It’s hard to imagine where we’d be, as a society, without coffee. We’d be sleepy, less productive, and there’s a good chance we would have lost the Revolutionary War. (The higher caffeine content of coffee gave us a tactical advantage over the tea-guzzling British. Probably.) But besides being the world’s favorite performance-enhancing beverage, coffee is also a culture—one that varies regionally by preparation method, venue, and setting in which it’s consumed. From fancy espresso shops to no-frills street vendors, coffee lovers can find common ground in their shared love of bean juice.
Whether your coffee ritual involves ripping open a packet of the instant stuff or meticulously measuring out your beans and water to the nearest gram, we’re not here to shame anyone for the way they enjoy their mud—if it works for you, rock on, dude. We’re just here to offer a few tips and tricks to help you take your coffee routine to the next level. And, while we collectively drink nearly a pot a day, we’re not even close to being coffee experts. Thankfully, our friend Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, America's first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer and roaster, is absolutely an expert—and she was kind enough to give us a few tips about one of the most important steps in making a respectable cup of joe: grinding your own coffee beans.
First off, Nguyen doesn’t believe in “bad” or “worse” when it comes to coffee—just different. “If you’re someone who really enjoys freshly ground coffee and the most fragrant and flavorful coffee experience, then you should invest in a grinder and grind your own coffee fresh,” she explains. (Freshly ground coffee gives off more flavors and aromas than the pre-ground stuff.) “However, if you’re somebody who prioritizes convenience over optimal coffee flavor, then pre-ground coffee is a great option as well.”
You might have already assumed that freshly ground coffee is better, but why? “Grinding your coffee fresh with each serving produces a rich and aromatic cup of coffee because within the coffee bean, there are little oil pockets, and the oils get released the moment you grind the coffee,” Nguyen says. “If you grind the coffee and brew immediately, you’re going to extract all of these oils, but with pre-ground coffee, a lot of these oils dry up, and you lose those flavors and aromas.” There’s an oxidation process happening as well, she says. “Once you cut an apple or an avocado, you can see them brown over time as they oxidize. The same goes for a coffee bean—you’re not cutting it with a knife, but you’re cracking it open and creating more surface area for the coffee bean to oxidize and become stale.”
The biggest mistake Nguyen sees people make during the grinding process is not grinding at the optimal size for a specific brew method. “For example,” she explains, “a French press has a deep extraction and full immersion, and you’d want a coarse grind for that. If you grind it too fine, you’ll have an entirely different coffee experience, since you’re going to have a deep, bold, sometimes bitter taste. Same thing with a phin filter and espresso machines—you have to dial in the grind size to get the best brew for that brew method. If you grind too coarse, it flows through too quickly; too fine, not quickly enough.”
There’s also the matter of the coffee “bloom,” which is the phenomenon that occurs when you pour hot water into freshly ground—and only freshly ground—coffee. “Once you grind the coffee, the gases that build up in the coffee beans during the roasting process get released,” Nguyen explains. “A lot of people buy pre-ground coffee, add hot water, and wait for it to ‘bloom.’ They think it’s blooming, but nothing is actually happening, since the beans have already been degassed.”
What to Look for in a Coffee Grinder
It’s all about the burrs, Nguyen says. “Burrs versus blades is the number one priority. Burr grinders are highly recommended for coffee grinding because they grind coffee consistently and evenly,” she explains. “[This] results in an even extraction with a consistent size and surface area. Blades produce uneven grinds for uneven brewing, meaning some parts of the coffee may be over or under extracted.”
Nguyen has a few grinders at home: the Baratza Encore, the Baratza Virtuoso, and the La Marzocco Lux D, which she says is great for espresso. “If you’re living by yourself or with a few roommates, you don’t need a big hopper, since you can keep refilling it over time,” she says. In fact, the bigger the hopper, the more beans just sit there and begin to oxidize. The better move? Keep your beans in an airtight storage container.
The other thing to look for when choosing a coffee grinder is the amount of grind settings a model has. “More settings allow you to really dial in the grind size,” Nguyen says. “Buy the grinder that fits your preferred coffee brew method. Espresso? Get a grinder that goes really fine. Multiple settings are good here. Pour over? You can get away with less settings.”
Lastly, if you’re interested in more affordable grinder options—or you’re just looking to get a quick forearm workout during your coffee ritual—there are plenty of hand grinders out there that will get the job done in a pinch.
Coffee gives you the jitters? No sweat—there are also plenty of alternatives for your morning routine.
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.