Grinding your own coffee is a great entry level activity if you’re trying to become either a foodie or a hipster. In both cases, you’ll eventually have to take a few more steps to get any cred, but for now let’s take a look at making big pieces of coffee into smaller ones, and why.
There are maybe 1 billion different options of grinders to choose from, but they all basically fall into two categories: blade choppers and burr grinders. Choppers are generally more affordable, and burr grinders are considered to make the better grind, but those aren’t hard and fast rules depending on what you’re doing with them.
Blade grinders/choppers: These are basically glorified little food processors. They work by spinning a little blade in a little cup until the coffee beans are reduced to a fairly small and homogenous group of particles, which you then use in your brewing method of choice. The main limitation is their inaccuracy: there’s really no way to get a consistent grind within a batch, since the beans are getting hacked apart haphazardly. I’ve found that shaking the grinder as it runs helps distribute the contents a little more evenly, but even then it’s a little unpredictable. Some of the grinders, including mine, have little dials and buttons that give you the impression you’re adjusting things, but I’m pretty suspicious that they don’t actually do anything.
Fortunately, in most applications you really don’t need a uniform grind. As long as you can get to know your machine enough to get in the ballpark for the grind you need, you should be fine. Look for choppers that have a removable cup for dumping the grinds (so you don’t have to always pick up the whole thing). If you’re planning on using the same grinder for coffee and spices (which I don’t recommend), get one with a metal chopping chamber so the various flavors are easier to wash out.
Burr grinders: The main benefit of these machines is consistency. By feeding the beans through a fixed gap between little toothed wheels, or “burrs”, the machine can accomplish what the well-meaning blade grinder is unable to create: an even grind. The problem here is that they are generally either expensive, or not very good. The really essential application for burr grinders is with espresso, where small variations in grind size or consistency can throw the whole process off. If you’re investing in a really high quality espresso maker (which would be awesome), then it would make sense to make sure you get a good burr grinder as well. Otherwise, I’d say skip it. I actually have a cheapo burr grinder from a thrift store that I took home and modded to work better, but I rarely use it.
Moral of the story, spend your money on a blade grinder you really like until you’re ready to take the plunge on some legit espresso equipment.