concrete floor on the way to an H-B meetup. The switch was toggled on, so he could close the lid to start grinding. I contacted the Niche team, and they quickly sent a replacement PCB board and switch assembly with photo instructions. The switch was easy to change out, using metric hex keys, a metric socket wrench, and a Phillips head screwdriver. It was the same sequence as removing the burrs for a deep cleaning, just a couple of steps further to get at the switch assembly. Then my Niche Zero arrived, and there were twins. I've sent Jim's repaired Niche to TomC, and have been using mine ever since.

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While preparing this post, I read DaveC's thorough review. I appreciate his direct measurements of very low retention. He and Sam have both recommended that after initial grinding, there is very little retention and minimal exchange of stale grounds to the point that taste should be indistinguishable. Some early users have tried using a cake decoration bulb for blowing out grounds, and I've found that works. But is it necessary? Maybe not. DaveC also wrote that the Niche's high quality grinding is due to using an excellent burr set, running the burrs at 330 RPM to avoid pulverizing (uneven grinding at faster RPMs that produces more fines), and using a DC motor and planetary gearing for high torque. He writes that the DC motor eliminates the need for a start capacitor. So the Niche's DC motor and gearing resolves the problems inherent in my Fiorenzato Doge's design.

I faced one minor challenge in following instructions to calibrate my grinder. The light was dim, and I couldn't clearly see the calibration ring. Once I found this, it turned easily. In this photo it's the black ring under the silver grind adjustment collar. The small round bearing on the ring aligned with 20 on the scale is the adjustment marker.

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For espresso, shot quality is as good or better than my grinders with Robur-equivalent burrs (Orphan Espresso Pharos, HG-1, Fiorenzato Doge Conico when the burrs were sharp). Nothing else I've had manages a light roast like the Niche. Thanks to Jim and Sam for doing blind taste tests, so this is a subjective call. Some users have reported issues with grounds and chaff clinging to the exit chute and grind cup because of static. Jim wrote that this can happen more often with darker roasts and home roasts where chaff hasn't been adequately removed. That describes my situation with a Sumatran roasted to second crack. RDT didn't entirely help it.

I've been trying to dial it in for Clever Dripper and French press. My best results have been going way coarse, keeping in mind recent discussions that grind size may look different and get similar extractions. I've had some very good results, some overextracted when grinding within the recommended scale. I take Jim's word from blind tasting that his Mazzer Mini with brew burrs outperforms the Niche, but the Niche holds its own. If I get a chance I'll compare it to my Baratza Virtuoso and early version LIDO 2. I'm surprised that Sam and his crew's blind tasting found the Niche holding its own compared to an aligned EK43 and Kafatek Monolith Conical. I may have a chance to compare my Niche to LDT's Monolith. Sam had several months to wear his in, so for now, I'm feeding coffee through my Niche, since the company recommends not using anything else to wear in the burrs.

Treating the wooden base. One aspect of my Niche Zero looked unfinished because that is actually the case. The wooden base and the cup holding platform are raw wood. I asked James at Niche whether others were treating the wood with butcher block oil and wax. He said they were. So I got mine out and here is the before and after. I'm very happy with the result, which should also reduce any staining as I use the Niche.

This is the wooden base and cup holder before oiling.

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Close inspection of the cup holder showed that it needed sanding before oiling, so I used 220 grit.

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One application, and here's the finished result. It looks much richer when treated this way.

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Overall I'm very happy with the Niche Zero's espresso quality and am delighted with its single-dosing work flow. I may write an additional post after dialing it in for consistency with other brew methods. I may compare it to other grinders, also, since this is a frequent request for buying advice.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!
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