My first encounter with coffee
I’ve been a coffee drinker since I was little—maybe 4 years old. I remember being at a family gathering at my maternal grandfather’s brother’s home in Podunk, SC. The name of the town is 96. Which has always seemed odd to me. It is nearby North, South Carolina, and even closer to Ware Shoals, which the locals pronounce as War Shoals, so I was scared to visit there as a youngster, not knowing when a battle might break out.
Anyway, at this reunion of sorts, my grandfather’s brother, who I called Uncle James, and who was an old-school, handsaw carpenter with forearms like Popeye’s, was serving coffee. I don’t mean to give the impression he was carrying around a pot and refilling cups like a waitress at Waffle House. Just that coffee was available for self-serve all day. All. Day.
At 4, I liked sugar, but my mom limited me to one piece of cake or pie. To my amazement, there was no limit on coffee. And there, right beside the coffeepot, sat a large cardboard tube of Dixie Crystals sugar with its own pour spout. All. Day. I probably had 8 or 10 cups of coffee-flavored syrup during the hours we spent listening to our relatives speak slow. (My mom was born in SC, near this gathering place, but she grew up and went to school in the Midwest where I was born, in Davenport, Iowa. So we spoke differently) By late afternoon, the combination of caffeine and sugar made me a nuisance, and my mom turned me outdoors to race and wrestle the dogs out back.
But this is about burr coffee grinders isn’t it? It’s not about Southern Drawls.
My love affair with coffee matures
To the point. Coffee is ritualistic. It is good food. Sure. To my mind, it is the breakfast of champions. But there is something about making coffee, similar to making a cup of tea, that invites the coffee lover into the magic of ritual.
When I was a younger man, I used to spoon Taster’s Choice or Folger’s into a cup, pour in boiling water, add milk (I stopped with the sugar), and think I was drinking coffee. That was fine on those mornings I when I’d gotten little to no sleep and the boss was in his pickup blowing the horn for me to come out and go to work. Speed was of the essence. A jar of pre-ground black dust in a jar was fast, if nothing else.
Later, I discovered the finer things. First, I got a blade grinder and started buying whole beans. It was cheap and plastic, except for the thin metal blade that spun around to dice the beans. I learned somewhere, probably from my habitual reading and accumulation of unrelated facts, that coffee was better if you ground the beans just before brewing. I did this a while, but it wasn’t until I met a real coffee-man, a barista in a fancy coffee shop in the local mall, that I learned about burr grinders. His knowledge inspired me to buy a burr coffee grinder. I’m paying it forward.
Burr beats blades
Burr grinders use opposing, spinning pinwheels of ridges to crush and grind whole beans. Whereas a blade grinder will heat the beans, enough to change their composition—tainting their flavor, burr grinders don’t. Blade grinders also chop and dice uneven shapes. The grind is not consistent. Burr grinders are the slow and gentle approach to coffee bean perfection. There is a dial-in setting on burr grinders to match the grind to your coffee maker and taste preference. The grounds are uniform and perfectly alike.
I have had the same Kitchen Aid grinder for at least 30 years. A workhorse, it has outlived 5 computers and as many televisions. It sits on my counter beside my Cuisinart coffee maker. My grinder is integral to my morning ritual.
The Magic of Ritual
Each morning, I empty the prior days grounds from the Cuisinart into the trash (I’m not currently composting, though I have in the past). I fill the tank with water, then I reach down my tub of beans and one Melita bamboo, unbleached #4 filter from the box I’ve cut open to expose the filters in the cupboard. Using a scoop I keep in with the beans, I shovel 7 scoops into the top of my grinder.
My kids recently pointed out that I use a peculiar cadence when scooping—it’s quick scoop, slow pour… quick scoop, slow pour… If they’ve been awake, they’ve heard me do this every morning for their entire lives. My grinder is older than all but 1 of my kids. So they know the peculiar rhythm of my coffee ritual.
After the 7 scoops, I flip the toggle switch and hear the satisfying churn of the grinder. It is deep and resonant, not like the high-speed whine of a blade grinder. Those sound more like a smoothie maker or blender. My grinder is more like a throaty wood chipper. I watch the heap of grounds slowly disappear into the grinder’s maw. I assist with a tiny pastry brush, sweeping the reluctant beans into the hopper to disappear. The aroma is fresh, instant, and intoxicating.
The ritual is peaceful, serene, almost hypnotic. It is half-mindful-half-autonomic magic. I could do it asleep, but I remain aware of every step of the process. I know every quick-slow scoop matters to the outcome, so I pay attention with a much deeper part of me than normal thinking. Like I said, it’s magic. And my burr grinder is at the center of it all.
So, buy a burr coffee grinder. It is a fantastic investment in excellent coffee, healthy ritual, and the beauty of single-purpose, well-engineered tools. Which means it is a fantastic investment in yourself. Win-Win-Win.