One question every coffee brewer must ask is which type of burr grinder to opt for? I have often thought that purchasing a burr grinder is the first step to genuinely entering the world of specialty coffee. It doesn’t matter what machine or coffee maker you have; if you aren’t grinding your own beans, you don’t understand specialty coffee.
However, once you take the plunge and decide to invest in a grinder, you quickly discover that there are as many grinders out there as shades of color. So where do you look? What do you go for? How do you know which grinder will fit your personalized needs? The first and pivotal decision you need to make is a manual or automatic coffee grinder?
Having owned both for several years now, I feel qualified to give some guidance on this crucial question. Our first grinder was the automatic Rancilio Rocky for espresso. We then added the Aergrind manual grinder for soft brews. Finally, we settled on the automatic Niche Zero grinder for all our brewing methods.
We will examine the pros and cons of both types of grinders on a range of criteria. This is to help you to clarify in your own mind what you are looking for and consequently which type of grinder will best serve your needs.
Size and Portability
The first and simplest criteria to consider are its size and portability. Basically, this comes down to where you envisage grinding and brewing your coffee. It hardly needs to be said that manual grinders do tend to be considerably lighter, more portable, and smaller than automatic coffee grinders (although some manual grinders are beasts!).
So the first thing to think through is where you will be brewing your coffee. Are you a routine person that will be making it at 7:05 am every morning in your kitchen or simply wherever the wind happens to blow you? If you know that you are looking for a grinder for all of life and wherever life should take you, then the decision is basically made for you; you need a manual grinder.
The wonderful thing about manual grinders is that they are incredibly portable. Just chuck your grinder and Aeropress in your bag, and provided you have access to hot water, you will be able to brew wherever you find yourself. Similarly, because manual grinders are, as the name suggests, manual, it means they can generally deal with rougher use. They tend to be pretty durable, and there is no risk of electrical failure.
Automatic grinders, by contrast, almost necessitate that you exclusively grind and brew your coffee in one place. As a rule, automatic grinders are big, heavy, and will break if you are too rough with them. So generally speaking, manual grinders are small and portable, while automatic grinders are large and bulky.
Grind Consistency and Price
The next important consideration is grind consistency and price, or more precisely, the consistency to price ratio for either type of grinder. It would be a blatant falsity to make a blanket statement such as manual grinders deliver better grind consistency than automatic grinders. Because quite simply, it depends on the given grinder. There are superb manual grinders, and there are superb automatic grinders as well as absolutely disgraceful models of both.
However, there are a few things that are worth being aware of. As a general rule, you do get more bang for your buck when it comes to manual grinders. So if you spend the equivalent money on an electric grinder and a manual grinder, you could be almost guaranteed that the manual would have far superior grind consistency. This is because a manual grinder has no electric parts or circuits, and so all your money is going into the quality of the burrs used.
So if your most important consideration is grind consistency and you are on a budget, then you should almost definitely opt for a manual grinder. As an example, our general experience has been that a $200 manual grinder will usually equal if not trump a $500 automatic grinder in terms of grind consistency. Similarly, while a cheap (under $100) manual grinder probably won’t be great, a cheap automatic grinder will be truly terrible.
So while automatic grinders can easily equal, if not trump manual grinders for grind consistency, to do so, they will cost significantly more.
I am increasingly convinced that one of the most important considerations for which type of grinder to opt for is convenience. My observation has been that many coffee brewers start with a manual grinder, and then when the appeal has worn off, they decide to fork out the cash to go to an automatic. That was our experience, and it is a typical story for a good reason.
The reality is that if you love coffee and you decide coffee is going to be ‘your thing,’ then you will be using your grinder a minimum of once to twice a day. And so the difference between the push of a button and 2-5 minutes of turning a crank becomes rather pronounced. Don’t get me wrong, manual grinders are great, and there is a certain primal satisfaction from pulverizing those beans through the strength of your arm. But the simple reality is that the appeal wears off pretty quickly. Using a manual grinder is both time and effort-consuming. I found that switching from manual to automatic for Aeropress probably saved me 2-3 minutes per brew overall.
So the simple reality that we don’t need to be embarrassed to mention is that an automatic grinder is a heck of a lot more convenient than a manual. It is quicker, requires less effort, and less cleaning afterward. And this isn’t just for the lazy or busy, but if you are serious about good extraction and developing brewing techniques, then it can actually be a strategic decision to spend less time on grinding and more on development.
It is also worth noting that if espresso is your main game, then these arguments should hold even more weight. Grinding for espresso on a hand grinder is quite simply excruciating. To get the fineness required, it just takes ages, and you are utterly sick of it by the time your coffee is ground. While a few weirdos do choose to do this as part of their coffee ritual, we do not recommend it.
Changing between Brewing Methods
Another important criterion is whether you need this grinder to just cater to a single brewing method or if you like to switch it up regularly. We found this was particularly important for us. I typically start the day with an espresso and then have either a V60 or Aeropress in the afternoon. And the issue with this was that these different brewing methods require (usually) different beans and different grind sizes.
One of the problems with many automatic grinders is that they are not single-dosing. By that, I mean that the design intention is that the hopper is filled with beans at all times, and actually, the grind consistency often depends on the weight of beans in the hopper. Basically, it is a pain in the rear end if you want to change either the beans or grind size regularly. And if you do, you will have to purge to get rid of the grinds that are stuck in the grinding chamber and spout. So you end up wasting far more beans than is comfortable for the home brewer.
By contrast, manual grinders are single dosing by their very nature, so it is far less hassle to switch between beans or grind sizes. So if you are looking to switch it up a bit, then you may well need to go for a manual burr grinder. However, in the last few years, there has been the release of various single-dosing automatic grinders designed to solve this very dilemma. Some of the popular models are the Fellow Ode, the Niche Zero, and the DF64. These grinders are superb but, of course, aren’t cheap.
Automatic vs. Manual Burr Grinder: Which is Better?
So now that we have touched on a few key criteria, which comes out on top? Well, not surprisingly, it depends. It depends on where you will be brewing, what you will be brewing, what your budget is, and your own preferences.
However, increasingly our conviction has been that for the coffee brewer that will mainly be brewing in a single location, there are significant advantages for going for an automatic grinder. It will cost more, it will be large and bulky, you can’t bring it with you, but it does just make your life and brewing a heck of a lot easier. Since switching to the Niche Zero, I can honestly say I haven’t touched my manual grinder for around a year, and I haven’t missed it in the least.
General advice for buying a Burr Grinder
We have a few pieces of general advice we tend to give people who are looking to purchase their first burr grinder.
Hopefully, this article has given you some more clarity on which grinder might be best suited to your needs. See our articles if you need some guidance on which are the best manual coffee grinders or the best automatic grinders.