I remembering being near the start of my home coffee brewing journey and there was one thing I couldn’t figure out… did I need to invest in a grinder to grind my coffee fresh or was preground acceptable?
I’m a little further on these days and have all the information ready to answer that question – and my answer may be considered a little controversial – so hopefully you find this article helpful.
In short, buying a coffee grinder is the best option when you are ready to invest the $100 minimum needed to get something that can produce a consistent, even grind. Cheap grinders will produce tiny ‘fines’ and large sized chunks all at the same time which will extract badly and leave bitter, sour, acrid flavors in your cup.
A better option initially is to go with preground. Getting the coffee shop to grind your coffee for you is going to guarantee a solid extraction – they will be using a decent grinder – and if you make your first coffee right after buying the bag then you can get an idea of how much better freshly ground coffee is. You can do this until the time comes where you feel it’s worth making that investment.
There’s one big caveat to this about where you buy your coffee from which I’ll get into in just a second, too, so keep reading!
A little insight into my perspective (I’m talking about GREAT coffee)
I make a lot of assumptions.
I assume that the train at that platform over there is going to leave any second – it’s usually not.
I also assume that 5 hours of sleep will be enough because I haven’t got a lot on tomorrow. It never is.
I assume that my favored sports team will miss that shot, lose that game, not make the playoffs. I’m usually right about that last one, however.
Another assumption I make is that anyone who finds their way onto my website is interested in making great coffee.
Not decent coffee. You can get something that most people consider drinkable by stumbling around your local grocery store.
Not even good coffee, which requires a bit more knowhow, research and investment but is well within reach for anyone with a brain and an internet connection.
But great coffee. Coffee that sings on your tongue each morning as you are transported to a world of silky smooth tastes where that African single origin’s delicate notes of blackcurrant dance around your mouth. Yea that’s a thing. And that’s what I want everyone to be aiming for.
So to tie that into this article, I will discuss the merits of grinding your coffee fresh vs buying preground, all with the assumption that you have the end goal of making great coffee.
If you’re just looking for a vehicle for your morning caffeine dose I may not be the right person to take advice from.
Grind Fresh vs Preground
Let’s talk definitions. Here are the two options I’m going to consider in this article.
Grind Fresh –> You have a grinder that you use to smash up whole coffee beans into coffee grounds just before you brew.
Preground –> You buy coffee that is already ground up and use it to brew.
Here’s a photo for a more visual look at things. Below we see four little pots (ramekins?) of whole coffee beans and below we see what they look like ground up. Your choice is… do you grind them up yourself, fresh, just before the brew? Or do you buy them preground? For reference, there’s rarely – if ever – a cost difference between the two.
Now the obvious answer is grinding fresh, right? The loaf tastes best when it’s hot out the oven and the bananas are juiciest right after they are ripened. With the same logic, freshly ground (and freshly roasted) coffee beans produce the best coffee. And that is true.
But there’s a snag.
Why grinding fresh is a BAD idea for most people
Let’s say you’re buying your significant other a diamond ring to propose to her. You buy the raw diamond and need to cut it into shape yourself… (just go with me on this). You don’t want to spend too much – that diamond wasn’t cheap! – so you get one of the cheaper diamond cutters, do the job yourself and put it onto a ring. How do you think your loving partner reacts to the shoddy and sharp gem on the ring you just gave him or her?
Sometimes, the cheapest equipment just isn’t up to the job. You definitely wouldn’t use a cheap saw to cut up a diamond, it would look terrible. And, surprisingly to some, this is true of coffee as well.
The most common misconception I meet when talking to people about coffee is that any old way of crushing up your coffee beans will do. The objective is to turn coffee beans into coffee grounds, it doesn’t matter how you do it, right? Wrong.
Let’s say you use a cheap burr grinder or (god forbid) a blade grinder. This will produce ground coffee that is full of fine particles that extract too quickly making your coffee bitter and silty and full of large blocks that barely extract at all making your coffee weak and acidic. You want even grounds, not dust and boulders. These uneven chunks, particularly the fines, ruin the brew by extracting too fast and releasing the later-extracting bitter compounds.
You wouldn’t give a Michelin star chef a blunt and rusty knife and expect him to create gourmet cuisine, so don’t expect high-quality coffee when you aren’t using high-quality equipment.
So why is grinding fresh a bad idea for most people? It’s because they are not prepared to pay the $150+ to get something that can create great coffee. When people learn that that’s the minimum cost to get a grinder capable of producing the smooth grounds that make great coffee, they are taken aback. The reactions are similar every time.
“That’s more than I expected.”
“I’m not looking for a top-of-the-range model, just something cheap.”
“My blade grinder will be just fine.”
“Surely I can get something decent for less than $30?”
“I’ll just keep going to Starbuck’s!”
If this is you – and I think everyone goes through some variant of this at some point – I have two options you can choose. And neither of them involves getting a cheap, worthless $35 burr grinder or simply giving up on the idea of making great coffee at home.
But first, let me talk a little about preground coffee.
Is preground all that bad?
Coffee beans are finicky things. The instant you crush them up they begin to react with the air – oxidization – and quickly lose much of the little compounds and oils that give them such wonderful flavor. In terms of how they affect their taste, here’s a quick and rough guide.
|0-15 minutes||Peak condition to be brewed.|
|2+ hours||Noticeable drop in quality to experienced coffee drinkers.|
|2-24 hours||Capable of making decent but not great coffee.|
|1-7 days||Capable to making a drinkable but stale cup.|
|7+ days||Very noticeable drop in quality, even to novice coffee drinkers.|
So as you can see, preground is not ideal. If you buy off the shelf at a grocery store it may have been ground weeks ago – and the vacuum packing only helps so much. If you buy from a local roaster that’s a lot better, but your coffee beans will still be a pale shell of their original flavor within hours.
An important point to mention is that the speed at which the coffee goes stale depends on the grind. The finer they are and the smaller the grounds, the quicker they lose flavor. I would massively discourage you from using preground for espresso which requires a very fine grind. If you’re going down that road, invest in a solid espresso grinder.
In fact, I’d recommend you steer clear of espresso full stop if you’re a beginner. Learn how to make brewed coffee first. Try the long, slow and easy hike to begin with, you can climb Everest later.
(To be honest, climbing Everest is maybe a little easier than pulling a great espresso shot!)
So, assuming you’re not ready for an investment in a good grinder just yet, neither option is perfect. You have to decide what you want to sacrifice.
Lose Freshness (by buying preground) OR Bad Extraction (by grinding with a cheap grinder)
What should you do?
Here’s why you should use preground
“I’m fairly new to coffee.”
“I’m not sure I want to spend $150 on a good grinder right now.”
“I like great coffee when I’m out but I’ve never really made it myself.”
If this sounds like you, then you should use preground. And here’s why.
1. You can use it to test a good extraction. When you buy the coffee – ideally at a local roasters – and get it ground, go straight home and make a coffee. That is a freshly ground coffee with a good extraction. That’s your gold standard. You’ll be able to make that every every time if you choose to invest in a good grinder. All your coffee could be this nice, so savor it and mentally hold in your head how good it is. It might take only one cup for you to decide that $150 might be worth it after all.
2. The staleness will not be that apparent. If you’re somewhat new to coffee you will not notice the difference between fresh and stale quite so keenly – particularly if you keep it vacuum packed (most roasters these days give you sealed pack and a mason jar will do) and in a cool and dark place. If you do notice a depreciable drop in quality then at least you know what the difference is.
3. It’s very cheap. This is a great way to introduce yourself to making great coffee with barely any investment. Pick up a $20 French Press or Pour Over and a $10 bag of great coffee and you’re done. Spending the extra $40-50 on a burr grinder you will hate and forget about within 6 months is not such a tiny investment. I’ve seen it too many times.
Here’s why you should grind fresh
“I’ve been making my own coffee for a while.”
“I love the fresh smell of freshly ground coffee.”
“I like to use different methods that require different grind sizes.” (French Press, Pour Over…)
“I don’t live near a good local roaster where I can pick up a bag of coffee and get them to grind it for me.” (There are lots online but it’ll be a day or two of your preground coffee getting stale.)
If this sounds like you then you probably want to seriously think about investing in a grinder. If you’re prepared to pay the $100-150 then do your research and you’ll get a piece of equipment that you will treasure for a long time. If you are serious about coffee, there’s no better investment.
Just like the 5 stages of grief that people go through, there are a couple of stages that people go through when they’re first learning about good coffee.
The first – and one I’m going to talk about now – is the disbelief when they discover how much a (good) grinder costs.
“My blade grinder will be just fine.”
“Surely I can get something decent for less than $30?”
“I’ll just keep going to Starbuck’s!”
However, I’m going to make the case that you should make that investment. Here’s some reasons.
1. You can make better coffee than coffee shops. There’s a bunch of reasons why it’s possible to do this and it mostly comes down to being able to choose top class coffee beans that are a bit out of price for coffee places to buy on a large scale. They have to make a profit, you don’t. Combine that with a good grinder and you are capable of beating out a lot of places in your humble little kitchen.
2. Every time you wake up, you will know that a fantastic cup of coffee is heading your way very soon.
4. You can experiment with grind sizes. Little adjustments in coarseness can make big adjustments in taste. Experimenting is such an important thing for great coffee.
The happy converse to all this is: you only really need to spend money on the grinder. An acceptable French Press, Pour Over or Aeropress will all cost you less than $30 and whatever you have in your kitchen now is probably ok too. Notable exceptions to this are a solid autodrip coffee maker or the mammoth task of creating great espresso.
I can link you to my recommendations for hand grinders and automatic grinders . They’re pretty thorough and should tell you what you need to know. I have included cheaper grinders on those lists for comparison’s sake but again, as you’ll probably guess by now, I don’t really recommend anything below about $100.
By all means, shop around and look for reviews or recommendations from other sites. I will say this though, anyone who sings the praises of a grinder that’s less than $50 without pointing out the glaring faults is not to be trusted – they’re looking for a sale more than for you to get a good buy. The truth is, grinding coffee so you have even chunks without any small fines passing through the burrs is some pretty smart engineering and that costs a fair bit. As I said, it’s the thing that always puts people off at first, everyone assumes they can get away with a useless $30 hunk of plastic. I realize it’s an investment, but seriously, buy a good one and you’ll be using it for years.
If you’re just majorly on board already and want a grinder without reading another boring Making Nice Coffee article, then your best bet is the Baratza Encore. This is the goto recommendation for beginners. It can be purchased for about $120-140, gives a solid extraction that will see your coffee rocket in quality and is probably all you ever need. And if you do choose to upgrade, it will hold its value so you can sell for not much less than it cost.
Here’s a link to Amazon so you can check it out. Full disclaimer: That is an affiliate link so I get a small percentage at no extra cost to you. It does help support the site, though, so thank you if you purchase through there. 🙂
And here’s a photo of the thing.
Enjoy this article? Absolutely hate it? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you either way.