You Need a Grinder. Seriously. (pt. 1)

You Need a Grinder. Seriously. (pt. 1)

Bottom line up front: you need a grinder.

I pledged allegiance to this specialty coffee lifestyle many, many years ago, and have successfully converted so many of my friends and family members, that I haven’t had to defend this position for quite some time – until recently. The other morning at work, while dutifully preparing my second V60 of the day, a coworker approached with a clear and profound look of confusion; “what is that noise?” he asked nodding his head towards my Porlex hand grinder. The ensuing 20-minute conversation on the merits of fresh ground coffee was captivating and informative, for someone. For my coworker, who is a tea-drinker, it was a total waste of time. Shoutout to my man Matt, who opens himself up to these tirades more than I’d like to admit, but takes them like a champ. This post is for you, though you’re likely not reading it.

If you value coffee as an experience, and not solely as a caffeine-to-bloodstream transaction, I implore you to invest in a grinder. To understand the why, I’ll need to first introduce you to the how – how does coffee (the beverage in your cup) comes to be? In my previous post, I discussed the concept of extraction, the process by which the solubles in coffee grounds are pulled (or extracted) by the water. Water (usually, but not always, heated) is introduced to ground coffee. The water interacts with the ground coffee for a period of time, pulling the flavors from the grounds and creating the beverage we all know and love.

Ground coffee is used for a variety of reasons, principal among them being the exposure of surface area to water. Imagine taking a t-shirt out of the washing machine, rolling it up nice and tight, tying a rubber band around it, and tossing it into the dryer – it might take a while to completely dry, no? You would have probably had better luck letting it air dry from a clothesline. Why? Because you are exposing more of the shirt’s surface area to the air. Coffee works the same way – by grinding the beans, we can expose a greater surface area to water during the brewing process. Its in these many interactions between water/grounds that the solubles are extracted and the coffee is made.

Now that we’ve answered the how, we can address the root question – why? Why do YOU need a grinder? Coffee, like most consumables, has a shelf-life. It might not seem that way, especially to those who grew up in the House of Maxwell or Folgers – that tin can would sit in the back of the pantry for decades. Hell, it may be there still. While it won’t go “bad” in the sense that it becomes dangerous to drink, the coffee can and will go stale – the smells/flavors will go flat and the resulting brew will follow suit. Purchasing pre-ground coffee reduces the shelf-life significantly, as the gasses trapped inside of the bean that lend the coffee its flavor have been allowed to escape. That’s not to say whole bean coffee doesn’t have an expiration date – it certainly does – but it is significantly longer than the pre-ground alternative.

Okay great, so there’s a shorter shelf life in buying pre-ground coffee – that’s okay, I’ll take the hit, how bad could it be anyways? Turns out, it can be pretty significant – some estimates have it to as much as 60% loss in flavor in the first 15 minutes post-grind, a statistic that informs our next section: the Rule of 15s.

The Rule of 15s

I’m not exactly sure where I first heard this, but I’ve seen it referenced in online forums, articles, and coffee shops everywhere since. The Rule of 15s is basic guide to ensuring coffee freshness (and thereby flavor) as a roaster, barista, and consumer. The basics are this:

1. 15 months after green bean purchase (roast it!)

2. 15 days after roast (use it!)

3. 15 minutes after grind (brew it!)

4. 15 seconds after espresso pull (serve it!)

Each of these refers to a period of time in which your coffee is “fresh” following a certain event. For this post, we’re focusing on #3, after the grind. By this standard (basic loosely on some nominal degree empirical research), consumers should plan to use their coffee within 15 minutes after the grind, to guarantee optimal flavor. Beyond this 15 minute window, the quality and flavor profile of your coffee begins to decrease dramatically. It should be noted that, while there have been many a scientific study on coffee freshness/extraction, there are a number of variables at play that make blanket rules (such as this) difficult to stand behind. It should go without saying that purchasing pre-ground coffee from your local grocery store will leave you well outside of this window. However, even if you’re buying coffee at a local roaster and having them grind it on sight, you’re still not setting yourself up for optimal flavor. In short, the only real solution is to buy whole bean coffee and grind-for-use (grind ONLY what you need in the moment, nothing more) at home/work.

To those coffee professionals out there who refuse to be put in a corner by the Rule of 15s, I completely understand. This “rule” is intended for the average coffee consumer, who doesn’t intend to invest in a refractometer or deep dive into many subtle intricacies that might affect the freshness of their coffee.

Okay, Michael, you’ve convinced me – I need a grinder to make sure I’m brewing my coffee within the “Rule of 15s” freshness window. Do you have any recommendations? Are all grinders created equal?

Not even a little bit. It’s never that simple. That topic however, will have to wait for another day. Until next time.

Cheers,

Michael

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