September 8, 2020

How Have Hand Grinders Evolved?


Ask any experienced coffee brewer about essential equipment for home brewing and sooner or later, they’ll tell you to invest in a grinder. 

As many of us know, there are two basic categories of coffee grinder: hand grinders and electric grinders. While the electric grinder might be more established and more popular among enthusiastic home brewers, a new wave of “premium” hand grinders has appeared in recent years.

I spoke to a number of grinder manufacturers and coffee professionals to learn about why this trend has emerged.

Lee este artículo en español La Evolución de Los Molinos de Café Manuales

The Finer Details

The most important thing with any grinder, hand or electric, is how it breaks up the bean. For extraction, we want an even grind size. The closer to uniform we can get, the better. 

Inconsistent particle sizes lead to under or over-extraction in the cup, so being able to grind as accurately as possible allows for more even extraction. This creates an overall cleaner and more balanced flavour.

Burr grinders are typically more precise than blade grinders. While blades chop the beans, burrs crush and grind them. Grinder burrs are also generally easy to adjust if you want to change your grind size for different brewing methods.

Hand grinders always use burrs of some kind, whereas electric grinders can be blade or burr. However, electric blade grinders are generally cheaper.

The major difference between the two is simple. Electric grinders will be able to grind more quickly than you can, no matter how much effort you put in.

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What Should You Expect From A Hand Grinder?

Grinding coffee by hand has to suit your brewing routine. If you know that you want ease and convenience when making coffee, a hand grinder isn’t for you.

However, if you want the satisfaction of having “worked” for your coffee, it might be an option. There are other things to consider, too. For instance, a hand grinder may be more suitable if you have a very limited amount of kitchen space.

Others simply like the style and aesthetic of a hand grinder. Christian Biernatek is the CEO of Kinu Grinders LLC. He says there’s a certain level of quality and care that sets good-quality hand grinders apart.

“Customers should be able to see and feel, right from the beginning, the love, craftsmanship, and quality we’ve put into the grinders. We work carefully and pay attention to every detail of each grinder.”

Ryan Felbinger is the Sales Manager at Prima Coffee Equipment. He tells me that a complete home espresso setup can be costly. He adds that it is not always easy to find an electric grinder at certain price points that produce a consistent espresso grind.

“Home espresso is an expensive game. A good hand grinder can save you hundreds of dollars up front without sacrificing a bit of grind quality. They’re also one of the only ways to achieve a perfect Turkish coffee grind!”

But Ryan adds that hand grinders aren’t for everyone. “If you grind more than 40g at once (the equivalent of around two shots of espresso), you might be happier with an electric grinder. 

“Especially when you’re grinding finer, it is a lot of work. As the grind gets coarser, it gets faster and easier on your arms, but it can still be straining after a minute or two. If you’re brewing a lot of coffee at once, or making consecutive shots of espresso, don’t get a hand grinder.”

One For The Road

Perfecting your brewing at home is one thing. Finding a good cup of coffee when you’re travelling, however, can be difficult.

Even if you can’t find a good coffee shop, you can generally find mineral water with the right magnesium and carbonate levels for brewing quality coffee in supermarkets.

As well as this, there are a number of brewing methods on the market that are compact enough to take with you when you travel – whether that’s a moka pot, a mini French press, or an AeroPress.

However, when you’re travelling, what really sets a good cup of coffee apart is having the ability to grind your beans. Barb Garrott, the co-owner of Orphan Espresso Hand Grinders, says: “In the beginning, our target market was extreme coffee enthusiasts… people who identified as coffee nerds and coffee geeks. They were willing to pursue the best gear for their needs.  

“However, as the world of specialty coffee grew, we saw more people appreciate our grinders for their mobility and simplicity.”

A New Kind Of Hand Grinder

In recent years, a new trend emerged in specialty coffee: the “premium” hand grinder. These didn’t just offer a simpler, cheaper, or more mobile alternative to the established electric grinder. Instead, they offered attention to detail and a dedication to quality that the hand grinder market had not seen before. 

Joe McTaggart is the Service Operations Manager at Comandante. He tells me that Comandante’s grinders were designed to meet the demands of coffee professionals. When founding the company, Bernd and Raphael Braune were already well-respected in the coffee sector. They found themselves taking origin trips to sample and evaluate fresh beans, but often struggled to find a “professional” grinder that worked in these situations. 

This, Joe tells me, inspired them to create a hand grinder that could replicate the consistency they were used to while still fitting in their suitcase.

He says: “The material, geometry and finish of our Nitro Blade burr set was researched, developed, and chosen with this approach in mind.

“In our laboratory, we analysed cup quality and particle distribution side-by-side to produce a burr set that could maximise performance and grind consistency.”

Barb tells me that Orphan Espresso’s hand grinders, however, were born out of acquired knowledge. After teaching themselves how to repair broken vintage grinders, they went from refurbishing old machines to creating their own line of products. 

“We began to expand our inventory from just offering repair parts to selling generalised coffee gear,” Barb tells me. “This included a series of restored vintage wooden box hand grinders – we restored over 1,000 of them – as well as a number of specialised coffee accessories that we designed and manufactured.” 

In contrast to Orphan and Comandante, however, Kinu had started life as a family business producing dentistry equipment. Christian says that the hand grinder market provided the company with the chance to diversify and try something new.

“After 25 years of manufacturing spice and coffee grinders for a number of other companies, the challenge of building the ultimate coffee hand grinder became something we wanted to do.

“We knew it could be achieved and we knew we had the knowledge to engineer it. We used all the experience and skills we gained during these years. Finally, 25 years on, we have decided to offer a new grinder collection under our own brand.”

The focus for this new kind of hand grinder isn’t just consistency and quality. There’s also a different approach to visual appeal and design. Part the appeal of third wave coffee is the sense that the coffee you drink has been made just for you. The same is true for this “new wave” of grinder.

Joe explains that Comandante wanted to bring its customers an “unboxing” experience to match their excitement and anticipation when receiving such a special product.

“The fact that people post unboxing videos just shows how emotionally attached people are to coffee and to the tools they use to make it. In a sense, they’re making it a part of their home and their household,” he says.

As specialty coffee grows, we see coffee professionals around the world use their time and expertise to create new tools and brewing methods that deliver quality in different ways. Despite the fact that grinders have typically evolved to provide brewers with greater convenience, this new wave of hand grinder isn’t about that. Instead, it has a focus on visual appeal and quality craftsmanship.

Choosing a grinder is never a simple decision. You might be looking for something to take with you when you travel, or you may have used a hand grinder for years and want an upgrade. There’s no one-size-fits-all option. However, if you’re looking for something visually striking that fits in your backpack and doesn’t compromise on quality, maybe a “new wave” hand grinder is for you.

Enjoyed this? Then read Using The Right Grind Size For Your Brewing Method: An Experiment

Photo credits: Orphan Espresso, Comandante, Prima Coffee Equipment, Kinu Grinders, @alcheng88

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