Manual coffee grinders have been popping up everywhere these days — from the much-loved David Attenbrorogh of coffee, James Hoffman’s YouTube channel — through to high-level coffee competitions around the globe. Why are so many coffee professionals choosing a simple hand grinder over an expensive electric grinder? Let’s dive right in and see!
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What Is a Manual Coffee Grinder
A manual or hand coffee grinder is a coffee grinder that uses human power rather than electricity. It contains no motor. Instead, a handle on the grinder is moved, which in turn moves a burr within the grinder, which then grinds the coffee.
Why Is a Coffee Grinder Important
A coffee grinder is the most important part of a coffee brewing set up. Here’s why: When we brew coffee, we are dissolving a percentage of the ground coffee using water. This is how a cup of coffee gets its color and flavor.
In an ideal world, each piece of ground coffee that comes out of the grinder would be exactly the same size. This would mean that each piece would dissolve in the same way and therefore taste the same. But unfortunately, most coffee grinders aren’t capable of this — instead, producing a wide range of sizes. Some are big chunks, while others are extremely fine.
When thrown in the same brew together, the small pieces will offer up most of their flavor, while the big chunks will offer very little. This can result in a cup of coffee that is unbalanced and muddy tasting. In short — it won’t do justice to our delicious coffee!
A good grinder is important to ensure each piece of ground coffee is approximately the same size.
Benefits of Using Manual Coffee Grinders
There are a number of factors that draw people to use a manual coffee grinder. Portability and weight, looks and even the manual ‘made by hand’ nature of grinding this way. These are all excellent reasons on their own — they do look cool and they make excellent travel companions. But one of the main benefits of using a manual coffee grinder, and what attracts many home brewing enthusiasts, is that it produces stellar grind quality when compared to how much it costs.
The most costly parts of an electric coffee grinder are the motor and the electronics that lie within it. Interestingly enough, these are not the parts that are directly responsible for grind quality — the burrs are.
Because a manual coffee grinder can have burrs that rival a commercial coffee grinder but contain no motor or electronic parts whatsoever, its cost is reduced quite substantially — but the grind quality remains the same.
Manual coffee grinders are easy to use and offer excellent grind quality.
How Do Manual Coffee Grinders Work
Inside every coffee grinder, whether manual or electric, there is something sharp that cuts the coffee. For blade grinders, this is a simple blade, just like in a fan, that quickly spins until the coffee is cut into tiny pieces. While blade grinders do cut the coffee, they don’t necessarily do a great job of it, leaving us with some huge chunks of coffee, and some tiny ones.
This uneven grind is not ideal when brewing coffee. Having such drastic differences from one bit of ground coffee to the next will produce a cup that is both over and under-extracted — muddy, sour, and bitter all at the same time. To avoid this, we can use a burr grinder.
A burr coffee grinder works like this: A burr set contains an outer burr, which sits fixed in place, and an inner burr, which usually sits inside the outer burr, and rotates. There is a small gap between these two burrs. As coffee beans fall into this small gap, they get caught in the burrs and are cut into smaller pieces.
Almost all modern manual coffee grinders feature some form of burrs. These burrs can be made of different materials— with ceramic and steel being the most common.
When it comes to manual coffee grinders, coffee beans are fed into the top chamber. The lid of the grinder is placed on, often followed by the handle. Then the handle is rotated. This rotating of the handle turns the inner burr of the grinder, grinding the coffee. The ground coffee falls into the grinds collection cup at the bottom of the grinder.
Types of Manual Coffee Grinders
Under the umbrella of manual coffee grinders, we have portable hand coffee grinders, vintage ‘coffee mill’ type grinders, and benchtop manual coffee grinders.
Portable Hand Coffee Grinders
Portable hand coffee grinders are all the rage at the moment— and for a few very good reasons. Firstly, their small, compact size makes them excellent for traveling or using outdoors, as well as at home. Secondly, they are inexpensive. And finally, they offer excellent grind quality for their price. Even the more expensive models, like the famous Comandante C40, offer far better grind quality for the price than their electric grinder counterparts.
Portable hand coffee grinders are usually made up of four pieces that all fit together into one unit. The main chamber, where the whole coffee beans are loaded, is usually made of either metal or plastic. The handle, which attaches to the main chamber, is the part that is rotated in order to grind the coffee. This is generally metal with a plastic or wooden knob. The grounds collection chamber sits at the bottom and is usually made of either metal or plastic — though a few utilize glass — last, but certainly not least, the burr set — responsible for cutting the coffee. The burrs are commonly made of either ceramic or steel.
Mill Coffee Grinders
Mill coffee grinders, also referred to as vintage coffee grinders, are known as such thanks to their wooden ‘vintage’ look. A mill coffee grinder is designed to be used while on a benchtop.
There are two main parts to a mill coffee grinder— the grinder section, which is usually metal and contains a handle and a burr set, and the housing, which is usually wooden. The housing often contains a drawer in which the ground coffee is collected.
Manual Benchtop Coffee Grinder
While there aren’t too many grinders in this category, they are a few, so we’ll give them a quick mention. Manual benchtop coffee grinders are usually quite large and sit atop a bench (hence their name). If you’ve ever seen an old meat grinder, the ROK grinder may look familiar! (the ROK isn’t made for meat, but it does look similar to grinders that are) This goes without saying that they are not designed to be used as a travel grinder. Manual benchtop grinders do have one big benefit over other grinders, and that is that they probably require the least amount of human effort, when compared to the other types of manual coffee grinders.
Pros and Cons of Manual Coffee Grinders
- Can be very affordable
- Offer excellent grind quality for the price
- Lightweight and great for traveling
- Much easier to clean than an electric grinder
- Some of the metal options are extremely durable
- Some take a considerable amount of effort to use
- Low coffee capacity. Not great for making large amounts of coffee at one time.
How to Choose the Best Manual Coffee Grinder
Manual coffee grinders have far fewer parts than electric coffee grinders do. This makes it a lot easier to choose a good one. No need to worry about the motor, or any buttons or electronics— all we need to really think about, as far as getting quality coffee from it, are the burrs.
Of course, grind quality isn’t the be-all and end-all when we are looking at a particular grinder. Size, capacity, consistency, and build quality are all up there in terms of importance and can make or break a manual coffee grinder.
Think about how you want to use the grinder. If you want a grinder that is mostly for home, weight might not be an issue — so one of the heavier metal grinders might be for you. If, on the other hand, you want a grinder to take with you on backpacking and hiking trips, where weight is at a premium, then a lightweight grinder like the Porlex Mini may be perfect.
The thing about most manual coffee grinders is that they are designed for grinding enough coffee for two people, which is around 40 grams. Having said that, a few grinders, like the Hario Skerton, have a capacity much higher than this. If you need to grind much more than 40g — if you want to make a batch of cold brew, or use a Keurig coffee maker to make tasty coffee in larger quantities, go for one of the larger options, or grind the coffee in two or three lots. Be sure that the capacity of the grinder suits your needs.
Quality of Material
The material a grinder is made of will not only influence how well a grinder does its job but also how long it will last. Similar to brewing your cup in a stainless steel machine or drinking your coffee from a stainless steel mug, the quality of the materials plays a big role. Stainless steel and high-quality aluminum are two excellent materials that not only feel good to hold but are also durable and long-lasting.
Number of Grind Settings
All burr coffee grinders have adjustable grind settings. The grind setting will determine how coarse or how fine the coffee is ground. This is set by the distance between the inner out outer burr. The closer the burrs are to one another, the finer the ground coffee will be.
Some manual grinders are capable of producing grinds ranging from espresso sized (very fine), to French press sized (very course). Others are only able to cover filter coffee territory (medium to course).
Before purchasing a grinder, think about how you brew your coffee at home. Do you brew espresso? Go for a grinder that can produce a fine grind— one where you can make small adjustments. Are you more of a French press kind of person? If so, you can pretty much take your pick— most grinders are capable of producing grinds for a French press.
A well made manual coffee grinder, with its lack of electrical components, is capable of lasting a lifetime. The burrs within the grinder may eventually need to be replaced, as they will become less sharp over time, but the grinder itself should last. Keep this in mind when choosing a manual coffee grinder.
A grinder largely made of plastic might be cheaper in the short term, but the possibility of breakages may mean that they end up costing more in the long run.
The same thing goes for burrs. Stainless steel burrs are much tougher than ceramic burrs, which are more prone to chipping and cracking.
We want a grinder that will grind the same, day in and day out, for as long as we have it. But the reality is that the burrs on any grinder will eventually become less sharp. The speed at which this happens, though, largely comes down to the materials that grinder and burrs are made of. Damage, such as cracks or chips in one of the burrs, is another reason a grinder may develop inconsistencies. Choosing durable steel burrs will help with this.
While some people love it, not everyone is happy spending a minute or two grinding coffee by hand every. No-one wants their morning coffee routine to become a chore. If you know this is you, and spending time hand grinding sounds like a hassle, go for a more high-end manual grinder like the Lido 3. The burrs on the Lido 3 are sharp and bigger than most other hand grinders, meaning it will blast through beans much faster than the little Porlex Mini.
Portability is one of the most important things to look at if you’ll be using your grinder out of the house. Whether it’s on a camping trip, city-hopping or taking it to and from work, a grinder’s size and weight can be the deciding factor on whether or not it works for you.
Steel Burrs vs Ceramic Burrs
Burrs are commonly made of either steel or ceramic. Both materials have their pros and cons. While ceramic burrs can start off being a little sharper than steel burrs, and they are capable of staying sharp for longer, they are more vulnerable to cracking and chipping. Almost all high-end grinders contain steel burrs.
Ceramic does have one large benefit over steel, and that is the price. At less than half the price of steel for a comparable burr, ceramic burrs offer terrific value for money.
Freshly ground coffee is the best. And the reality is that almost any hand coffee grinder you buy will be a vast improvement over using pre-ground coffee. There is a manual coffee grinder to suit practically any budget, with options ranging from $20 all the way up to a few hundred dollars.
How to Use a Manual Coffee Grinder
One of the many excellent things about manual coffee grinders is that they are incredibly easy to use. Just set your grind size, add your coffee, and grind away!
- Manual coffee grinder
- Scales (optional)
Step 1 – Measure the coffee
Measure out the amount of coffee that you need. A good starting point for a 250ml pour-over coffee is 15g ( or around 3 level tablespoons) of coffee beans.
Step 2 – Set the grind size
Decide how you’ll brew your coffee, then set your grind size accordingly. Every grinder is different here, and there is no universal number to mention as a guide. A pour-over will use a medium-sized grind, similar to raw sugar. A French press will use a courser grind than a pour-over, and espresso will use a fine grind, similar to fine beach sand.
Step 3 – Grind
Grind your coffee, then continue to brew!
How to Clean a Manual Coffee Grinder
Cleaning a manual coffee grinder is extremely easy. With no electronics and no motor, all that needs to be cleaned are the burrs and the body, all of which can be cleaned with a brush and some paper towel. The steps in taking apart your grinder may differ, but it should be a fairly similar process.
A clean like this should happen, ideally, every week or two.
- A small brush (paintbrush or a toothbrush do well)
- Paper towel
- Manual coffee grinder
Step 1 – Prepare your area
Clear an area to work. Lay down some paper towels to give yourself a nice clean area to lay out your grinder.
Step 2 – Initial clean
Before we take apart the grinder, we’ll start by dusting out any loose coffee with the brush. Any part of the grinder where coffee touches, give it a brush.
Step 3 – Disassemble the grinder
This part sounds a lot scarier than it is, promise! All we really need to do is remove the inner burr— this way we can clean both the inner and the outer burr. This is usually done by completely loosening the adjustment dial (what you twist to change grind sizes). Loosen the dial until the dial comes off the shaft.
Take note of the direction of each part as it comes off your grinder (but don’t worry. If you forget, there are hundreds of grinder maintenance tutorials online for pretty much any grinder). Now you should be able to slide out the inner burr.
Step 4 – Clean
This step is very simple and doesn’t take long. It’s just about getting all the coffee that may have built up, out. Give everything a good clean. Brush the burrs and wipe the flat surfaces with a paper towel.
Step 5 – Reassemble
Once you’ve finished cleaning, put everything back together.
You now have a beautiful, clean grinder!
Burr vs Blade Coffee Grinders
There mainly two types of coffee grinders— burr grinders and blade grinders. A blade grinder uses a quickly spinning blade to cut the coffee into little pieces. A burr grinder uses a set of sharp burrs to cut the coffee.
While blade grinders do get the job done, they completely lack any control over how the coffee is being ground, and more importantly, the size that the coffee is being cut. With the rise in popularity and the drop in the price of burr grinders, blade grinders are becoming less commonly chosen.
A burr grinder is not only much more consistent but also much more predictable than a blade grinder— being able to change grind sizes and knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Almost all manual coffee grinders feature burrs rather than blades.
Automatic vs Manual Coffee Grinders
An automatic coffee grinder is one that uses a motor to spin the burr, which in turn grinds the coffee. A manual coffee grinder does the same thing, but rather than using a motor; it uses human power to move the handle, which then spins the burr. While automatic coffee grinders are much faster and require considerably less effort to use, they come with the drawbacks of being harder to clean and carry a much higher price tag.
Top Coffee Grinders Brands
Porlex manufactures two of the most well-known hand coffee grinder around — the Porlex Tall and the Porlex Mini. Both grinders include ceramic burrs with stainless steel body construction. The only big difference between the two is their size. The Porlex Tall is capable of grinding 30 grams of coffee at one time, while the Mini, being perfect for traveling, can grind up to 20 grams. Porlex grinders are an excellent entry-level option, or for those wanting a grinder to throw in a backpack, or even in a handbag.
The much loved Japanese coffee equipment brand Hario, offers a few different manual coffee grinders, with the Skerton and the Mini Mill Slim being their most popular models. Unlike Porlex grinders, the two Hario grinders in question are quite different from another in more ways than one. First of all, the Skerton is much larger and heavier— with its 100g coffee capacity, plastic body and glass collection chamber, it is perfect for using mostly at home. The Mini Mill Slim is a much more portable and lightweight option that has a plastic body and a 24g coffee bean capacity.
Both the Skerton and the Mini Mill Slim contain ceramic burrs.
The Comandante C40 is the Ferrari of hand coffee grinders. It has been praised by world barista champions and has something of a cult following. This is thanks in part to its build quality, but more so its ability to produce superb grinds. The C40 is a high-end coffee grinder with a price tag to match— but with build quality like this, it’s going to last you a lifetime.
Timemore offers a range of manual coffee brewing equipment, from scales to kettles and brewers. They also offer a couple of nice middle of the road in terms of price, coffee grinders. Their most popular offering, the Chestnut G1, includes three different options as far as color and materials go.
HandGround mixes it up a little with the design for their manual coffee grinder, choosing a vertical handle for grinding, as opposed to the usual horizontal handle. Similar to a benchtop coffee grinder, the HandGround is placed on a flat surface with one hand on top of the grinder, and the other taking care of the grinding.
Changing the grind size on the HandGround is also different from most other grinders, with the adjustment dial housed on the body of the grinder. While the HandGround could certainly be used while traveling, it isn’t the lightest or smallest grinder of the bunch. With a capacity of 100g and a set of ceramic burrs, the HandGround is a good option for those wanting a benchtop style coffee grinder without the bulk.
ROK makes heavy-duty, manual espresso equipment. And their benchtop coffee grinder lives up to exactly that— a heavy-duty manual coffee grinding beast. Weighing in at over 2.5kgs, the ROK is certainly not designed as a travel coffee grinder. But what it is designed for, is to be far less effort to use than pretty much any other hand coffee grinder.
The Lido 3 by Orphan Espresso is well known as being one of the best in the manual coffee grinding game. With its large 48mm steel burrs, 70g capacity, foldable handle and lightweight plastic construction, Lido 3 is one of the more capable options for excellent quality grinds both at home and on the road. While it is a premium hand grinder, it is priced a little lower than the comandante, making it an attractive option.
1Zpresso makes five different series of high-quality hand coffee grinders. All of their grinders are constructed of aluminum, steel, and wood, with the main differences within each grinder series being size and burr construction. Their JX manual coffee grinder, for example, is capable of grinding 35g of coffee with its sharp 48mm stainless steel burr set.
Does More Spending Mean More Quality
A coffee grinder is in a very different ballpark from, say, a coffee mug. With a coffee mug, how good it is is very subjective. Maybe it’s beautiful to some, and not so beautiful to others. Many people feel that a favorite coffee mug reflects the owner’s personality, even! This is not so much the case with coffee grinders — coffee grinders are much more clear cut as far as good and bad goes.
Spending more on a coffee grinder will absolutely buy you a better quality product. Not only will a more expensive grinder produce better quality grinds that are more even, it will also last much longer than a cheap one.
Do’s and Don’ts With Manual Coffee Grinders
- Do clean your manual coffee grinder often. In order to keep each cup of coffee tasting its best, clean once every 2 weeks, minimum.
- Do experiment with different grind sizes. This is one of the best things about owning a hand grinder— experimentation is so easy!
- Do try to protect your coffee grinder when traveling. A small case is a lifesaver (or coffee grinder saver) when airlines are rough with your bag.
- Don’t wash your grinder using water or soap. Just a simple brush and wipe with a paper towel is all you need to do.
FAQ About Manual Coffee Grinders
Is a manual coffee grinder better than electric?
If we don’t consider the effort it takes to grind in the equation — then yes. If we compare two evenly priced grinders— one is electric, and the other is manual, you will get a better quality grind, and most likely a longer-lasting product, with the manual grinder.
Are manual coffee grinders hard to use?
Manual coffee grinders do require a little elbow grease to use, but some are much easier than others. Generally speaking, the sharper the burrs of a grinder, the easier grinding will be. So if you are choosing a manual coffee grinder with ease of use in mind, choose a higher quality grinder, which will usually include better and sharper burrs.
Why should I use a manual coffee grinder?
A delicious cup of coffee requires freshly ground coffee beans. This is essential. Whether you make a tasty AeroPress, a shot of espresso and add the world’s best vegan coffee creamer or you make a bulletproof coffee to kickstart the day, your own coffee grinder is the only way to get the most out of your coffee beans. A manual coffee grinder is an excellent choice because of how inexpensive they are for the grind quality you will receive.
Where to buy a manual coffee grinder?
The best prices for most brewing equipment, including coffee grinders, are often found on Amazon. While most of the grinders on this list are available on Amazon, there are a few, like the Comandante, that are available only through certain distributors.
Is it better to grind your own coffee?
Absolutely. When exposed to air, ground coffee oxidizes extremely quickly. This is why premium K-cups are nitrogen flushed— to remove all oxygen from the container to prevent oxidation. When a coffee oxidizes, it loses much of its flavor and almost all of its aroma. Grinding coffee minutes before brewing will ensure the chocolatey notes of a coffee from Guatemala, or the fruity notes of one from Kenya will stay intact.
If you want the best of both worlds, a dual coffee machine uses two brewers — meaning you can grind and make a filter coffee when you want to, or make a K-cup when you don’t!
Do vintage coffee grinders work well?
The appeal of a vintage grinder is largely visual. They are a nice piece to own, and they look lovely, but the quality of grinds they produce is often lacking. Modern grinders offer more control and are also far easier to clean than vintage, wooden grinders.
Coffee grinders play a huge role in making a delicious cup of coffee. They are the most important aspect of coffee making, second only to the coffee itself. Manual coffee grinders present an excellent option for high-quality, consistent grinds, at a much lower price point than electric grinders. Grind, brew and enjoy!
Photos from: kwanchaidp / depositphotos.com,