In part one of our guide to the ultimate home espresso, I gave you an in-depth look at my espresso maker of choice: the Alex Duetto II by Izzo. But as great as the Duetto II is, it’s only one part of the equation in your journey to the perfect espresso. As I noted in the last article, you need four things in total for the perfect shot of espresso: 1) fresh, correctly roasted coffee; 2) an espresso machine capable of delivering a constant, stable brew pressure and temperature; 3) a quality grinder; 4) and a select set of barista tools to make it all happen.
Which brings us to part two of guide to the perfect home espresso: the grinder.
Talk to many espresso enthusiasts, and they’ll tell you the grinder is more important than the espresso machine. I disagree – to me, it’s a perfect balance between the two. If either one is flawed, your espresso will be flawed; there’s really no way to compensate for either one not working. So when I started looking for an espresso grinder, I assessed the espresso making process as a whole; and I then picked the grinder that I felt would give me the best, most consistent results day-in and day-out.
Finding the Perfect Espresso Grind
To understand my choice for the best espresso grinder, let’s look first at how the grinding process works for espresso.
Step one is to select the amount of espresso you want to grind – affectionately known as “dosing” in the espresso world. The amount of espresso you grind is entirely up to you, and is loosely governed by the size basket you use (single, double, or triple) in your portafilter. In any size basket, you have the option to alter the dose up or down, so in a 14 gram double basket, for example, you could updose to 18-19 grams. There is no right or wrong dose for an espresso shot – every espresso blend is different – and ultimately, the key is finding the dose that you’re happiest with. With new espresso blends, I typically start at a normal dose of 14-15 grams, work my way up to 19 grams, and then select the amount that for me brought out the best combination of flavors and body/texture.
Step two is selecting a grind setting. The perfect espresso is directly dependent on a perfectly uniform grind at a very precise fineness. If the grind is too coarse, the hot water will pass through the coffee too quickly, ruining the espresso shot. If the grind is too fine, however, the water will pass through the coffee too slowly, which again ruins the espresso shot. The key is to find the grind setting that produces exactly the right amount of espresso in exactly the right time.
If it sounds overly complicated, don’t worry, it isn’t. Many espresso roasters give brew parameters with their espresso, so you have a clear idea of where to start. As an example, here is one of the brew parameters given by Metropolis Coffee for their Redline espresso:
- Dose: 19 grams
- Yield: 1.25 – 1.5 oz.
- Time: 21 – 23 seconds
In practice, this means that you would grind 19 grams of espresso into the portafilter, flip the lever on your espresso machine, and start a timer when the first drip of espresso hits the cup. At 21 -23 seconds, there should be approximately 1.25 oz. of espresso in your cup, if you’ve used the correct grind setting. If you end up with more in your cup, you need to adjust the grind finer; and if you end up with too little, you need to adjust the grind coarser. Once you’ve tried the recommended brew parameters, you can start playing a little more with the grind settings, adjusting finer or coarser to see the different flavor profiles at different settings.
So why the detailed explanation of the espresso grinding process? Because when shopping for an espresso grinder, it’s imperative to understand the importance of dosing and the ability to fine tune the grind setting. Both are central to extracting different and unique flavors from your espresso, and both are paramount in the espresso making process.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what brings us to my espresso grinder of choice: the Mahlkönig K30 Vario single espresso grinder.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder Overview
As with my espresso maker, I spent a tremendous amount of time researching grinders, and in doing so, a repetitive theme kept coming up: for the best grinding results, you need a commercial grinder. The problem, however, is that commercial grinders are exactly that… commercial grinders. They’re meant to be used in coffee shops / high volume settings – not in home for a few shots of espresso each morning – so they’re typically more difficult to clean, involve more wasted coffee, and from a size standpoint, gigantic.
And then I met the Mahlkönig K30 Vario. It’s a robust, beautifully designed commercial espresso grinder, and most importantly, it entirely eliminates any of the negatives you’ll experience using a commercial coffee grinder at home. It’s virtually maintenance free (from a cleaning standpoint); there’s almost no wasted coffee when grinding and dispensing; and from a size standpoint, when fitted with a small hopper, it will actually fit under your kitchen cabinets.
I purchased the K30 Vario in tandem with my Alex Duetto II, and needless to say, it’s been an integral part of my espresso making process.
Read on for the details.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder’s Grind on Demand
If there’s a defining feature to the Mahlkönig K30 Vario, it’s what Mahlkönig calls Grind on Demand. And it operates under a simple premise: the best espresso comes from freshly ground beans. And I don’t mean fresh as in ground an hour ago, or half an hour ago, or even 10 minutes ago. I mean fresh as is in you grind your coffee, and then immediately make espresso with it.
That’s precisely how Grind on Demand operates. You place your portafilter under the K30 Vario’s coffee shoot to activate the grinder, and the coffee is ground straight into it. Grinds are incredibly light and fluffy – simply give them a quick level, tamp the coffee, place it in your espresso machine, flip the lever, and you’ve got the absolutely best espresso possible. It’s what’s known in the espresso world as a “doserless” grinder.
At the other end of the spectrum are what’s called doser grinders. Coffee is ground into a bin, and then dispensed from this bin. The problem with doser grinders, however, is that coffee isn’t as fresh as it could be, and there’s significantly more grounds left in the doser, which means more cleaning. So why use a doser grinder? Because in a commercial setting serving high volumes of espresso, every second counts, and it’s faster to pre-grind and use a doser than it is to grind individually each shot of espresso.
So does grinding fresh and using immediately make a difference? Absolutely. I’ve found that when grinding espresso, even with a short wait, there’s a deterioration in quality. The Mahlkönig K30 Vario, on the other hand, ensures you’re getting the best tasting espresso possible, because the grind is completely fresh every shot you make.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder’s Timed Dosing
The freshness offered by the Mahlkönig K30 Vario is exceptional, but equally as impressive is how dosing works. Built into the K30 Vario are two timers – one for a single shot and one for a double shot – each of which are customizable down to 1/10th of a second. When grinding coffee, you pick either of the saved time settings, and when you activate the grinder with your portafilter, it grinds for precisely the time set (known as timed dosing).
Why is this important? Because it ensures you’re getting exactly the same amount of coffee, each and every time you make it.
So let’s say for example, you want an 18 gram double shot. You set the timer on your K30 Vario double shot’s button to 3.5 seconds (picking an estimated time), grind, and weigh the result. If the weight is too high, set the timer lower, and if it’s too low, set the timer higher. Once you’ve matched the K30’s timer to the specific volume you desire, you’re guaranteed the exact volume every time you grind. From a dosing standpoint, it’s so easy to use it’s virtually foolproof, and in the world of espresso making, where consistency is key, that’s a very, very good thing.
Lastly, it does bear mention that you can also make small dosing tweaks on the fly, should you desire. If you want a little less volume, take the portafilter out early, and the grinder stops automatically. Likewise, if you want to updose slightly, run the timed setting for your normal dose, then give the portafilter a second tap for a little extra dose. But as I’ve found, once you have the time dialed in, I almost never make adjustments to the timed grind – it works that well.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder’s Stepless Grind Adjustment
Ease of use and consistency are easily the greatest attributes of the Mahlkönig K30 Vario, so it’s no surprise that adjusting the grind follows the same conventions. Featuring a stepless grind adjustment, adjusting the grind setting of the K30 Vario means turning the locking screw on the top of the unit to unlock it, rotating the lid to to the desired setting, then relocking the screw. The total time it takes to do all of the above is about two seconds. To help you pick a grind setting, there’s a numerical scale ranging from 0 – 10 with number and half number marks, but on my unit, I typically stay in the 2 – 3.5 range, depending on the coffee I’m using.
After six months of use, I can’t say enough good things about the stepless grind adjustment. Of the various phases during the espresso making process, the grind is the thing I tweak the most, so the fact the K30 Vario makes it so simple to do so is an awesome thing. And in terms of being stepless, I think it’s a must if you want to extract the best possible flavors from your espresso. Even with the same espresso blend, I make slight adjustments constantly as the beans age, so it’s ideal to be able to make tiny tweaks to the grind setting and then lock them in, all in a matter of a second or two.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder’s Design
The final element of the Mahlkönig K30 Vario that I have to mention is it’s design. While I selected the Mahlkönig K30 Vario for its exceptional consistency and feature set, an added bonus is that the K30 Vario is one of (if not the best) looking commercial espresso grinders I’ve seen. The body of the grinder is available in black or red (with other custom options available as well), and from a build standpoint, it feels like it will last the next 100 years, thanks to a metal construction weighing in at roughly 30 pounds. Size wise, the K30 Vario is large, but as noted earlier, if you opt for the small hopper, it will fit under your most kitchen cabinets – something few other commercial grinders can boast.
Mahlkönig K30 Vario Single Espresso Grinder Conclusion
After six months breaking in the Mahlkönig K30 Vario, I can tell you that I’m still ecstatic with my selection. From an ease-of-use standpoint, from a consistency standpoint, and from and adjustability standpoint, the K30 Vario takes top marks across the board. I don’t have to think about dosing; grinds are consistently light, fluffy and gorgeous; and I can fine tune the grind setting on the fly in mere seconds. Paired with my Alex Duetto II, it’s a near perfect combination to delivering exceptional espresso on a daily basis.
As with the Alex Duetto II, I recommend purchasing the Mahlkönig K30 Vario single espresso grinder from Chris Coffee, who as noted in my Alex Duetto II article, is without question my first choice for purchasing espresso making equipment. They’ve got the K30 Vario with either the tall or short hopper on sale for $1,595, which is an absolutely incredible deal on one of the best commercial espresso grinders you can get.
You can also check out more photos of the Mahlkönig K30 Vario in the photo gallery below, and be sure to check out part three of our espresso guide, where we look at Torr tampers and accessories.