Iron Barista’s Secret Weapon: The Burr Grinder

— by Caroline on Crack

Photo by Mike Hudson
By Mike Hudson

Iron Chef used to really sizzle my steak. You know, annoy the hell out of me. But thanks to a $200 coffee grinder, I can picture myself sitting proudly in Kitchen Stadium, seated with the legends and bowing politely to my vanquished competitor. The dream goes somewhat like this.

“Care for a cup of world-class brew?” I chortle, sipping on a cup of reserve Kenya that I made. Me. Myself. Iron Mike!

Ahem. I kinda zoned out there for a minute. Where were we?virtuoso-conical-burr-coffee-grinder-585.jpg

Right, let’s take a step back to the source of my culinary angst. The year was 1998. Here I was, a broke college kid sitting on my pathetic couch in some dumpy apartment watching these judges nitpick one ungodly-delicious-looking thing or another. Having just a handful of “great” dinners to my resume, I knew each bite I was watching would be worth its weight in gold.

Famished, I would step around my dozing roommates and to my sad kitchen. Some old pizza? An egg and piece of toast, perhaps? Or would I show some ambition and fry up some bacon strips to enjoy atop a burger?

Hence the anger at that show.

Forward to today, if Morimoto were to step into my kitchen and fancy — say — a cup of coffee he’d get one of the finest cups in the world. It’s true. And he, Bobby Flay, Mario B., Cat Cora or Cleveland’s finest Michael are welcome to test me out anytime.

Now espresso, that’s another story. That takes precision machines, pressurized steam and tens of thousands of dollars to do properly. But

brewed coffee — a culinary delight to those in the know — can be done beautifully at home by nearly anyone. All you need is a decent burr grinder.

Yessir. The grinder is the most important part of the home coffee setup. Why?Photo by Mike Hudson Because the coffee bean is brittle and it shatters when ground. And that creates all sorts of bits and pieces of bean that can screw up your brew. A burr grinder is more precise, allowing you to create a predictable mixture of grounds and thus a top-notch cup of brewed coffee. Better than any fancy chef could…but certainly enough that they could taste the difference.

I mean it. Assuming you have great beans on hand, you will rarely have a better cup of coffee than you can make at home. Now sure, this presupposes that you think coffee can be more than a bitter mess. And it presupposes that you regularly buy coffee to brew fresh at home. But even if you are habitually draining a cup of average Joe each day, the idea of a truly astounding cup of coffee must tickle you somewhat.

So what do you need?

  1. Baratza Virtuoso Grinder ($200ish): If that’s too much, try to find the German handmills from Zassenhaus which costs much less and will likely be enough to convince you the Virtuoso is worth buying. KitchenAid Pro Line also offers a less pricey burr grinder similar to the Virtuoso, but in my experience, may give up a measure of durability.
  2. Chemex Pot ($40ish): While not required, the Chemex pot is more simple to use than a drip machine and produces much, much better coffee. Check out this quick, fun little vid on how the Chemex works. A French Press is also a good way to make superior coffee at home.
  3. Fresh beans ($12-$20 per pound): Grind your beans right before you brew them. Coffee loses more than 50 percent of flavor within 15 minutes of the grind. Also a good idea to use coffee within 14 days of roast. There’s plenty of great roasters in Los Angeles and around California who can ply you with something you’ll love to wake up to.

This very setup I’ve described above changed my life. Literally changed it. I’ve become so fascinated with coffee that I spend my weekends working to master its hidden arts at the Intelligentsia Venice coffee bar. That’s where we tackle not only brewed coffee, but the “capital intensive” coffee arts of espresso, tea and sophisticated pouring of lattes, cappuccinos and the like. Stop on by and say hi.

But for home brew, there’s no giant books to read. No academy to attend. For brewed coffee, it’s a grinder, baby. Simple and sweet.

Dollar for dollar, I’d argue there’s no better way to up your culinary game than to upgrade your grinder and learn to use a Chemex pot. So give it some thought, drop a note if you’d like (I help run the Intelligentsia blog at, so ask any questions you like there or email me at mhudson[at]

And if you see Morimoto-san, tell him I’ve got his back next time he’s in my neighborhood.