If I could offer one piece of advice that will improve your coffee more than anything else, it would be this:
Learn how to grind coffee beans.
You can improve your coffee a lot with different brew methods, using the right temperature of hot water, or using the right amount of grounds. But all of those pale in comparison to grinding your own coffee, using the right grind size, and choosing a good coffee grinder.
Why Learn How to Grind Coffee Beans?
Coffee is best when it’s made from freshly ground beans. The flavor and aroma decay very quickly after the beans are ground, so pre-ground coffee is generally well on its way to being stale by the time it lands in your pantry.
There are steps that you can take to store coffee grounds better, and you can buy from brands that vacuum-seal their grounds quickly after production, but none of those steps will be as reliable as just getting your own coffee grinder and grinding fresh beans before every brew.
As I’ll discuss more throughout this article, grind size is very important for improving your cup of coffee. Pre-ground coffee is typically sized for either drip coffee makers or espresso machines.
If you want to try any other brewing method, you could have a hard time finding grounds that will suffice. Even if you make drip coffee or espresso, you may find that you prefer a grind size that is slightly different than what is available in the store-bought grounds.
What Makes a Good Coffee Grind?
Grind size accuracy
The grind size is a crucial aspect. Larger particles will extract slower, filter easier, and allow water to flow more freely through them. Small particles will extract rapidly, may be hard to filter, and will pack together tightly enough that water may have a hard time getting through. We’ll talk more about the specific grind size needed for each type of coffee maker in the next section.
Ground size consistency
The ground particles need to be uniformly sized. If you have a mix of small and large particles, you’ll either under extract the larger ones or over-extract the smaller ones — possibly both all at once. In some methods, small particles may end up either leading to clogs or sooty coffee. In other methods, large particles can ruin the packing of the coffee, letting water flow through too easily.
Don’t burn the beans!
This is an often-overlooked factor, but some coffee grinders heat up a lot while you are using them. Not only is this bad for the motor, but it can also burn the grounds. This can leave a bitter, ashy flavor that will ruin your brew.
Types of Coffee Grinds
Texture: Small pebble, ground peppercorn
Used for: Cold brew coffee makers, cowboy coffee
These are the coarsest of all the coffee grinds that you can make with a typical grinder. They resemble ground peppercorn and are perfect for cold brew, but you won’t find many other uses for them.
Texture: Coarse salt
Used for: French press coffee makers, cold brew, percolators, cupping/tasting
A coarse grind is the size of coarse or kosher salt and is most frequently used as the grind for French press coffee.
Texture: Coarse sand
Used for: Chemex, pour over, siphon brewers
Medium-coarse is like coarse or rough sand, and it is most frequently used in Chemex and a couple of other specialty brewing methods.
Texture: Brown or white sand
Used for: Drip coffee makers, flat filter drip, AeroPress, siphon brewers, pour over
This is probably the most common coffee grind, and it resembles normal brown or white sand. If you buy pre-ground coffee for a drip coffee maker, it’s probably a medium grind.
Texture: Slightly more powdery than sand
Used for: Pour over, AeroPress, siphon brewers, Moka pots, V60
Most pour-over coffee uses a medium-fine grind, which is somewhere between sand and sugar in texture. This is also a great starting grind for AeroPress coffee makers.
Texture: Table salt / granulated sugar
Used for: Espresso machines, AeroPress, Moka pots
The fine grind, or espresso grind, resembles table salt or granulated white sugar. It’s mostly used for espresso makers, including stovetop espresso makers (Moka pots). It can also be used for some AeroPress recipes.
Texture: Baby powder / powdered sugar
Used for: Turkish coffee makers (Ibriks)
An extra fine grind — also known as a Turkish grind or pulverized — resembles powdered sugar and is used almost exclusively for making Turkish coffee. Many coffee grinders won’t even make a grind this fine, so you may need different equipment if you want to grind beans for Turkish coffee.
Coffee Grind Size Chart
Here’s a quick reference for common types of coffee makers.
|Brewing method||Grind size|
|Cowboy coffee||Extra coarse|
|Cold brew||Extra coarse – coarse|
|Siphon||Medium coarse – medium fine|
|Pour over||Medium coarse – medium fine|
|Flat filter drip||Medium|
|AeroPress||Medium – fine|
|Moka Pot||Medium fine – fine|
|Ibrik (Turkish)||Extra fine|
What If You Don’t Use the Right Grind?
Too coarse a grind will leave your coffee under-extracted. In this case, the brew will taste sour because the sweet and complex notes will remain in the grounds.
When you use too fine a grind, you instead over-extract the coffee grounds. Over-extracting the grounds causes bitterness, potentially enough to entirely overwhelm the flavor of the coffee.
Grind size is not the only factor in under- or over-extraction, though. Keep in mind that the brew time, the temperature of the water, and the coffee-to-water ratio can all change the extraction level. A bitter flavor in your coffee could also mean the coffee beans have gone stale.
Choosing a Coffee Grinder
Let’s briefly look at the common types of coffee grinders and how you can choose the best coffee grinder for your needs.
Burr vs blade
Blade grinders operate much like blenders, chopping beans apart instead of truly grinding them. This results in a very uneven grind, with a range of differently-sized grounds all mixed together in a single batch.
Burr grinders operate by crushing the beans between two closely-spaced steel or ceramic plates covered in tooth-like blades. They offer a much more consistent grind size than blade coffee grinders, owing to the fact that the spacing between the plates strictly controls the coffee grind sizes that can get through.
Blade grinders don’t have size settings. Instead, the average size of the grounds is controlled by the contact time with the blades. If you want smaller coffee particles, you run the grinder for longer.
Burr coffee grinders, on the other hand, let you set a finer or coarser grind by adjusting the spacing between the plates. Running the grinder for longer won’t create finer grinds because the grounds don’t stay in contact with the burrs after they achieve the proper size.
The inconsistent grinds produced by a blade grinder will not allow you to maximize your coffee brewing technique. The only advantage of blade grinders is their price, but an inexpensive burr grinder will outperform even a high-end blade grinder.
In short: you need to buy a burr grinder if you want great coffee.
Conical burr vs flat burr
There are two major types of burr grinders: conical and flat. They differ, as the names suggest, in the shape of their burrs.
Conical burr grinders have two cone-shaped burrs — one hollow and one solid — with the solid one placed inside the hollow one. The beans are dropped vertically between the burrs, falling through the bottom when they have reached the proper size.
Flat burr grinders also have two burrs, but they are flat and placed one on top of the other. The beans are dropped so as to fall between the plates and eventually be pushed out vertically.
Conical burrs tend to be cheaper and quieter than flat burrs, which have to operate at a faster speed. Flat burrs create grinds with somewhat more consistent sizes, but the difference is minor compared to the advantage of burrs over blades. The difference is so small that even many coffee shops use conical burr grinders.
Ceramic vs steel burrs
You’ll also have to choose between ceramic vs steel burrs for your grinder. Ceramic burrs tend to be more expensive and they don’t start off as sharp as steel burrs. They do retain their sharpness better over time, though. Steel burrs won’t last as long as ceramic, but they are cheaper and start off much sharper.
Manual vs electric
At low price ranges, manual coffee grinders are higher-quality, but they can be difficult to use for large quantities. Electric grinders vary a lot more in quality, but high-end electric burr grinders can outperform any manual grinder.
Most handheld grinders are manual, especially handheld burr grinders. Countertop grinders come in both manual and electric varieties, although electric is far more common.
If you grind a lot of beans, you probably want an electric grinder. If you need a small travel grinder or you just want to save money, a manual grinder is probably the better option.
3 Mistakes to Avoid When Grinding Coffee Beans
1. Using a blade grinder
I mentioned this before, but it’s worth reiterating: blade grinders are terrible. People buy them because they are cheap, but a low-cost burr grinder will far outperform even the most expensive blade grinder. Ditch the glorified blender.
2. Grinding your beans too early
Coffee grounds go bad a lot faster than coffee beans because of the high surface area. The finer the grind, the faster it will go bad, but any grounds are only at peak freshness for the first half-hour or so after grinding.
Ideally, you should be grinding your coffee beans no more than an hour before use. Don’t try to grind your beans for multiple days at once. If for whatever reason, you do have leftover grounds, you should store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
3. Grinding the wrong amount of coffee
As I mentioned earlier, there’s more to the perfect cup of coffee than the grind size. The amount of grounds you’ll need will depend on what type of coffee maker you are using and what strength of coffee you want. To make that whole process easier, I suggest using the coffee-to-water ratio calculator.
The main takeaways here are:
- Buy whole bean coffee and grind it yourself — pre-ground coffee is not fresh.
- Use a burr grinder — blade grinders are terrible.
- Choose your type of grind (grind size) based on your brewing method.
I know this can seem complicated at first, but it will go a long way toward improving your coffee brewing experience. People think of coffee as a bitter or simple flavor, but that’s just because they haven’t had the good stuff.
Coffee can exhibit a complex and beautiful variety of flavors and aromas — and freshly ground coffee is the pathway to exploring everything our favorite bean has to offer.