BEFORE you rush online to sign up for a barista lesson or a class in how to brew, make sure that you have already taken the first step to making better coffee. In the kitchen, next to your kettle, do you have a good grinder?
If not, consider making the investment. You can work on your technique until you have the concentration of a surgeon and the easy movements of a judo champion, but if you do not grind your beans right before brewing, you are never going to taste everything a top-shelf coffee has to offer.
That is because the volatile flavors and aromatics concentrated inside a coffee bean are exposed by grinding; when you make coffee, you are dissolving a portion of the bean’s solids in water. By crushing coffee beans into small pieces, you have better access to those tasty solubles. Grind just before brewing and you have a good chance of getting most of them into the cup; grind 10 minutes ahead and a noticeable amount of flavor will have dissipated. Grind the night before and you throw in the towel before you step in the ring.
(Before you ask: freezing hurts more than it helps. Coffee grounds are thirsty and want to drink in moisture. That includes whatever funky flavors are hiding in the frost.)
There seem to be two reasons most people do not grind just before brewing. First, markets, coffee shops and roasters enable a bad habit by offering complimentary grinding. They do it in the name of customer service, but they are not doing you any favors. That is doubly true if the grinders are not cleaned regularly and your coffee carries traces of what went through the machine earlier.
Second, a good grinder does not come cheap. You want a solid burr grinder that crushes the beans into
consistently sized particles, not a flimsy blade grinder that chops some into fine powder and some into
coarse chunks. A well-built electric burr grinder suited for brewing starts at about $100, though you can
easily spend $250; pay less and you are likely to have problems with the motor, the burrs or how the beans
flow from the hopper.
A burr grinder engineered for espresso is even more expensive, starting at around $300. Some coffee fanatics regard the Mazzer Mini grinder, which costs about $600, as a good entry-level model.
These prices hurt. But then consider what you’re buying, namely a powerful motor that will not overheat or jam, burrs that keep their edges and a design that feels intuitive even at 7 a.m. Remember, you are paying for both a workhorse and a precision instrument.
Once you take the plunge, you will taste the difference — and wonder what took you so long. Then you can start to work on your technique.
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