Innova I-1 flat doserless Detailed Review

Introduction

For the espresso obsessed crowd, the Innova I-1 flat burr doserless grinder promises infinite, stepless, micrometrical adjustment so you can perfectly dial in the grind…

Somehow, this reminds me of the title of that old baseball book - “Tomorrow, I'll be perfect”. More on this later…


Why another review?

A few things.

1. I wanted to summarize all of the previous Innova findings into just one article.

2. The Innova has been touted by some as a budget Mazzer killer and we wanted to see if this modestly priced grinder could live up to its reputation.

3. Innova (Spain) had agreed to send us a brand new Innova grinder to do a formal coffeecrew.com review. Yes, a new grinder delivered directly from Barcelona, Spain airlifted right from the Ascaso factory. A short 4044 miles (6508 km) trip!

Packaging

Thankfully, the grinder was double boxed as the trip from Spain took it toll on the outside packaging. Despite the scars and dents on the outer box, the factory grinder packaging remained in pristine condition.

In opening the box-within-the-box, I could see that there was very little packaging material. No styrofoam inserts were to be found in this package. The packing box consists simply of two inner cardboard boxes. One box contains the hopper and lid, the other contains the grinder body. The hopper box is held away from the sides of the box with a couple of cardboard inserts. The grinder body is packed with a thin cardboard collar which is supposed to keep the grinder centered in the box. In my case, the collar was loose and did not do its job of protecting the grinder from excessive movement within the packaging.

Watch the knob!

The Achilles heel, at least for shipping purposes, is the adjustment knob. The adjustment knob sits against the side of the shipping box protected only by a cardboard flap and a few thin layers of cardboard. Based on previous experience with my own Innova I-1, a sharp blow to this vulnerable part [due to rough courier handling] typically results in a broken top panel, split plastic knob and bent vanes on the worm gear. If the blow is severe enough, the knob will actually punch a hole right through the inner packing box.

I was anxious to see if the grinder survived the trip from Spain. The very first thing I did after opening the box was checking for the tell-tale dents on the cardboard collar and the inner side of the grinder box.

Sure enough, there were two sizable dents. The impact was sufficient enough to just split the cardboard slightly.

The adjustment gear was seized and would not turn.

I had no option but to straighten out the bent vanes by forcibly turning the knob. The brass adjustment gear is very soft and will straighten out however you will likely cause some chipping and crazing on the delicate outer “vanes” of the adjustment gear. Such was the case here.

The damage did not render the grinder unusable; however the gear still binds as you turn it as one of the bent vanes now sports a slight but permanent, wobble.

Shipping damage is shipping damage and here is the real test for your espresso equipment retailer. Will they ship you a new replacement, send you replacement parts or will they force you to deal with the claims department of the courier company or worse, leave you twisting in the wind? As I learned the hard way, make sure you are ordering from a reputable dealer with a money back, satisfaction guarantee. You never know when you’ll need it. Ask questions BEFORE not AFTER your shipment has been damaged.

Grinder description

The grinder looks heavier than it actually is. Total weight is less than 10lbs (4.2kg).
The body is cast aluminum which accounts for the light weight and is available in a wide array of colours; anthracite, black, white, red, orange, yellow, pink???, two kinds of blue, green, cowspots and lastly, ladybug spots. Yup, cowspots in black on white and black-spotted lady bug colours in yellow and red. How’s that for choice!

Don’t like all the dazzling colours? Then go for the polished aluminum model that has an appearance of a soft brushed stainless steel.

The unit I received was the anthracite grey colour in a powder finish. It had a slightly rough texture. Nicely done.

The cast aluminum body is hand finished so there may be the odd streak or crease or other artifact that adds character and makes each metal casting somewhat unique.

The motor is a hefty 250 watts, more than double that of many other grinders in its class and is geared for 700 rpm. Innova describes the grinder as a professional model rated for 3 - 4 kg/hr production. A timer model is optional and so too is the intriguing optional titanium burrs. In Europe, burrs are referred to as blades. The burrs/blades on the Innova I-1 are 49mm in diameter. The model being tested here was the doserless however; Innova does offer a flat burr doser model and conical burr I-2 models as well.

Like most flat burr grinder designs, the bottom burr rotates against an adjustable upper burr. An adjustment mechanism moves the top burr carrier closer or farther from the rotating bottom burr. If you can picture a short piece of pipe threaded on the inside and the threaded burr being screwed into the pipe, you’ll get the general idea of how it works.

The gear adjustment mechanism is mounted horizontally against the outside rim of the geared top burr carrier. To grind finer you turn the knob clockwise, coarser - anti-clockwise.

There are some slight changes in appearance and packaging within the last year. The Innova decal is absent and the Innova name is now molded into the top plastic panel. A tag hanging from the knob advertises that the aluminum body is artisan crafted and hand finished. The miniature thumbnail operator’s handbook has been replaced with a bigger manual.

I do want to point out a slight error in the spout disassembly instructions. A picture shows that the spout is removed by taking off the top panel and pulling the spout straight up. If you do this you are guaranteed to break it. The spout is removed by unscrewing the screw underneath the top panel and also by loosening the four screws holding the lower burr carrier. Then you wiggle out the spout horizontally.

The hopper is a clear plastic and after inserting the dome shaped finger guard, the hopper is friction fit into the burr collar. Do not believe reports of the hopper being chewed up by the burrs. The hopper sits on a ledge well above the rotating burrs. There are however, some reports of disintegrating hoppers which I will get to later.

Corncerned about overly short power cords? Far away from an electrical outlet? Not to worry, the Innova's cord is over 8 feet long!

The grinder has two electrical switches. A main ON/OFF switch with a integral LED indicator light and a second, momentary contact switch which is actuated by holding your portafilter against the switch. Put pressure on the switch button, the motor starts. Release the pressure, it stops. You can use the portafilter fork as a rest, however, I found that it just gets in the way. You can remove it by removing the two bolts holding it to the grinder body. Be prepared to invert the grinder or remove the bottom plate of the grinder to retrieve the backing nuts. A small gripe, the momentary switch has to be just about bottomed before the motor starts. I would have preferred the switch to be a bit more sensitive.

Personally, I am not a big fan of dosing directly into the portafilter as it causes too much clumping for my taste. I prefer to dose directly into a separate container.

Inspection:

After unpacking your grinder, there are a few things to check out first.

Innova Top panel cover Inspect the top plastic panel of the grinder. Look for shipping damage around the knob area. Those two plastic protuberances located underneath the knob are very prone to breakage.

Next, remove the top plastic panel by squeezing the sides and lifting very gently. Pay special attention to those small plastic bits underneath the knob. There is not much clearance for the gear axle to pass through. Inspect the top panel for missing or broken tabs.

When the top panel is off, you will have a clear view of the gear assembly and the burr carrier.

Inspect the top of the plastic spout where it is attached with a screw for hairline cracks. Do not mistake the molding mark for a crack!

Do not be tempted to throw in some beans and start grinding right away. Inspect the burrs first.

Remove the gear assembly by loosening the two large Phillips screws. Inspect the adjustment gear mechanism very carefully and check for bent vanes or any “wobbles”. I took this opportunity to clean up the damaged and chipped vanes with the judicious use of a flexible fingernail file. The brass is extremely soft. Be careful not to remove too much material.

Remove the top burr carrier by unscrewing it counter-clockwise. Inspect the threads and the blades for obvious damage, manufacturing defects or metal shavings.

Inspect the bottom burr once the top burr carrier has been removed.

I am glad I followed this procedure because I found something very serious and very alarming. One of the three screws holding the bottom burr to the carrier was not screwed in. It looks like the assembler had trouble with it and left the screw sticking out. It was inserted by only a few threads. If I would have turned on the grinder, the burrs would have been destroyed and the motor seized or worse.

After several attempts, I could not screw in the screw either. I noticed that the screw itself was defective because the head of the screw had spalled metal filaments sticking out of it. I broke these off and filed away the rough edges.

top burr 49mm innova I almost aborted the test as I really did not want to run the grinder with one burr screw missing. I removed the other two screws, re-centered the burr ring and switched screws. With some difficulty I managed to get the reluctant screw into another hole.

The burrs had quite of bit of oil on them as I could see a lot of visible droplets. Machine oil? You'll need to clean to clean this off before even thinking of running beans through the grinder the first time. Some of the less critical inner cutting edges had burrs on them, however all-in-all, the burrs were sharp and could easily shave a fingernail.

I put back the top panel and inserted the hopper. The hopper is a very snug fit in the burr collar. The finger guard surface looked a bit odd. It had a small melted dimple over one of the tripod legs and the slightly texturized plastic finish didn't quite turn out right from the mold.

Day one of the initial assembly concluded with putting the lid on the hopper. To my surprise, the lid wouldn’t fit quite right It was so badly warped that it wouldn’t fit easily over the lip of the hopper. With a little strategic squeezing of the top edge of the hopper, I managed to fit it on.

Blade calibration

Remove the gear assembly.

To dial in the burrs (for espresso), screw in the top burr until it touches the bottom burr and back off just a bit - maybe an 1/8th of a turn or less.

innova grinder adjustment gear Reinstall the adjustment gear, checking for correct alignment and binding. The screws should not be too tight. Put back the top panel, turn on the main switch and bump the momentary switch for a few seconds. You do not want to hear the burrs scraping together. If you do, turn the adjustment knob anti-clockwise in order to back off the burrs.

According to the factory blade calibration procedure, you adjust the knob clockwise until you hear the burrs just touching. Back off by about two or three revolutions. Start "dialing" in at that point until you get the proper coarseness.

Pass or fail?

The true litmus test for any coffee grinder is to grind coffee precisely and accurately. Both burrs have to be parallel and be held rigidly parallel. Step adjustment or infinite adjustment doesn’t matter if you are grinding boulders and dust at the same time. If the particle distribution chart looks like a flat line, you are in trouble.

This direct-from-the-factory grinder had the dreaded burr carrier free play issue that I reported previously. I could easily jiggle the top burr up and down and back and forth. If you look very closely, you can see the top burr carrier actually rise and fall as you turn the adjustment knob. The gear had the unfortunate habit of lifting the edge of the top burr up part way through its travel. There were auditory clues as well. As you continue to turn the adjustment knob, you can actually hear the top burr make an audible metallic clink when it falls back into place.

Ed note:
[Innova is not the only grinder to encounter sloppy burr problems. The famous Rancillio Rocky grinder had a slew of problems with this same issue. Many of these grinders were either returned or taped up with Teflon to make them serviceable. The manufacturing problems, whatever they were, seem to have mysteriously disappeared.]

Fire it up!

Next, we spin up the Innova motor in preparation for the dial-in process. With fingers crossed, we pray that something magical happens when the burrs are floating on a bed of microscopic coffee grounds.

Running empty, the motor on the Innova I-1 is fairly loud. You will know it is running. When it is crunching beans it is definitely loud. The 250 watt, motor is geared at 700 rpm which is about the slowest rpm I think I’ve seen on any electric grinder. Grinding a double takes about a half minute. If you are grinding a double or two at home, speed is not so much a problem. In a busy café, this grinder would be considered glacially slow by commercial standards. Then again, slow grinding has the advantage that coffee grounds won’t be heated up by too much friction.

The grinder had no problems grinding a wide variety of beans. Power was more than adequate. If you have it on the same electrical circuit as your boiler, the motor does slow down a bit when the boiler switches on.

Close but not too close…

It is vitally important that you get this grinder to grind at espresso grind levels without the burrs touching. If you can not achieve this, the burrs are not parallel or there is too much burr carrier free play. How can you tell the burrs are touching? If the hopper is vibrating, the burrs are scraping together. Run the grinder dry and listen. If the burrs are scraping at the proper espresso fineness levels, you have a problem.

And we did find that burr scraping was apparent in two of the three Innova I-1 grinders we tested. The third was grinding at just about the zero point where the burrs were touching.

Time to drag out some Teflon tape from the toolbox. The tape fills in the gaps in the screw threads and reduces the burr free play and makes everything tighter. One layer was sufficient. With tape, this grinder is completely transformed. You can grind finer without the burrs touching at all. Grind quality is far better and vibration is much reduced.

The Teflon is only a temporary fix as it will wear out fairly quickly. If you notice that the burrs are getting sloppy once again, replace the tape.

Hopping mad

I know of only one report of a I-1 hopper developing a crack and eventually disintegrating. There are reports that disintegrating hoppers seem to be more of a problem with the much higher rpm conical burr I-2 models. I suspect that the flat burr I-1 hoppers should last much longer than their I-2 counterparts.

Why are the hoppers disintegrating? The problem is not the burrs chewing up the plastic. I think it’s vibration that is causing the cracking. Vibration caused by too loose burrs or burrs that are touching. If you are replacing hoppers at an alarming rate, by all means tape the neck of the hopper. More importantly, tape the burrs!

Spouting off

My own personal I-1 was beset by another vibration problem. I have had two plastic spouts that have cracked and disintegrated in the past six months. The third spout has just developed a major crack after about two months of very light use – grinding just a double or two a day.

Sometimes over enthusiastic design engineers make wonderfully engineered mistakes.

The plastic spout has an angled lower lip. The full weight of the burrs and the burr carriers cantilevers the spout against the foam gasket in order to seal the spout against the chute. Nice in theory, however in practice, the vibrating grinder eventually crushes the lower lip of the plastic spout causing it to shatter and disintegrate. A simple steel or aluminum spout would have been a far more effective and longer lasting solution.

The clear plastic spout is attached to the grinder body at a pretty much straight, 45 degree angle. This makes cleaning the chute fast and easy. I use a rubber tipped dental tool to pull down the grounds from the chute.

Tomorrow, I’ll be perfect

If you are doing your own home roasting, you will know that many home roasters produce very small amounts of roasted beans. Many of these machines produces just enough beans for a few doubles - at best.

This means you have to be right on the money on your second or third attempt. If you’re not, you get to open up another jar of fresh roast and start the process all over again from scratch. The ever elusive target keeps changing especially if you are not blending the same bean varieties in the exact same quantities at the exact same roast levels at the same age, etc. You will be adjusting that knob - a lot.

Micrometrical adjustment does shine when you are roasting larger quantities of beans and have correctly dialed in your beans. Once done, you will have to make only very small adjustments to compensate for changes in humidity or the age of the beans

Conclusion - Less than the sum of its parts…

I desperately wanted to make this grinder work. After all, this is the model I chose for my personal use at home so I have a personal bias. Plus, Innova (Spain) were very nice people to deal with which makes my job a bit harder to do.

However, having thoroughly tested not one, not two, but three identical Innovas, I am finding some serious shortcomings and failures here and there. Some of them quite alarming.

1. The burr carrier free play issue is a major concern and all three grinders had the same excessive burr sloppiness. The problem is exacerbated by the worm gear system that lifts up the edge of the top burr thereby making the problem worse. The design of screw pitch, lands, etc are beyond our expertise, however it is clear that excessive burr carrier play causes imprecise and inaccurate grinding.

2. Disintegrating spouts and hoppers are just not acceptable in a professional grinder. Many users try to extend the lifetime of their hoppers by wrapping the hopper neck with things like electrical or masking tape. The other vulnerable part is the plastic spout. The spout really should be manufactured in metal rather than brittle plastic.

3. Quality control - finding out that the lower burr was not assembled correctly was a major disappointment. So was finding that a mission critical screw was defective. It would have been disaster if I had turned on the grinder without inspecting the burrs first. The badly warped hopper lid and the sloppy mold defects of the finger guard did not add anything to the quality feel of this product. Ascaso is a ISO 2002 certified company and I was disappointed at the generally poor assembly quality of some of the components. Perhaps Ascaso/Innova should inspect and test each and every grinder as it comes off the assembly line.

4 .Packaging. It is a problem and Innova is aware that it is a problem. There is a unacceptably high probability that something will get bent or damaged due to rough courier handling. The packing box should be redesigned, made square rather than rectangular and perhaps using a clam shell Styrofoam design would help insulate the grinder from shipping damage.

5. Distribution & Service. I could find only one remaining distributor in North America.. My personal service experience with this distributor could easily be described as nightmarish. The following improvements must be made: have a better warranty and back it up. At least a 1 year warranty for all parts – no exceptions. Yes, Innova, this means hoppers and spouts, bent gears and broken top panels. There are some reports that Innova will soon regain a new U.S importer. Until then, Innova products may be hard to find in the U.S.

Will the Innova I-1 flat burr grinder make the CoffeeCrew recommended list?

No. Not at this time.

Will the grinder (modified with Teflon tape) grind acceptably?

Yes.

In some of my more heated discussions with the distributor, I was accused of being “too picky”. Yes, the coffeecrew is very picky indeed – and you should be too.

Lastly, I would like to thank Nieves Tallafigo Diez of ASCASO FACTORY S.A. for graciously supplying us with a test unit all the way from Spain.

Price: $300 -$325 CDN (depending on finish)


UPDATE:

Is the Innova name set to disappear? Ascaso has announced that it will take over the brand name from Innova in 2005. Whether this means that we will see Ascaso branded grinders and espresso machines in the very near future has yet to be determined.

In the meantime, North American distribution is in disarray as there are some reports that the Ascaso/Innova I-1 and I-2 grinders may be re-priced for the North American market. The new price was said to be an astonishing $650 US ($800 CDN).

UPDATE: 12/01/05

More confusion with retail pricing.
There are reports that Ascaso has recently dropped in half the price of the Ascaso I-1 and I-2 models in the U.S.

In Canada, things are even more confusing. I have seen the same identical I-1 grinder priced from $268 to an astounding $784.

TEST UPDATE:

The Innova I-1 flat burr doserless test unit split its spout with an ear shattering crack after grinding only a dozen doubles or so.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION & FIX:

A small bit of of foam weatherstripping stuck to the bottom of the spout absorbs enough of the vibration to extend the lifetime of the spout. The replacement spout on my home I-1 has lasted more than 5 months now.



Glenn S is a senior financial consultant in southern Ontario and a coffee enthusiast. He has been writing with the coffeecrew team for going on 3 years now.