Kristen, we really researched this one for you. We went to our favorite coffee shop and roastery and quizzed the coffee geeks there on burr grinders. Here's what they told us.
First off, yes, a burr grinder gives you much more control over the grind than a basic blade grinder (which is what we use too). The blade grinder will just chop indiscriminately as long as you hold down the power button, leaving you with slightly uneven bits of coffee bean. This matters most when you're making coffee that calls for either a very rough grind - French press - or very fine - espresso.
The point is that you don't want rough chunks in your espresso, which will keep the shot from pulling properly, and you also don't want fine grit in your French press, filtering through into your cup.
For drip coffee, a blade grinder is perfectly adequate. As long as it cuts quickly and smoothly and doesn't heat the coffee beans as it grinds, it should do a great job. But if you are drinking espresso and French press on a regular basis, then yes, the burr grinder is a good idea.
However (this was the most emphasized point from our barista friends) a burr grinder must be cleaned and serviced regularly. If you don't clean it as specified pretty much every week, you'll be left with nothing more than a paper weight. (Their words, not ours!)
Burr grinders run anywhere from $60 to $600. We checked Sweet Maria's, our go-to source for the best coffee equipment, since we trust that they don't offer any equipment they wouldn't use themselves. They do not offer any burr grinders under $149. Here's the most economical model they offer:
• Maestro Plus Mill, $149
There is one other option. Our roaster friends first recommended a box hand mill. They couldn't speak highly enough of these small, old-fashioned grinders. They actually give you a finer grind than the fancy and expensive commercial model used right there in the shop, and they are far more economical. They also need to be cleaned regularly and adjusted, but they are much less finicky than the electric burr grinders.
The downside, of course, is that you have to put a little elbow grease into grinding your beans. But these old-fashioned beauties may be worth the extra physical effort for the warmth they add to your kitchen. You do have to be careful that you're getting a well-made mill and not a purely decorative object. In the world of manual coffee mills, Zassenhaus is one of the most respected brands. They are finely made and last a long time. Sweet Maria's sells the Zassenhaus line for $70-$120.
• Zassenhaus Box Mill, $72.50
Also, check around at your local coffeeshops and on eBay. You can find these for less money. We featured one in our eBay Scavenger today.
We're actually thinking of purchasing a manual coffee grinder soon. Does anyone use one of these on a daily basis? How much elbow grease is really involved in getting a good fine grind?
Any other tips for Kristen from fellow coffee geeks?
(Images: Sweet Maria's and Coffee Storehouse)