In 2012, New York Times food writer, Oliver Strand, wrote an article about a coffee grinder. The grinder — the Baratza Encore — was new on the market at the time, ripe for the picking as consumers were left with few options back then. There simply weren’t many decent burr grinders for home brewing back then, and very few that balanced affordability with performance.
I’ll take a ristretto, please.
At the time, Strand had a column in the New York Times called “Ristretto” (I know, right!?) and it was a decent source of information in those early days (back when ordering a ‘ristretto' was cool). That the NYT picked it up was proof of coffee’s appeal in the early 10’s, and how exciting it was for a budget-friendly burr grinder to hit the market. In those early days, Baratza positioned themselves as the premier home grinder manufacturer and I remember at the time, as a coffee geek newb, this was very appealing. I remember getting tired of hand grinding, and I was often frustrated with the quality of my grind. In spite of being around since the early 1800s, hand grinders even back then —only 6 years ago— had yet to be perfected. Many of the hand grinders suffered major issues with the burr alignment— sometimes it was so bad you’d have massive chunks of beans sneak through into your grind. And then there’s the manual labour aspect; it’s not easy to grind coffee by hand! Needless to say, I was ready for upgrade, so I asked a cafe manager pal of mine to order me an Encore.
Can I get an Encore?
In Strand’s Encore article he states, “As a rule, you will make better coffee with a good grinder and a cheap coffee setup than with a cheap grinder and the most sophisticated coffee maker on the market,” and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a reason why pour-overs from your favourite cafe taste so good — they’re usually made in conjunction with a $1000+ grinder. This isn’t to say that you should ever need to spend as much, but it helps to illustrate the point that grinders make a difference in the end product, and good cafes see value in this investment. And there’s a reason why coffee made with bad grinders tastes, well, bad. In this case, a bad grinder would have a few problems: perhaps it’s the material — blade, dull ceramic, or low-quality softer steel. Those cheap blade grinders you get for under $20 at big box stores, yeah, save them for grinding up spices because they can’t do the job. This is because the blades promote uneven grind sizes, and as such, your coffee will extract unevenly. Furthermore, because of how fast they spin, they create lots of heat which is not good. For grinding coffee, slower is actually better — less heat on the grinds, treating them gently, is best (If you really want to nerd out, check out this old Baratza blog post on the matter.) Then there’s hand grinders with ceramic — some of them work extremely well, but one of the downsides can be lateral-play in the grind shaft, which means less precision. Other grinders out there have cheap steel burrs which can dull easily and succumb to tarnishing. Luckily at Eight Ounce we don’t carry those!
I bought my Encore in 2012, and used it almost daily until changing the burrs in 2015; that’s a lot of coffee. During that time I learned to love this grinder and its simplicity and reliability. However, over the years, I was always curious about the Encore’s bigger, pricier cousin: the Virtuoso. At almost $120 more in price, many wonder how big of a difference there is. Recently, I was able to test a Virtuoso for a few months, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see that much difference. Yes, it’s more quiet — your roommates will appreciate this — and more elegantly designed. Essentially, it’s more solidly built — it has a more robust plastic and metal case, with more options: a timer for the ON/OFF button means you can grind and walk away. The Encore, sitting next to a Virtuoso, looks cheap and clunky. And it is-- but that’s what I love about it! It just gets the job done. The Virtuoso likely provides a tighter distributions of particle sizes due to less vibration and resonance in the unit, and the motor is more powerful. The Encore’s motor audibly slows down when you throw those high grown, light roasted, dense beans into its mouth. It’ll chew them up sure, but just not as fast and efficiently as its bigger cousin. (Apparently the Encore’s motor tops out at 450 RPM at a grind speed of 0.8-1.1 g/sec, while the Virtuoso hits 500 RPM with a grind speed of 1.5-2.5 g/sec.) I think that the Virtuoso is for people who’re already into filter coffee, who want something that will handle whatever they throw at it, who have a bigger coffee budget. The Encore, I always recommend for those who are new(er) to coffee, who are on a budget, and who see the value in having an electric burr grinder on their kitchen counter.
My daily practice, and I think most people are in the same boat here, is to pre-weigh my coffee and then throw it into the hopper while the grinder is ON. I highly recommend this over storing coffee in the hopper, and I think you’ll get a better grind if you add the beans to the hopper after the burrs are spinning, so that they can bite into the coffee more evenly (I assume it’s easier on the motor, too, but I’ve never heard of anyone burning-out a Baratza motor!). Your coffee will be fresher, too, as the hopper lid isn't quite air-tight.
Check out these grinding tips by Baratza, if you’re curious about ideal grind settings for your grinder. As for cleaning, don’t judge me, but I rarely clean mine! Now, if you’re using a grinder at your cottage, and you’re storing it away during the off-season, you might want to clean it before doing so. This is because the residue and oils from the coffee can spoil, and could become difficult to remove. And please, please please please, don’t use rice to clean the burrs. For some reason this has become Internet lore. Instead, buy some incredible Urnex cleaning products if you want to do a deep clean before storage, or as regular maintenance. You can also use the wire brush that comes included with your grinder, and endeavour to take apart the burr assembly for some real TLC. But for me, since I use my grinder so frequently, my thinking is that in a way it’s cleaning itself and it never sits too long. (I also don’t use dark roasted coffees, which have more oils that can trap more residue, and over time perhaps cause problems.) Find what works for you: maybe when you get on a deep-cleaning kick, you know, when you clean your toaster— those kinds of deep cleans—add your grinder to the list.
Are you coffee experienced?
What this all boils down to is your coffee experience. Some of the best coffee I’ve ever had was made by me (probably in my pyjamas) at home, with my Encore. Many other coffee professionals I know use both the Encore and Virtuoso. I know owners of esteemed coffee roasting companies, who could easily afford thousand dollar grinders, yet opt to use Baratza’s affordable companions. What’s more, they’ve been used in world championship coffee competitions. Yes, that’s right. It’s possible to achieve near-perfect coffee with this machine, and it will last. It’s the perfect gateway to better home brewing, and typically, a well-earned stepping stone from those hand-grinding days. An Encore is what I recommend to most friends who seem hesitant to upgrade, and can’t quite come to terms with retiring their big box store grinder (made by some appliance company who should stick to making vacuums). I never judge, I just try to help my friends make better coffee. Many of them are visiting cafes frequently, but rarely make coffee at home, which can add up. I think it’s nice to be a regular at a cafe, and to be your own superstar home barista. Coffee, for many of us, is a part of daily life. I can’t think of many other gadgets in my life besides my electric toothbrush, phone, and laptop, that I use so consistently day-in, day-out. My grinder is just part of a routine and I truly enjoy brewing coffee at home. I see value in having the proper tools you need. It’s just such a bonus when they don’t have to break the bank, and when they have a track record of quality. Being able to make coffee at home this way will elevate your experience, surely, and this is the gift that keeps on giving.