Have you ever tried coffee that had a sour taste to it? Or maybe a flavor that seemed weak and watery? You checked your coffee maker, made sure the coffee dosage was correct, but something still seems off. Well, you're not alone.
There's one thing even the most experienced home baristas forget about that can truly make or break the quality of your coffee: the grind quality. This is the ultimate guide to coffee grinds, chart and breakdowns and all, because there’s nothing worse than a miserable cup of joe.
Coffee is a pot of science, quite literally. Extraction is what infuses water with the goodness of those magic beans, but it’s a bit more of a delicate process than is normally depicted.
I don’t tout myself with being psychic, but I have a very good imagination. Here’s what I picture most mornings look like: you make your sloth-like, half-asleep way into the kitchen and mindlessly dump whatever pre-ground stuff is within arms reach of the coffee machine. You hit a button (maybe two) and the magic-juice-bean-water comes out and you drink it, as is, not thinking too deeply about the taste. It’s a source of energy at this point.
This is a rut. We need to get out of it.
Extraction is how we’ll get there — it’s just a matter of using the science right.
This isn’t going to be a full-blown chemistry lesson. One, I highly doubt you’re that dude from Breaking Bad and can attain instruments to measure the extraction levels, which we typically want to range between 18% to 22% in a typical cup. Only about 30% of your coffee is water soluble anyway, so averaging about 20% extraction is a solid goal.
Again, due to the lack of instruments, we have to use your good, ol’ fashioned taste buds. Those things are pretty dang reliable, though, so don’t fret. It’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve under- or over-extracted your morning mud. If it’s under-extracted, the brew will taste sour and acidic. If it’s over-extracted, it will be distinctly bitter. Either way, you could probably easily describe it using the words “noxious” or “battery acid.”
If you’re not feeling like taking my word for it, take Renee Frechin’s. While I may joke about the Starbucksification of the world, you should also know that I’m a dirty, lying hypocrite who freely admits that the Chestnut Praline Latte is my absolutely favorite coffee drink. Renee Frechin’s a Starbuck’s chemist, and I’d say she has a tad bit more authority than a caffeine-addicted writer.
Did you watch it?
If you’re still skeptical, go ahead and replicate the experiment. It’s quite easy to do. See for yourself. It’s worth figuring out. Especially since, once you have the right circumstances, you’ll hit a coffee nirvana — your ideal perfect cup every morning.
Three things: whole beans, a grinder, and whatever machine/coffee-making device you need to perform your brewing method.
Yes, they must be whole beans. No, do not get a blade grinder.
Whole beans and a conical burr grinder give you the most control over your grind, which ultimately leads to mastery over your coffee! And that's every coffee lover's goal, right?
Blade grinders don’t offer a consistent grind, and they also generate heat as they chop up all of your grinds since they have to move so quickly to get the job done. Heat further cooks the grounds, and it can actually cause your beans to have that undesirable burnt taste.
Conical burr grinders, on the other hand, typically use ceramic blades and they move at a much slower pace, which means none of that pesky heat. No burnt taste. Unless you like assaulting your taste buds. They also produce a uniform consistency, reducing any wonky extraction problems.
You can find conical burr coffee grinders all along the money scale, from super duper affordable (like, wouldn’t think twice about clicking “buy now”) all the way up to the kind that you have to leave in your cart and hypothetically pitch to your mom the next day despite the fact that you’d be spending your own money.
I’m of the mindset that if you’re going to use something on a regular to semi-regular basis, it’s worth dropping some coin. Check your options, weight the usage-to-cost, and make sure you get a fresh bag of good coffee to use with it.
Now, the first thing you need to know is this: depending on your method of brewing, you need different types of grounds. There’s a simple equation to help deduce what type of grind you should use if you’re too lazy to pull up a guide: the quicker the extraction process, the finer the grind.
The same goes the other way — the longer the extraction time, the coarser the grounds need to be. No matter what, though, the grind needs to be consistent.
These grinds look like peppercorn. They’re best for making cold brew or using a Toddy, if you still use those. The steep time is lengthy for cold brew, so you can see how this follows our golden rule for grinds — the coarsest grounds need a longer extraction time, and cold brew usually steeps for 12 hours.
Coarse grounds are the same consistency as kosher salt. They’re best for french press coffee, cupping, or a standard percolator. On average, french press coffee takes about 4 minutes, which, while marginally shorter than cold brew, is still on the longer end of the brewing scale.
Chemex, clever dripper, or cafe solo brewers do best with medium-coarse grounds. Resembling sand particles, the total extraction time to make, for instance, a clever dripper, is under 2 minutes. We’re slowly working our way down the time scale, as well as the grind size scale.
This grind is great for drip coffee. It’s the standard dump-it-in-the-basket-and-magic-juice-comes-out grind, and more often than not what standardly sells as pre-ground bags of coffee.
Cone-shaped pour over brews, siphon coffee, and flat bottom drip machines lean towards this grind, but they can also work well with medium grounds. This is where experimentation comes in, to be honest. Neither will yield a bad cup, so might as well try a few grind types and find your personal preference.
You need this type of grind to make a great shot of espresso. If you’ve been been using anything but fine grounds, you’re in for an enlightenment, my brew warriors. Fine is also the grind you want for moka pot coffee!
The big use for these confectioner-sugar-like grounds is Turkish coffee.
I’m non-negotiable on this pre-ground coffee thing. Buy a fresh bag. What we can talk about, however, is the grinder that you use. I mentioned the conical burr grinder thing before, but let’s talk a little more about using them.
Manual options are nice for a number of reasons — they take up very little room in your cabinet, fit comfortably in one hand, and they’re uniquely portable. If you’re a camper (though I can hardly imagine why), manual grinders are perfect for taking on the go. Just because you’ve decided to piss on trees, sleep in the dirt, and trudge around in your own sweat for days on end doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a delicious cup of joe, though, right?
It’s also a nice bonus that manual grinders are very, very affordable.
Opting for automatic conical burr grinders offer less of a hand workout but require a little more out of your wallet. Buying a cheap one will likely result in fake blades, but nice one have upwards of 40 grind options.
Manuals clock in around 15, but can also have more of your-best-guess feel, with one direction being fine and the other being coarse.
You’ll notice both offer far more than the 7 options we discussed. Those minute adjustments are where experimentation comes in, and it’ll personalize your morning cup to perfection. There’s really no cheat code to finding the ideal grind for you — stay within the limitations of “fine” or “medium-coarse” depending on what kind of coffee you’re making, sure. But little variations can tip the scales one way or another for caffeine-addicted taste buds.
Problems happen. Sometimes coffee ends up not tasting good, and it’s typically user error. That’s okay, though. We can figure it out.
You: My coffee tastes like total garbage. What do I do?
Me: I’m sorry to hear that, kiddo. What kind of garbage? The sour kind or bitter kind?
You: It’s so sour it might as well be a Warhead.
Me: Not a problem, my friend. Your coffee is under-extracted, so your grounds are likely too coarse. Use a smaller grind for whatever you’re trying to do. If that doesn’t completely fix the problem, consider the brew time. You might not be giving the coffee long enough to excrete all of its delicious juices.
You: This cup of joe tastes like battery acid. Make it better.
Me: You could try asking a little more nicely but, to tell the truth, I understand. A bad cup of coffee leads to some serious grumpiness. What level of bitter are you tasting?
You: What part of “battery acid” did you not understand?
Me: Well, alrighty then. Your coffee is over-extracted, meaning the grounds were too fine. Use a larger grind for a non-garbage cup of joe.
You: It’s sour. It’s bitter. It’s literally the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
Me: Woof. Rough. I’d say I feel bad, but you didn’t listen to me. You aren’t using a conical burr grinder, or you bought your coffee pre-ground. Inconsistently ground coffee will under- and over-extract, resulting in a noxious mug that will leave a disgusting aftertaste long after the fact.
You: I’m sorry.
Me: You should be.
The grind type of your coffee is infinitely more important than many people realize — even devout coffee connoisseurs forget it sometimes. Use this coffee grind chart—this ultimate guide—to realize your dreams of the perfect brew.
Once you’ve pinned down what makes your personal cup perfect, you’ll wonder how you spent so many years blindly dumping coffee grounds (of unknown grind size) into whatever mechanism of choice.
Welcome to your enlightened state.
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Hi! My name is Rachel Bean and I love coffee. Despite what it may seem like, my last name and deep love for a cup of black brew is a total coincidence. While I was informed at the wee age of 18 that majoring in coffee wasn't really an option (at least not the way I wanted to major in coffee) (i.e. drinking it day in and day out), I do have an MA and an MFA in Writing. I type words day in and day out, for both work as well as fun, and coffee is the magic bean juice that lets me do that. And that's pretty much me. Writing and coffee. Oh, and rescue dogs. Writing, coffee, and dogs. You get me.