Quick Answer: In simplest terms, it’s a machine with two abrasive plates that allow a few beans at a time to fall between them, where they are ground in a highly consistent manner.

Are you tired of the taste of the same old, same old, pre-ground, store-bought coffee?  Have you been looking for a way to expand your coffee flavor horizons?  If so, then there’s no better way to do that than grinding your own beans to create fresh, flavorful coffee.

Having said that, not all grinders are created equally, and even among the different types of burr grinders, there’s some debate about which one is better.

Don’t worry, having answered the basic question above, we’ll take a deeper dive into the world of coffee grinders so that if you decide to buy one for yourself, you’ll have a good idea about what you want, and just as important, about what to stay away of.

Ready?  Let’s jump right in!

Why Grind Your Own Coffee in the First Place?

An image of a cup of coffee with beans

As we mentioned in the introduction, the answer to this question comes down to one word:  Flavor.  Grinding your beans fresh produces a cup of coffee that simply has a better, more robust, and more complex flavor.

To get a feel for the difference, crack open whatever container you keep your pre-ground coffee in and take a close look at it.

See how some of the grounds are really big, like kosher salt, and some are tiny?

This kind of inconsistency has a real impact on flavor.  Improving the flavor of your drink revolves around getting a consistent grind, and aligning the fineness or coarseness of that grind with how you’re brewing the coffee you drink.

Why Grind Your Own Coffee in the First Place?

​Here’s an example of that in action:  If you are currently using a drip brew machine with a conical filter, you want a fine grind.  If your coffee maker has a flat-bottomed filter, you want a medium grind. Putting the “wrong” grind in a given machine will result in less than optimal flavor, and more grounds sitting in the bottom of your cup.  That’s why it matters.

Different Types of Grinders

In the world of coffee grindersthere are two basic varieties you can select from: Burr grinders and Bladed grinders.

The chief advantage of a bladed grinder is that they’re incredibly inexpensive.  You can often find them for ten bucks or less, which is awesome. 

An image of the fine coffee grounds of a burr g​rinder
Burr Grinder
Blade Grinder

Having said that, they have a major drawback.  They don’t grind the beans so much as smash them to bits.  As you might expect, that results in a highly inconsistent grind.  Better than store bought, pre-ground coffee, but only by a little bit, and because of that, we don’t recommend them.

Where burr grinders are concerned, there are, again, two fundamental choices to make: Flat or Conical.  In addition to that, these grinders are crafted with two different materials: Stainless Steel or Ceramic.

​Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each, starting with the materials used in construction.

Stainless Steel vs Ceramic

Stainless steel burr grinders tend to beless expensive than ceramic ones, but they come with a potentially devastating drawback. The metal burrs tend to heat up when used, which can burn your grounds, utterly ruining their flavor.

An image of ​Mr. Coffee BMH23 burr grinder filled with coffee beans

Typically, this only happens when you’re grinding lots of beans at once, so if you’re a casual coffee drinker, this will almost never be an issue for you, and you can save yourself a bit of money by going with a stainless-steel grinder.

On the other hand, if you’re a power drinker, you’ll probably want to spend a few extra bucks and get the best ceramic grinder your budget will allow for, to avoid even the possibility of burning your grounds.

Conical vs Flat

While there’s some debate about which is better between conical grinders and flat ones, they both do an excellent job, and you won’t be disappointed with the results you get from either kind. From a practical standpoint, the biggest difference is in engineering and design.

A conical burr grinder is essentially a “grinding funnel.”  The beans fall into the funnel and are ground, coming out the bottom.  In a flat grinder design, the beans have to make a pair of 90-degree turns to get to the grounds chamber at the bottom of the device.​

Because of this, flat grinders are somewhat more likely to encounter problems with beans getting stuck or grounds that get clogged at the points where the turn has to be made.  It’s a minor issue, and casual drinkers are unlikely to encounter the problem very often, but power drinkers who grind more coffee, will probably see it often enough that it’ll get annoying.

In any case, it’s recommended that you clean your grinder about once a week, and if you keep up with the regular maintenance, you’ll minimize the issue, regardless of which type of grinder you select.

Pros & Cons of a Burr Coffee Grinder

At the end of the day, the key differences are:

  • Flat grinders have a slight edge in grind consistency, but it’s a small enough difference that the vast bulk of coffee drinkers won’t be able to tell the difference, and it’s only noticeable when you’re grinding extra fine or Turkish.
  • Conical grinders have an edge regarding minimizing waste because fewer beans and grounds get caught in the innards of the system.

Manual vs. Automatic Grinders – Which is Better?

There’s one more wrinkle to consider, and answering the question “What is a burr grinder?” isn’t quite enough, because it doesn’t capture this element of the equation.

Burr grinders come in both manual and automatic configurations.  Here, it’s not so much a question of which is “better,” it’s more a matter of how much control you want to have over the grinding process, and how much you value convenience.

Automatic grinders are, as their name implies, highly automated.  You load your beans in the hopper, select from some number of pre-defined grind settings, push the button and wait.  In a matter of seconds, you’ll get your fresh grounds, and can brew to your heart’s content.

On the other hand, as the description above indicates, there’s one potential issue here, and that is the fact that you’re going to have to live with a limited number of pre-defined grind settings.

If you’re willing to spend a few hundred bucks, you can get an automatic grinder with literally hundreds of settings, which is enough to cater to every taste and preference, but that’s quite a lot of money to spend, and more modestly priced automatic grinders have 20 (or fewer) settings to choose from.

An image of ​Baratza Encore burr grinder with coffee beans

Again, if you’re a casual coffee drinker who values convenience, then you’ll probably find it a good trade to give up a measure of control for the convenience that an automatic grinder offers.

Manual grinders don’t have pre-defined settings.  You can tweak your grind as much as you want until it’s perfect.  That does take some time and patience, of course, and then there’s the fact that you’ll have to manually turn the crank to actually grind those beans, but in general, you can get a manual grinder for a lot less money, which is also an important consideration.

Ultimately then, the answer to the manual vs. automatic question comes down to how much money you have to spend, and how important convenience is to you.

Final Thoughts – What is a Burr Coffee Grinder?

So now you know, and as we mentioned at the start, there’s a lot more to answering the question “What is a burr coffee grinder?” than first meets the eye.

Armed with this information, you’re now in a position to pick the best grinder for you, and begin exploring a whole new world of coffee flavors.

As important as grinding your own beans is though, it’s not the only element in the flavor equation, and if you’re interested in specialty coffee drinks, be sure to check out our multitude of espresso machine reviews, right here on the site.  Either way, drink up and enjoy!

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