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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another_jim
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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
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