Specialty coffee has a huge problem. It's not nearly as usable and immediately enjoyable as other beverages like wine, beer, and even tea thanks to coffee's two step process. Beans must first be ground and then brewed. Pop a cork, twist a cap, crack open a beer, throw tea leaves into a gaiwan — you're ready to drink. While grinding beans has been around since the mortar and pestle, many coffee drinkers have been loathe to purchase quality home grinders because of their relatively high cost.
In recent years, specialty coffee's answer has been the burr mill hand grinder, a generally inexpensive device that allows brewers to use arm power to adequately grind beans. These mystical objects line the shelves of hip coffee bars and take prominent spots on roasters' websites. Any home brewer worth their salt knows that blade grinders are about the worst thing for grinding coffee. Why? When brewing coffee, it's important that the grinds are a consistent texture and size so that the extraction of solubles is even. Blade grinders tend to pulverize beans, which results in inconsistent bean fragments and mostly very fine particles, all of which extract different amounts of coffee solubles.
So are hand grinders the panacea that satisfies both baristas and avid home brewers in their quest to place the best coffee into the kitchen of every home and office? I'll say it right now: probably not.
Still, there's a place for hand grinders, such as the weary traveler who bounces around hotels or goes into far-flung locales. Also, hand grinders are generally cheaper than their electric equivalents, making them a far better value proposition than a top flight burr mill. Finally, hand grinders represent a serious devotion to proper coffee. A testament to the drinker's commitment to experience great coffee every day.
In researching this article, I went about finding as many hand grinders as I could (sadly, this massively popular Kickstarter funded one isn't in production just yet), but settled on four different Hario models. I was also able to procure the highly regarded, and almost comically large, OE Lido 2, as well as the Porlex JP-30, a sleek little device that plenty of roasters carry themselves.
For the most part, these grinders are best suited for drip coffee, as attempting to grind espresso would be both exhausting and low-performing. Those serious about grinding espresso should invest in something better like a Rancilio Rocky or even a La Marzocco Mazzer Mini.
Price: Listed at $50, but currently $31 on Amazon (as of March 2015).
Usability and Design: Perhaps the most recognizable hand grinder on the market today, this versatile toy comes from one of the most prolific suppliers of Japanese coffee equipment (you've probably seen their V60 cone brewer and cheerful stainless steel kettle). With some small refinements over the years, the model now boasts a soft rubber base, silicon cover to prevent bean fragments from flying out and wrecking havoc, as well as a mostly difficult to adjust ceramic mill to grind the beans.
During trials, this was one of the easiest to grind, though the tiny ceramic burr mills ensured that I spent at least a full minute in full grind mode. The elbow grease required to pulverize a full ounce of coffee beans would rate somewhere around the neighborhood of "aggressive."
Like most hand grinders, users will find that the act of grinding the beans themselves is a better method of waking up than the caffeinated jolt from the cup. This grinder is no exception to that rule. The nut on top surely makes it easier for the arm to stay in place, but making adjustments to the grind size is easily the most challenging part of using the device.
That involves taking out the nut and arm, then removing the bit that keeps a jagged washer in place. Tightening or loosening this washer adjusts the grinder, but that's not without its own complications. You can eyeball the bottom of the grinder to see how much space you have, then throw in a few beans to check out the size. It's tedious and definitely low on the intuition scale. But once a desired setting is reached, the general ground bean consistency is much better than any beans ground in a crappy blade grinder.
The Verdict: Note significant drawbacks with this grinder, from the difficulty retrieving the coffee out from the hardy glass base to the grind adjustments. Still, ranked against its peers, this grinder is probably the best overall package in terms of price, style, ergonomics, and portability. Though that glass base does make it slightly heavier than the two smallest options on the board.
Hario Mill Slim Mini
Price: Listed at $42, but currently $25 on Amazon (as of March 2015).
Usability and Design: Easily the lightest grinder here, the skinny little hard plastic competitor definitely wins for cuteness and likability. It's the ideal travel companion, weighing in at 8.75 ounces or 247 grams. I found the slimmer profile just a little bit easier to grip than something like the Porlex, which seems to be made to exacerbate anyone's worst fears of carpal tunnel.
The grip isn't quite as nice as one would expect on the Mini Mill, so a fair amount of arm and hand strength is needed get this guy going. Also, the ground bean yield is slightly less than a regular sized grinder, as the capacity of the lower chamber maxes out at about 22 grams. Regardless, this is more than enough to brew one cup of pourover coffee.
But since the gray ceramic mill is on the small side, grinding beans will take well over a minute. Just don't grind too hard because the grinder's arm isn't firmly attached, which could lead to some embarrassing slippage. However, adjusting the grind setting is a cinch—simply open the mill, tighten (or loosen) the plastic nut attached to the bottom of the mill. It's hard to get more intuitive than that.
The Verdict: The cheapest grinder here, the Mini Mill, as it's affectionally called, is more than capable of being an ideal travel companion. The grind sizes aren't nearly as consistent as the other mills, but it's adequate enough for the pourover warrior or even the Aeropress user on the go. In addition, the hard plastic body makes it more resistant to the rigors of travel.
OE Lido 2
Price: Listed at $175.Usability and Design: As with all things in life, if there's a will to do something big, someone is going to do it. Orphan Espresso, which creates the most expensive and fantastical hand grinder on the market, was kind enough to send in their latest creation: the Lido 2, which looks very much like the Shredder's notorious canister of ooze in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. Except that instead of turning dandelions into monstrous organisms (or say, turtles into crime fighters), this Cadillac (or perhaps McClaren P1) of coffee hand grinders does its job better than any other one out there. It's gratuitous, pricey, and built to survive a zombie apocalypse. Hey, if the power goes out, rest assured that your coffee routine won't suffer.
Built of strong plastic, glass, and stainless steel, it's also exorbitantly heavy at 3.5 pounds, making it completely impractical for travel. So why own one? Well, the Italian made steel burrs can crush through an ounce of coffee in mere seconds. Whereas the Harios take upwards of 40 to 50 turns to get through a serving of beans, the Lido embarrasses the competition with just a dozen or so strokes.
The catch? The grind adjustment is a little tricky, and the strength required to get the mills going might not make up for it. Two testers that I signed up (namely, my father and girlfriend), found it frustrating to grab this gargantuan grinder and get it going. I didn't have as much trouble, rather enjoying the raw power of the Lido 2. The heavy jar on the bottom can hold up to 8 ounces, so if you're making coffee for a crew, this is the grinder for you.
The Verdict: This grinder is simply impractical for travel considering its size and weight. But those who like to show off fancy, expensive toys in their kitchen might like this option. It's the Rolls Royce of hand grinders, and the proof is in the grounds, which come out very even. But priced at $175, you're probably better off getting a mid-grade Baratza burr mill grinder. It's so much easier to press a button or flip a switch.
Hario Acrylic Box
Price: Listed at $72, but listed as low as $32 on Amazon (as of March 2015).
Usability and Design: Perhaps the most intriguing and innovative grinder of this lot, this nifty device earns some cool style points for its presentation. First off, it's not round, and it's definitely not recognizable. The transparent grey acrylic box almost looks like a bottle of cologne, but with a large metal handle on top. That odd switch like device on the side? That's for stationing the thing onto a countertop and using the rubber base to suction cup it down. It's brilliant, if a bit wonky to get set up from the beginning. Also, make sure that glass lid is set in place, or else the whole thing will nearly fall apart in your hands.
Grind adjustment works just like the Hario Skerton, with a clunky screw that has to be fiddled with for minutes before the thing's ready to go. A small drawer pops open with the grinds. The shape makes it relatively easy to grip on the side if you're not going to use that suction cup, or if you want to really get a workout, you can also place the box between your knees.
The Verdict: I really liked using this grinder, and the combination of the sturdy box, light weight, and overall good looks made this my favorite overall competitor. The modest price makes it workable for most budgets while the results spoke for themselves once I brewed up the grinds. The only real drawback is that unintuitive grind setting system that takes some fiddling with to perfect.
Price: Listed at $42 Amazon (as of March 2015).
Usability and Design: The sleek, stainless steel grinder makes it attractive thing to place on a store counter, which is why many shops and roasters recommend this one. Adjusting the grind setting is as easy as the Hario Mini Mill's—simply tighten or loosen the white plastic nut. However, this grinder has one major drawback: the slippery exterior makes it a nightmare for those who suffer from carpal tunnel, and if you don't already have problems gripping a small cylindrical device, this one just might do you in.
In addition, the tiny mill means you'll be swinging your poor arms (and likely switching them back and forth) many times before the coffee is ground. On the counter, the thing looks amazing, but once you're on the road, it's a pain to use daily.
The Verdict: If your travel bag is tight on space, the Porlex wins for compactness. It also slips right into an Aeropress, making it ultra convenient for those on the go. But between the Mini Mill and this, the Hario wins for its gripability.
Price: Listed at $64, but currently priced at $49 Amazon (as of March 2015).Usability and Design: Finally nostalgia comes into play. Hand grinders have been around for decades, with companies like Zassenhaus and Peugeot employing their engineering skills to create some of the finest classic designs (sadly, we weren't able to procure any of them for this trial). This modern day equivalent made by Hario harkens back to that era, when grinders were a fixture in many kitchens. It's certainly an oddball design, with a mason jar essentially attached to the bottom. Adjustments work much like the Skerton and Acrylic, though the dark metal fixtures give it a much more handsome look than the other two.
Gripping the beast, which clocks in at 795 grams or 28 ounces, it's a little more sturdy to use on a table or countertop, though the weigh makes it really unlikely as a travel companion. The large jar capacity does allow a comparably large amount of grinds to make their way through the mill, though the open top makes it difficult to contain any coffee bean fragment flack. Hario's done a feeble job of limiting the frags from hitting your eyes or landing on the counter with a plastic lid, which tends to fall off while grinding.
The Verdict: Ideal for those who want to add a vintage-looking piece to the counter, this grinder simply doesn't perform when put side to side with the others. The Skerton is easier to grip; the Lido is more impressive on the shelf; the Aryclic has a cooler design.
Summary: The grinder to keep at home is the Hario Acrylic, which is both fun and easy to use (except perhaps for the grind adjustment), plus looks pretty darn slick on the counter (hey, it even sticks to it!). The Hario Mini is ideal for travel, while the Lido 2 works as the ultimate show-off device. The Goldilocks of the group is the Skerton, which would satisfy most home grinders. But ultimately, those willing to spend around $140 would be better off investing in a Baratza Encore or maybe even a $100 Capresso Infinity (you know, the kind you plug into the wall).