Will Ireland—Future Publishing/Getty Images
By Ethan Wolff-Mann
June 29, 2016

When most people decide to upgrade their home coffee setup, they go shopping for coffee makers and often spend most or all of their budget on a shiny new machine. Perhaps on the way out of the store, they’ll grab some exotic beans or a fancy package of preground coffee.

Unfortunately, they haven’t done the one thing they need to do to make a truly great cup.

Contrary to popular belief, the brewing apparatus isn’t the most important tool—it’s the grinder, usually the weakest link in the coffee chain and the one most deserving of the biggest chunk of your budget.

Grinding the beans right before you use them is the easiest thing you can do to improve the quality of your morning quaff, no matter the brewing method or type of coffee you prefer. According to the National Coffee Association—not to mention anyone who’s ever tried it—this will make coffee taste much fresher than pre-ground, or even beans that you grind the night before. (Buying freshly roasted beans is another good idea.)

But grinding before brewing only gets you so far. For really superior results, you need the right kind of grinder. Most people settle for an inexpensive spinning-blade grinder, but a “burr” grinder—think of a pepper mill for coffee—is a vastly better choice. Unlike the spinning blade types, which create both fine dust and big chunks, the burrs grind to a uniform size, which makes for an even extraction of flavor compounds and caffeine.

The evenness of the particle sizes may not seem that important, but it has a significant effect on how your coffee tastes. When particles are small, the hot water quickly extracts the coffee flavor, caffeine, and other compounds and can easily extract too much, giving a bitter taste.

On the other hand, big, chunky particles make it hard for the hot water to take out the caffeine and flavor, which results in under-extraction and a sour taste. For people using blade grinders, these flavors often come together to create a muddy cup that’s nothing more than an eye-opener.

The good news here is that a burr grinder has the potential to be a miracle cure for your morning, and will yield tremendous results regardless of the brew method. (Blue Bottle and plenty of other well-regarded coffee companies use Bonmac drippers you can buy for $12.)

Electric models, the kind with genuine conical burrs (they look like this) start at around $90. According to The Sweethome, a popular and respected product review publication, you can get a really good one for $130, as long as you’re not doing espresso grind, which is too fine for most machines to handle. That may seem like a lot to spend for a coffee crusher, but if you amortize the cost over years of coffee-drinking pleasure, the price may not seem so high. (And you can always buy a cheaper coffee machine.)

There is a budget option, however—if you’re willing to have a small workout. Non-electric burr grinders are a perfect way to get started if you want to see whether upping your grind makes a difference. At just $19, models like the Hario Coffee Mill Slim Grinder do a phenomenal job that rivals many of the electric models 10 times the price. It may take you a couple of minutes of grinding for two cups of coffee, but there’s nothing wrong with a little exercise in the morning. For less than $20, the downside is small if you can’t tell a difference, but the upside is huge. You may find that it’s no longer just caffeine that wakes you up—it’s the anticipation of a top-notch cup of coffee.

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