Is Fresh Ground Coffee Better?
My old roommate, a barista, insisted we buy un-ground coffee, (whole bean). He believed that fresh ground coffee was vastly superior to coffee that had been ground weeks or months previously. I believed him because he was a barista.
From Bread to Coffee
And it turns out he was right. Five years ago I had an opportunity to learn from a master bread maker who bakes artisan, naturally leavened sourdough bread. When I met him he had sold his business in Los Angeles and created a home based bakery with its own flour mill in Northern California. He mills the flour for his bread within a day or two of starting the mixing and leavening process. The reason for this is the grinding of the wheat seeds into flour dramatically increases the surface area. This allows the flower to oxidize much more rapidly, losing taste and nutrition in the process.
Coffee is the same way. Once ground, its increased exposure to oxygen steals the flavor and freshness. This is why the best cup of coffee is always fresh ground and fresh roasted, (more on roasting later). Because of this we have a few choices when it comes to how we can grind coffee. I will cover the basics here and leave the progression up to you.
Fresh grinding coffee beans vastly increased the quality of the perfect cup of coffee. Once there, you will find a universe of nuanced elements about the grinding process. Switching from a spice grinder to a burr type grinder will be a big leap in quality. After that the gains become more incremental. Advantages will be in controlling the heat generated in the grinding process, repeatability and control of the grind and convenience. Each of these factors increases the cost of the grinder and should be weighed by the value they bring.
My first real grinder was a spice grinder. Although re-branded by the likes of Mr. Coffee as a coffee grinder, they were originally designed to grind whatever you put in them. Many people use these kinds of grinders. They are inexpensive, and relatively simple to operate. They do not allow for much control of the grind. Because of this, it is very easy to make the grind too fine; more suitable to espresso than a french press or pour over.
Once I began to learn about how the grind size affected the coffee, I started to play with the duration of the grind. I found I could control it some by shaking the spice grinder while grinding, but it still tended to be pretty inconsistent. I decided to try a burr type hand grinder to see if it made a difference.
I have learned over the years that it is often better to creep up on a goal than to go, “all in”. Expense is part of this. To get the top quality device before I understand its value can be a waste of money, (and worse, time). So I looked around for an inexpensive burr type hand grinder.
I found a variety of grinders at a variety of prices and finally settled on a light-weight backpacking type. I was sold on this grinder after my first cup of fresh hand ground coffee. Just like making your own bread or working on your own car, there is much value to be had in taking your time and grinding just enough bean to make a cup of coffee.
Hand grinding allows me to be mentally present through the whole process. As I adjust the coarseness, and watch the yield while grinding, my attention is held on the creation of this cup of coffee. Somehow, the labor and focus increases anticipation, and that makes the cup just that much more enjoyable.
Doing this for a friend or loved one is also unexpectedly rewarding. The intention of hand making a treat, the gift of time and expertise garnishes our acts and infuses the end product with love. And that is a quality that is as delicious as it is difficult to define.
The reality of our existence is that often we are pressed for time. So hand grinding your coffee each morning will compete with getting ready for work, prepping kids for school, exercise time and so on. Fortunately, automation is a time saver on those busy days. And we can delegate the task of making a consistent grind for the perfect cup of coffee to a machine.
There are a variety of automated grinders out in the world. Some are even integrated into the coffee maker. You get what you pay for however. If you are looking for control over the grind of your coffee the burr grinder is the best choice. Especially if you have several different types of coffee such as french press, pour over, and espresso. Espresso uses a very fine grind, French presses use a very course grind. And experimenting with the grind is one of the fun parts of learning about coffee. You will discover there are noticeable differences between small changes in grind. So chose a grinder that has a wide range of grind settings so you can experiment.
Low Speed Grinders
These are the higher end of consumer grade coffee grinders. The low speed is accomplished by gear reduction. The ability to control the grind is significantly better than a spice grinder. But the grind is less consistent than a high speed flat burr type grinder, (see next). This slower speed can reduce heat but static electricity is a problem. This is the bane of slow speed conical burr grinders. Static electricity causes the freshly ground coffee to stick in the receptacle and fly all over the counter. It is a nuisance, but does not affect flavor. I have noticed with my grinder if I grind my coffee a couple of minutes before the brew, the static charge will dissipate, effectively solving this problem. A drop or two of water on the beans will reduce the static build up as well, (top secret trick!).
High Speed Grinders
These are the Cadillac of grinders. High speed burr grinders deliver repeatable control over the grind, and reduce heat transfer with a quicker grind process. These are direct drive units with flat burr sets and have a wide range of grind size settings. They produce a very consistent grind and because of the direct drive, there are less parts to wear out or fail.
Many commercial grinders dispense coffee into a device that measures it, then delivers a “dose”, of fresh ground coffee. This provides a repeatable quantity of coffee. Others capture the coffee in a receptacle or deliver it through a chute. In general, the more bells and whistles, the more expensive the device. For my purposes, I weigh the coffee to control the amount used. I measure the un-ground coffee then grind that amount. This works well for the small quantities I brew and for experimentation.
Most journeys start long before we take the first step. Mine started when a roommate gave me a better cup of coffee. And while my experience has evolved, for the most part it has done so slowly. It was only a couple of years ago that I decided to learn more. I had no idea when I embarked down this road where it would take me, or how much there was to learn.
The really cool thing? It all has relevance to the greater joy of living. My efforts to better understand this beverage has opened up an understanding of things seemingly unrelated. And it has provided opportunities to explore and innovate.
As my understanding deepens, my appreciation of the moment, my ability to be present gets stronger. My relationship with a seemingly inanimate object comes to life, and I am richer for that. And those around me benefit as well. This is the value added through intention.
So where will your curiosity take you?