Derek’s Coffee Bean Dilemma: to grind or to mill
Tea was our go-to hot drink of choice in my childhood years growing up in South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s. In those days the heated discussions were always between those connoisseurs who were authentic loose-leaf tea drinkers versus the convenient tea bag users. The latter were considered to be the lesser mortals. Let’s not even get into what temperature, how long and in what receptacle your leaves should be steeped! The colonial Motherland, England, even has a British Standard on how to brew the perfect cup of tea (see BS 6008:1980, ISO 3103-1980 “Method for preparation of a liquor of tea for use in sensory tests”). Tell me THAT’s not subjective!
Now that’s not to say that coffee was not an alternate hot drink for us. Quite the contrary. However, in those years it was either tea or instant coffee. Brewing your own coffee from coffee grounds was, by far, the exception. Fast-forward 30 years to my new life in Canada and I find tea to be frowned upon, instant coffee to be taboo, and discussions about one’s home coffee barista capabilities to be the new standard to strive for.
I don’t deny that I’m still an extreme novice as I excitedly share with you my latest coming-of-age in my baby-step maturity to the esteemed position of “home barista”. My wife has just bought me a burr coffee mill. As I read up on-line about the benefits of a burr mill versus my previous regular chopper-grinder, I am led to believe that this purchase is going to not just elevate but transform my coffee drinking experience.
There is a whack load of information available on-line about the benefits of grinding versus milling. I suspect that both are equally noisy, so if it’s peace and quiet you want then your options are to go back to instant coffee, or buy pre-ground coffee, or go without coffee until you can swing past your favourite local brewhouse for your morning cup of joe.
It seems that instant coffee is the equivalent of a cuss word, so we won’t deal with that option here. Similarly, pre-ground coffee seems equally inappropriate to serve up or even discuss, so I’d better avoid that topic, too, as I risk being accused of joining the ranks of the coffee prudes!
To Grrrrrind or to Burr-rrrr?
Until recently my little convenient “Custom Grind” 12-cup coffee grinder seemed to be quite adequate for my inexperienced coffee palette needs. Easy to store and easy to use, it seemed to me that everyone should simply default to using one of these babies for their home brew. However, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with my coffee-making routine of late.
We do a fair bit of hosting in our home, so I find myself pre-grinding batches of my own bean blend and storing the grounds in a jar for use throughout the week in an attempt to save me precious time and eliminate the noise factor when perking coffee for our morning get-up-and-go or for guests. The hassle of blending the correct quantities of beans, then grinding multiple batches, decanting the grinds into the storage jar, managing spillage and observing the inconsistent grind has suddenly became bothersome.
There is no way that my (nor your) little twin-blade 12-cup grinder is able to generate a consistent grind. All that those little beaters can do is slash the life out of any shard of bean that the high-speed rotating blades come in contact with. As the law of gravity would have it, the finer, denser materials settle closer to the blades becoming ever more finely ground while the coarser bean particles migrate to the surface, drifting fitfully through the mismatched detritus. This is far from ideal for uniform extraction of pure coffee flavour. There is no consistent way to manage the grinding process. Albeit that my device says it can both process 2 through 12 cups and create percolator to espresso fineness, there really is no way this little gadget can give me the consistency of grind that my precious beans deserve. They will always emerge bruised, defeated, unpredictably battered little beans who will never reach their full flavour destiny.
Enter the Burr mill.
I understand that the basic science behind this technology is that beans are fed from a hopper (storage receptacle) through a gap created by two plates. One plate is spinning at high speed while the other may remain static. This action shears and grinds the beans to a very consistent size, depending on the gap that I set the plates at using a very convenient dial on the appliance. This gives me the fineness and consistency of grind that my brewing preference requires. The burr process exposes the beans to less abrasion, friction and destruction, causing the flavour and aromatics of the bean to remain more intact for a significantly better brewed beverage experience.
I know I implied near the start that I wasn’t a coffee expert. So why migrate to the pricier burr mill? Could it be that part of the reason may be more for convenience, at this stage, than quality? It allows me to pre-mix my blend of coffee beans and store them in the sealed bean feed hopper, preserving the flavours until I’m ready to freshly grind and brew them on-demand. All I now need to do is determine my preferred grind settings, set the number of cups I desire to brew, press the start button, and – voila – the ground beans should be ready for brewing momentarily. Yes, it’s still as noisy as the grinder, but I think I’ve upped the ante on what my little bean-blend brew will deliver to the end-users! And now I can produce the required amount and grind fineness more reliably, depending on whether I’m percolating, dripping, French-pressing, using my stove-top Bialetti mocha express or defaulting to my convenient AeroPress.
But really, the acid test – no pun intended – is whether the milled flavour is, indeed, different to and better than the ground flavour. So, to assess this, I set up a “blind” test for Christa, my wife and independent coffee-test dummy, to determine whether she could perceive a difference in coffee quality when brewed from the same bean blend but using the two different bean-processing methods.
The time lapse video below shows me unpacking my new mill then grinding my bean blend in the grinder and the mill separately. I made up the coffee brew using my AeroPress, offering Christa samples of the ground and milled option, with and without a small addition of 10% coffee creamer. Without hesitation she selected the milled coffee, responding viscerally to what was a significantly more acidic ground brew. The stark contrast between the two processed brews was instantaneous and undeniable (sadly this response isn’t evident on the video clip). It would seem the Delmar household has a clear winner in the burr mill!
My new Cuisinart Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Mill may not be the most sophisticated mill on the market. We did manage to pick it up on a great deal from Costco, who guarantee customer satisfaction or a money-back guarantee. It’s apparent that we won’t be using our 12-cup coffee grinder any longer. Anyone want a free, used grinder?
We’d love to hear your feedback on your home barista experiences and what affordable equipment you recommend I consider in future if I want to continue up-skilling and honing my coffee skills.