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Dialing in your grind

September 5, 2005

Once you’ve got a grinder that produces a consistent grind and allows you to control the size of the grind, you’ll need to “dial it in” for your coffee brewer.

Most consumer oriented grinders will give you an approximate setting for different types of brew — either a notation on the grinder adjustment itself, or instructions in the manual on which setting to use for which type of brewing.

This is your starting point.

Assuming you are brewing in a drip coffee maker, start with the recommended setting, and brew a pot of coffee.

Be sure you are using the proper amount of grounds — you should use two tablespoons of ground coffee for each six ounce cup you are brewing. If you prefer a slightly weaker brew, dilute it with hot water after brewing. Using less than the proper amount of grounds will result in a bitter, overextracted cup of coffee, and will make it impossible to determine the right grinder setting.

Note how long it is takes for the brew to complete. Once the brew is complete, look inside the brewing chamber for any signs that water was moving too slow — signs that grounds and hot water overflowed the filter basket, or covered the “showerhead” (the thing that sprinkles hot water on the grounds) — overflow on the counter would be a bad sign here too. Pour a cup of coffee, and check for silt in the bottom of the cup.

If any of these things happened, adjust your grind slightly coarser, and try again. Otherwise, adjust your grind slightly finer, and give it another shot.

Once you reach the point where you are grinding too fine, back off slightly, and perform fine adjustments until you’ve got the taste you want. Adjusting slightly coarser will reduce bitterness, while adjusting slightly finer will increase the amount of flavor in your cup.

You’ll find that different coffees (different origins or blends, different roast levels) will often affect brew differently, so if you change coffees, you’ll want to perform fine adjustments once again until you achieve the perfect cup of coffee for that particular coffee.

The filters you use can also make a difference (due to pore size and flow rate). In particular, a metal “permanent” filter (such as a SwissGold) will often require you to grind slightly coarser than you would for a paper filter, to reduce the amount of “silt” in the cup.

When grinding for a press-pot, you’ll want to start with a fairly coarse grind. Excess siltiness (some is almost always present) or difficulty “pushing the plunger” means you are grinding too fine. If you meet very little resistance pressing the plunger, or have a thin brew, you are grinding to coarse.

Espresso is a whole other animal, since you are typically attempting to get the proper extraction time for a single shot (around 25 seconds) and controlling this by the size of the grind and how hard the coffee is tamped into the portafilter (assuming you are not using a pressurized portafilter). Volumes have been and continue to be written on this art, so you’ll want to check with your favorite online espresso-oriented reference for more information.

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