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The grind that makes the cup

Times Staff Writer

In the endless search for the best possible cup, coffee lovers obsess over the provenance of beans, debate optimum roasting time, filter their water, spend big dough on top-of-the-line espresso makers or assiduously research the best drip pot.

But what about the grind?

True coffee geeks (and yes, there is a website for them: www.coffeegeek.com) know that burr grinders, the commercial type used by better coffeehouses, can make a world of difference in the quality of a cup.

Burr grinders slowly crush coffee beans between rotating grooved disks or cones, rather than rapidly shredding them with a blade, as conventional grinders do. The process allows the coffee to retain its aroma longer and yields even grounds for more consistency in flavor.

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Another plus, burr grinders can adjust to produce drip and espresso-size ground coffee. More expensive burrs grind beans fine enough for Turkish coffee. There’s no way to be this exacting with a blade grinder.

The downside to a burr? It will cost you. The professional-caliber machines range between $200 and $500, but decent ones can be had for $50 -- about the same price as the most expensive blade grinders.

The steep price tags explain why, up until recently, only professional coffeehouses and retailers owned burr grinders. But with the popularity of espresso growing at more than 10% a year, as reported in the Economist magazine, more people want to take their cup of coffee a la maison. So manufacturers are now adapting their grinders to kitchen countertops.

We put six grinders through their paces, testing for ease of use, functionality, features and ease of cleaning (all must be cleaned regularly, from once a week to every six months depending on the model), and then comparing the quality of the finished cups. We tested them using espresso-roast Arabica beans from Trader Joe’s and brewed espresso made from each grind.

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The models ranged from the $50 Capresso grinder sold at Sur la Table to the sleek $425 Pasquini K2 available at the company headquarters at Olympic Boulevard and Valencia Street.

The competition was tight, though some were very noisy, and a couple had design flaws that made it difficult to turn the motor on and off. But when we performed the taste test, we found a tremendous difference in quality, one that was immediately evident as we inspected the crema (the beige froth that’s a fairly reliable indicator of espresso quality) in each cup. The difference was striking: It seemed that the more expensive the grinder, the thicker the crema.

However, when we tasted the espresso, our favorite -- the Pasquini K2 -- had slightly less crema than the $365 Mazzer Mini. And we were pleasantly surprised that the inexpensive Capresso delivered excellent flavor for the price. The huge difference in price among the grinders has to do with their size, motor power, burr diameter, whether they come with a doser, and the amount of beans that can be ground at once. According to Philip Hand, co-owner of Supreme Bean Coffee Roasters, an L.A.-area coffee roasting company, the most expensive machines are meant for intensive use, somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 cups a day.

Finally, we wondered whether coffee ground with a burr grinder made drip coffee that was better than coffee ground with a blade grinder. The answer was definitively yes.

We ground French roast Arabica beans from Trader Joe’s using the Capresso burr grinder, brewed a pot in our automatic drip coffee maker and taste-tested it against coffee ground in a Capresso blade grinder. The burr coffee won hands-down.

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Crema de la crema

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The Pasquini K2 put a nice crema on our lips and the best tasting espresso in our mouths. It was also the quietest, most attractive model, albeit the most expensive.

What’s the difference: A grinding command lever allows you to dispense ground coffee directly into your porta-filter or coffee filter by tapping the filter against it. The heavy motor is quiet and keeps the K2 anchored to your countertop, and it’s housed in a relatively attractive stainless steel body.

What we thought: Although the command lever eliminates the need to empty and clean a grounds container, it occasionally started the machine before we’d purposely activated it. When we tried cleaning the burrs (Pasquini says to do this only once every six months), reassembly was a chore, and we had to call Pasquini for help. Fortunately, it’s a local company.

How much: $425 (a similar model with doser is available for $499)

Where to buy: Pasquini Espresso Co., 1501 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A. www.pasquini.com; www.wholelattelove.com

Espresso geek

The 24-pound Mazzer Mini is the heavyweight of coffee grinders, a semi-commercial model built for small coffeehouses. If you can find room for it in your kitchen, more power to you.

What’s the difference: The super-large hopper can grind 20 ounces of coffee at a time, more than any other grinder we tested. A doser collects ground coffee in a container equipped with a release lever. Pulling the lever “doses” enough ground coffee for a single shot of espresso. Comes with a detachable tamper. Made in Italy.

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What we thought: The Mazzer is very heavy, awkward-looking and pricey. It also happens to turn out excellent espresso and it’s quiet. Adjusting the grind is cumbersome and the numbers on the machine were difficult to read.

How much: $365 to $495

Where to buy: www.aabreecoffee.com; www.wholelattelove.com; through special order from Supreme Bean Coffee Roasters, (818) 506-6020 or (888) 288-5282

Italian stallion

The Rancilio Rocky Stainless Steel is heavy-duty, with sleek design and a stainless steel body.

What’s the difference: Offers 40 fineness settings, a doser and a tinted bean hopper that blocks out sunlight and prevents the beans from getting stale. Made in Italy.

What we thought: Among the high-end grinders, the Rocky is the best value. The pull lever on the doser fits comfortably in your hand, and the smaller “footprint” means it doesn’t take up too much counter space.

How much: $295

Where to buy: www.rancilio.com; www.wholelattelove.com; www.1stincoffee.com; www.1st-line.com; www.aabreecoffee.com

Big red

The Solis Maestro Plus claims many of the features of a high-end grinder, and it looks cool on the countertop. It doesn’t function as well as the others, but it made very good coffee.

What’s the difference: This Swiss-made machine has cone-shaped burrs that are meant to dissipate heat and grind more consistently than the small, flat burrs of the Capresso or Saeco (Rancilio, Mazzer and Pasquini all have large, flat burrs). Labels on the grind selector tell how to adjust for drip, espresso or Turkish coffee.

What we thought: The espresso tasted great considering the price. But the on/off button didn’t always stop the grinder; neither did the timer on the side. The heavy plastic housing is a cheery red, but it can’t hide the noisy, Cuisinart-like sound. The designated grind settings were misleading.

How much: $149

Where to buy: www.baratza.com; www.wholelattelove.com; www.1stincoffee.com; www.1st-line.com; www.aabreecoffee.com

The soprano

The Saeco MC2002 is an affordable machine, but it doesn’t stand out in terms of quality or value.

What’s the difference: Offers 30 adjustable fineness settings. The ground coffee is dispensed into removable plastic holder with a hinged lid.

What we thought: The smaller burrs ground beans unevenly, and the thin plastic housing can’t hide the rattling engine noise. Caution! Don’t open the hopper lid while grinding unless you’re wearing earplugs -- you could go deaf from the high-pitched wail.

How much: $125

Where to buy: Crissy’s Coffee Service, (818) 601-4310 (in Altadena); www.wholelattelove.com; www.1st-line.com; www.aabreecoffee.com

Number cruncher

The Capresso #551 is a good entry-level machine and a great value.

What’s the difference: Has eight fineness settings, a timer that controls the quantity you grind, and convenient on and off switches. The ground coffee is dispensed into a removable plastic holder.

What we thought: Compact and easy to use; it made a more flavorful cup than the Saeco and certainly beat standard blade grinders.

How much: $50

Where to buy: Sur la Table; Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf; Williams-Sonoma; www.capresso.com; www.1st-line.com; www.aabreecoffee.com


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