What's the Difference Between a Burr Grinder and Blade Grinder?

Smart Coffee for Regular Joes

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If you like coffee and you drink it regularly, or do any reading about coffee, you have probably heard mention of grinders, specifically burr versus blade grinders.

Well today we're here to talk about grinders, so if you've been wondering what a burr grinder is, or if you should get one, you've come to the right place.

I grew up on a very basic Melitta blade grinder, the kind where you pop in the beans, put on the cap and push down to get the blade spinning. When I was a little, it was a comforting sound that came at the beginning of nap time, my mother's hour alone and therefore much revered coffee break. Honestly, up until about a year ago I was rather oblivious to the discussion of grinders, but then I moved in with my boyfriend who swore by grinding his beans in his grandmother's antique, manual coffee grinder and I knew I had some learning to do.

Why should you even care about a grinder in the first place?

I will go to the pros for this one. As the authors of The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee write, "Any barista will tell you that the single most important piece of gear in the espresso-making chain is the grinder. So buy your grinder first."

Well there you go. Short and simple.

It's true, we're focused on the end product — the cup of coffee — and therefore we often think the beans are the most important part. But without the grinder, those beans won't get you anywhere. And poorly ground beans will affect the taste of your coffee.

Ultimately it comes down to this: good beans deserve a good grind, and if you've already committed to buying quality coffee, why not give your beans the respect they deserve?

What's the difference between a burr grinder and blade grinder?

The easiest way to explain what a burr grinder is, is to explain the difference between it and a blade grinder.

A blade grinder is what my mother was using all those years ago, with a blade in the center of the grinder that looks like a propeller, similar to a blender blade.

A burr grinder, however, is exactly what you would find in a vintage manual coffee grinder at an estate sale or your grandmother's house. It is made up of two revolving abrasive surfaces (called burrs), in between which the coffee is ground, a few beans at a time.

There are flat burr grinders and conical burr grinders, but they do the same thing: grind your coffee and grind it well. The distance between the surfaces can be changed, which in turn will change the size of the grind.

The reason that coffee aficionados tend to choose burr grinders over blade is that the beans are ground in a uniform size, and you have more control over your grind than you do with a blade. A uniform ground is much harder to do in a blade grinder, especially if you are trying to do a coarser ground, which is why burr grinders are wholeheartedly recommended for anyone doing French press or pour overs.

So what kind of grinder should you get?

Ultimately this question is up to you. Blade grinders are a more inexpensive option than burr grinders, but you'll find that the craft coffee crowd will almost hands down encourage you to go burr.

If you are using a blade grinder, to get the most uniform ground, you want to grind your coffee in spurts. Pulse your coffee as opposed to just grinding in one go.

For those on the lookout for a burr grinder, the options are endless (although sometimes pricy) and come in all shapes and sizes. Manual burr grinders are smaller, so if you're pressed for space, consider this option. They're also good for those on a budget; you get the burr benefits at a fraction of the price. However, if you're making espresso, which requires a fine grind as well as an immediate grind, some people will tell you that a manual grinder may not get the job done as well as an electric one.

Electric grinders run the gamut in price and quality, from $60 to $600; depending on what you're looking for, there's something for everyone. The general rule of thumb when buying one is to go for one with larger grinding burrs, heavier overall weight and a low speed grind. If you want to experiment with different types of grinds, then aim for a grinder where you can change the settings.

I've gotten my dream grinder, now what?

With grinder in hand, don't forget yet another important part of coffee brewing: you want freshly ground coffee. For espresso it's the freshest of the fresh; taste and performance of the beans can go down within just 90 seconds of grinding. For standard coffee you have a little more leeway, but grinding your beans when you're ready to brew your coffee as opposed to days in advance will ensure you the best cup.

Will getting a burr grinder turn you into a coffee nerd?

A couple of months ago, a friend had posted a callout: "Coffee nerds: I'm buying a burr grinder. What's the best option under $100?"

I recommended a Porlex, a grinder I have come to love because it's great for French press and travels easy and I for one am a believer in good coffee no matter where you find yourself. But hand grinding isn't for everything, and it elicited the response '"Takes about 3 minutes to grind'?!"

I know, I know, three minutes of hand grinding in the morning (or whenever you take your coffee) seems like a big commitment, but then again, what else would you be using those three minutes to do? Check your email? Refresh the Facebook feed? In my friend's defense, he is the father of a toddler, and I am sure three additional minutes in his day are much appreciated, in which case an electric burr grinder is probably a much better option.

I had my non-burr days too, in which I used a blade grinder, and initially the idea of hand grinding seemed rather ludicrous. Stand and hand grind every time I want to drink coffee?! But in all honesty, I have actually come to appreciate the process. It makes coffee brewing less of an action of necessity and more of an action of appreciation, a beautiful ritual in the midst of a mundane routine.

That doesn't make you a coffee nerd. That just makes you someone who appreciates a good thing.

Here's to a good cup, brewed well!

(Image credits: Anna Brones)