It’s easy to assume the secret to great coffee is hidden somewhere in the brewing process.
After all, it’s a pretty mysterious world in there with Maillard reactions, Strecker degradation and the caramelization of sugar creating increasingly complex flavors.
We’re entitled to our own opinions, of course, but I don’t think so. I think the true secret to superb coffee is in the beans.
More specifically, the grinding of the beans and the way the coffee grinder is used. This is where you release the acidy, sweet, smooth and/or citrusy flavors unique to your favorite blend.
There are other important elements but starting out with even, skillfully ground beans will conceal a multitude of sins and ensure you always get a half-decent cup of joe.
Ultimately, you can make good coffee with a subpar brewer and a good grinder, but it is much, much harder to do the same with a poor quality grinder and a good brewer.
As I said, it’s not the end of the story; we know coffee is much more complex than that and influenced everything from the way it’s harvested to how fast it gets filtered. Though, it’s a useful place to start if you’re a coffee tasting amateur.
Lesson number one is to get a high- quality grinder.
Manual Coffee Grinder Guide for Proper Use
If you can put up with the extra effort – not everybody can – manual grinders are the best choice for great coffee. They can be temperamental sometimes and even have days when they’re just randomly not as effective as they are on others.
Yet, there’s total control with a manual coffee grinder.
You’re in charge. It’s much harder to over or under grind because you can stop, check, continue grinding, stop and check again as many times as you like.
For this reason, I recommend manual grinding, but I also understand people have jobs and lives to attend to. I’d be lying if I said I always chose to manual grind.
So, here are my tips for producing perfect coffee grounds when you’ve got the time and inclination to do it all perfectly.
1. Try To Grind Vertically
Okay, so it isn’t as easy as it sounds but it’s the best way to get consistently ground coffee.
When grinding, leave the grinder resting flat on a counter top or try to hold it with the top pointing directly upwards. It’s tricky because the natural instinct is to hold the grinder at an angle to better accommodate those circular wrist motions.
The problem is grinding at an angle leads to inconsistency. Some grounds emerge slightly bigger than others.
Grind size directly affects the rate of extraction, so you can end up with some parts of the coffee developing too fast, becoming over-extracted and tasting bitter.
Here’s what happens when you grind on an angle. The burrs in the grinder become misaligned. The lowest burrs get more beans than the upper burrs which increases the distance between the two.
You start off with evenly ground coffee, the burrs widen and you end up grinding at a slightly larger size for the rest.
2. Keep the Grinder As Still As Possible
I know, I know, it’s not so easy. Keep it vertical. Keep it perfectly still.
Do I understand how much wrist action is involved in grinding?
Hey, I never said producing perfect coffee was a walk in the park. Though it can feel awkward at first,
I strongly recommend you place your grinder on a counter top and turn the handle while it’s flat, vertical and still.
It might be slower but it’ll prevent the coffee beans in the hopper from being thrown around wildly in there.
I reiterate: the trick to producing amazing grounds is a consistent entry. If your grinder is jiggling around, some lighter beans are going to bounce off the burrs instead of traveling directly through them.
If you place the grinder flat on a counter top and find that noise is a problem – grinding vibrations may make a racket – place the grinder on a folded tea towel
3. Clean the Burrs Regularly
It’s more surprising to me that so many people forget to clean their manual grinders. If you want an incredible cup of coffee every time, you can’t use a crusty, clogged up device.
Grinders do get grimy. The natural oils in coffee beans stick to the burrs making them progressively tackier and less efficient over time.
In some ways, coffee grinders are self-cleaning. As fresh beans move through the grinder’s burrs, material left by the old ones gets scraped off and pushed out.
That’s good; you don’t want grime hanging around. But where do you think it all goes? Yes, straight into your meticulously ground cup of coffee.
This is not so good because those old, crusty oils are very bitter and guaranteed to degrade the flavor of your fresh cup.
They probably won’t make you sick – I haven’t heard of it happening – but let’s stay away from any rancid oils. Professional coffee grinders (the best ones anyway) clean their burrs almost every day.
You don’t need to clean yours every single day, but certainly don’t leave it longer than two months. I suggest watching some online tutorials if you’ve never done it before.
For a full clean, the grinder needs to be disassembled and it can be tricky the first few times. I also advise you do this over a white towel to keep track of any small washers and springs.
Once disassembled, clean the grinder’s burrs with soap and water. You might want to dip a cotton bud in water and use it to reach tight spots.
When clean, dry the whole thing with a towel. Personally, I’d then leave the separate pieces out on the countertop to dry naturally over one or two hours. If you’re going to skip this step, make sure you’ve dried every piece thoroughly and completely with the towel.
Finally, put the grinder back together. Voila, and you’re now ready to brew another fantastic cup of coffee.
4. Replace Worn Out Burrs
Eventually, your coffee grinder’s burrs will start to age and decline in efficiency. The more coffee you drink, the faster this is going to happen. As we’ve all got different habits, it’s tricky to pinpoint a perfect time for a replacement.
However, it should be ideally done before the grinder is two years old. If you use it multiple times a day, consider replacing the burrs with new ones after about a year.
The reason you need to do this is obvious. Over time, the burrs become less sharp and, therefore, grind less efficiently. This introduces more room for errors, inconsistencies and uneven grounds.
Don’t be that guy with a ten year old grinder he’s never cleaned or maintained.
Great coffee requires a little work.
5. Some Advice About Blade Grinders
I’ll be frank. Blade grinders (as opposed to standard manual coffee grinders) are mostly terrible. The burrs are uncontrolled and hard to keep consistent. If this is what you’ve got, replacing it with a proper grinder is the best move.
However, if a blade grinder is all you’ve got and all you can use (for some reason), these practical tips can improve your grind.
Contrary to what I just said about jiggling and uneven coffee grounds, you should shake your blade grinder around. The beans have little chance of consistency anyway in one of these things so a bit of movement can, at least, keep the beans moving and prevent clogs.
Also, pulse press the grind button rather than keeping it held down.
Again, this movement shakes everything up and stops you from being left with a container full of partially ground beans at the end.
I did say blade grinders aren’t very good, right?