Burrs or blades? This is the greatest debate in the coffee world since espresso versus drip. Coffee professionals and afficionados argue that burr grinders are the only way to go, while blade grinders tend to be cheaper, smaller, and “get the job done.” So, which is best?
Today, we’ll look at the history of this rivalry, explain the key differences between the two grinder types, explore which might be “best” for coffee, and weigh the pros and cons of each.
A Brief History of Coffee Grinders
You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you can’t make coffee without grinding a few beans. While the earliest ways that people consumed coffee included eating the fruit and chewing the leaves, it wasn’t long before the seeds of the coffee plant were the stars of the show. While the tough, green seeds of the coffee plant are tough to draw flavor and caffeine from in their raw state, after roasting they become more brittle and are able to be cracked and crushed apart into smaller pieces, which allows hot water to extract flavor and other compounds from them.
The oldest method for grinding coffee — which is still used today for traditional coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia — is with a mortar and pestle, a two-piece tool that comprises a kind of bowl and a hand-held club-shaped implement used to crush and grind ingredients against the walls of the bowl. This type of grinding can create coffee dust so fine it practically dissolves on the tongue, which is the grind size often called for in Arabic or Turkish coffee preparation.
Manually operated mechanical grinders for spices and coffee were developed starting in the 15th century, which allowed for a uniform grind in considerably less time, but without generating heat within the grounds, which can cause them to make a bitter brew. These grinders were tall and cylindrical: The beans entered through a chamber in the top, passed through a hand-operated mill in the middle, and were deposited in the bottom to be used. The plates used to grind the coffee could be adjusted to be closer together to make a fine powder, or farther apart to make coarser pieces.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is kind of familiar. Most of the subsequent coffee mill designs, as well as modern-day burr grinders, represent an interpretation of this design, with some variation: Beans go in the top, pass through a set of rotating plates that break the beans into smaller pieces based on how close together the burrs are set, and deposit the finished ground coffee in a chamber below. Some 19th-century coffee grinders were wall-mounted, and their chopping plates were controlled by hand crank; others were designed to sit on tabletops and had a removable drawer compartment that would catch the grounds. Today, most high-end burr grinders are powered electrically, though you can still find plenty of models that require some elbow grease.
The first blade grinders, on the other hand, were developed in the 1920s, featuring a single flat blade shaped something like an airplane propeller and designed to chop and cut solid objects by making high-speed impact with them as the blades spin. They were designed to chop any manner of hard spices, pods, seeds, nuts, and, yes, coffee. We say “chop” because they don’t technically grind, but rather slice and chop particles into smaller pieces over time, eventually achieving a similar texture and size profile to something that had been ground to a similar degree.
Where burr-style grinders have an upper and lower compartment, which allows the beans to pass through the chopping plates only once, blade grinders are self-contained, like food processors: The longer you operate the blades, the finer and finer the beans will be cut as they continue to make contact with the blades throughout the duration of the process.
The Pros and Cons of Blades and Burrs
There are benefits and drawbacks to each kind of coffee grinder: Let’s take a look!
Cost is one of the biggest differences between these styles of grinder. Because of their small size, simple blade design (often a single flat piece of metal that doesn’t need to be machine-cut or sharpened), and small motors, blade grinders are comparably inexpensive: They often cost between $20 to $40 and are easy to find at any kitchen-supply or department store.
The motor and the burrs themselves are often what make burr grinders more expensive, though non-electric models can be reasonably priced between $50 to $100. The best burr grinders operate at high speed but low rpm, meaning they are able to grind faster and accommodate larger burrs, creating more consistency in the grind. Smaller-motor burr grinders that have low speed and high rpm usually take smaller burrs, and are on the less-expensive side.
The burrs themselves are a consideration, as well: The two most common styles of burr sets are flat and conical. Flat burrs look like two identical gears, each with “teeth” on one side: The burrs are positioned so that their teeth are facing one another, and the coffee beans are forced between those teeth during the grinding process. Conical burrs look slightly different: There is one ring-shaped piece and one pyramid-shaped piece that fits inside it; they are both with cut “teeth” on them. Coffee goes between flat burrs horizontally and are ground based on the overall distance between the two plates; coffee goes into conical burrs vertically and is ground incrementally finer as it passes down the sides of the pyramid-shaped burr.
Because they’re smaller and easier to manufacture, flat burrs tend to be less expensive, but because they have less surface area to do the grinding, they also wear down faster and will need to be replaced sooner. Conical burrs, on the other hand, are heavier and more expensive from the outset, but will take longer before needing replacement.
Both types of burrs come in different materials, such as ceramic and stainless steel. Ceramic burrs are more expensive and last longer, but can be chipped or broken if a foreign object makes its way into the grinder. Stainless-steel burrs are less expensive but will need to be replaced sooner than ceramic, though there’s less chance of cracks or chips.
Another big difference between the categories of blade and burr grinders is just that: “big” versus small. Because of their double-chamber design and larger motors, burr grinders tend to have a slightly larger footprint, and can be hard to tuck away. For that reason, they’re usually designed to be aesthetically interesting, or at least minimal and sleek-looking. Blade grinders, on the other hand don’t take up much room on a counter, and can often be tucked away in a cupboard when they’re not being used. Their design reflects their utility: While they may come in a wider range of colors, they’re not designed to be especially noticeable or decorative.
The most pivotal difference between the two grinder styles is in how they operate. We touched on this a bit previously, but let’s break it down more specifically.
In order to adjust your grind size using a burr grinder, you’ll need to move the burrs closer together (finer grind) or farther apart (coarser grind). All burr grinders have some way of doing this, whether the user turns an adjustment collar on the top of the grinder or a knob on the face of the grinder, something along those lines.
Blade grinders can’t be adjusted in the same way that burr grinders can, because they run a single blade that spins alone in a circle, more chopping than grinding the coffee beans. The longer the blade spins, the smaller the coffee particles will become — at least some of them. In order to create a more even grind profile, the user will need to shake the grinder while it’s operating, to prevent some of the grounds from sticking to the sides and bottom while others get ground and ground all over again until they’re powder.
These two operating styles not only impact the size of the grind and your control over it, but also the temperature of the grounds. Because the blade grinder’s blade will interact with the same coffee over and over, the coffee grounds will begin to get hot and retain heat caused by the friction and trauma of impact. Burr grinders will also generate some heat, but the effect tends to be lessened since the individual beans don’t stay in contact with the metal pieces for very long before being dropped into the lower chamber. Heat can have a big impact on your finished cup: Warm grounds will experience a faster extraction, which means that your final brew might taste bitter and off even if your measurements and techniques are precise.
Do You Need a Burr Grinder?
Listen, “need” is purely relative when it comes to coffee. Some people need to take a first sip before they can have a conversation, others need to only drink Gesha coffee that’s within five days of roast. Every person is different, and luckily for us, coffee is usually pretty happy to meet us where we are.
Do coffee professionals typically agree that burr grinders are better than blade grinders? Yes. But if you’re on a budget and facing a choice between buying a blade grinder or pre-ground coffee, you might decide it’s more important to have fresh-ground stuff even if the grind size itself is imperfect. Or maybe you buy a blade grinder and focus on brewing methods that call for a finer grind, like moka pot or AeroPress. We’ve even been known to do a cha-cha while grinding beans in order to try to get a more even, coarser grind size — and just try to do a dance with your burr grinder in your kitchen.
The moral of the story is that “best” isn’t always the option that works for everybody, and there are pros and cons to even something as significant to your coffee routine as the grinder itself. May the grounds rise up to meet you — no matter what you use to get there.
Burr Grinders to Shop
Fellow Ode Brew Grinder ($299)
Shop the Baratza Encore Burr Grinder ($169.95)