The Baratza Virtuoso revealed - The complete user review (Chapter One)

altI have been talking about specialty coffee for a long, long time - and contrary to what you might believe, the one topic that I spend the most time talking about... the coffee grinder.
Not the coffee itself. Or the brewer. Or any other aspect of the process.

It is the grinder. Which comes as quite the surprise to a lot of people. For the lay coffee drinker, years of observation have revealed that appliances outside the brewer (and the actual coffee supply) are generally off the radar for most people.

The reality of the coffee grinder is that it is the one last frontier or hurdle that people have to get over if they are going to have a truly satisfying coffee experience - with the necessary longevity and reliability built in to ensure that the end user keeps coming back for more.

I am a naturally curious person - which is one of the reasons I find coffee culture so fascinating. Because on the outside, looking in, you would not think that there is that much to it; buy coffee, add water, great beverage. Case closed.

I have made coffee part of my life - and I anticipate that ten or twenty years from now, I will still be writiing about some aspect of it. Obviously after running a website on the subject for over 13 years, with it comes some clout in the world of equipment manufacturing - and the ability to actually evaluate the gear while it is in development.

So, it was with much anticipation over a year ago that I became (a small) part of the testing and assessment of the Baratza Virtuoso coffee grinder. It is not every day that you find yourself in the enviable position of having a kitchen counter top with three or four almost identical coffee grinders in various stages of their evolution - to be able to see what it takes for a manufacturer to aspire to greatness in the specialty coffee marketplace and actually achieve it.

-to get inside the head of the engineer that is actually designing the new grinder.
-to observe development on the component level and watch small changes result in improved performance.

Of the four (or was it five) Baratza Virtuoso's that I actually handled and played with, I got to witness the actual evolution from "grinder with some annoying flaws" to an "all purpose coffee grinder" that can handle virtually any home coffee task with aplomb. Did I have fun? Yes I did. Did I share the experience with as many people as possible to get a fair evaluation of the unit? Yes, I most certainly did. The Baratza Virtuoso grinder was loaned out to as many people as was practical - keeping in mind that the only way to get a clear picture on how well the unit was tolerated and integrated domestically, the sample grinder had to be kept with the Beta tester subjects "as if they actually owned it..."

And not only did we disperse the grinder among your actual average home users - but we also subjected the unit to heavy usage in an office environment - where I knew full well that the unit would be pushed and abused to the point of melt down. We will tell you how it did under pressure.

Let's get back to perception for a moment -- that is, the specialty coffee consumer and their attitude about the grinder.
When you ask a coffee lover about how they prepare their cup and what they consider important, it is interesting to note the blocks of missing information; Coffee fans know all about the benefits of locally roasted coffee and whole bean is generally superior to pre-ground. But when it comes to the grinder, the average person has no clue what the difference is between grinders and why it even matters about how the coffee is ground....

"Aren't all coffee grinders the same?" people ask... Well, no. There are two kinds generally; the blade grinder and the burr grinder.

The blade grinder, typically priced between 10 and 20 dollars is (sadly) the standard in North America. It has a small motor and a smaller capacity for beans - typically 3 or 4 ounces or 150g. Motor sizes are about 100W if that. The problem is - they do not actually "grind" the coffee at all - They whack the coffee beans to pieces... irregularly shaped bits and pieces - and they heat the coffee up in the process from all the friction - So there are two things that are compromising the flavor; the heating of the beans as they are being whacked to pieces - and the completely irregular consistency of the grinds.

You see, in a perfect World where there are only perfect cups of coffee, the coffee grinds are all exactly the same size - and in this way, the extraction (the process of the water passing through the coffee and taking out only the best flavor components into your cup) is ideal. With a blade grinder, you end up with a mish mash of different grind sizes in the filter (or your French Press) [or your espresso maker God forbid - more on that later! ] - and consequently an over and under-extracted brew of bitter and sour flavors in your mug.

An ideal burr grinder processes coffee beans much like the ocean processes sand on the beach - if you look closely at sand, all the grains are exactly the same size - at least as far as your eye can tell. The perfect coffee grinder actually tears the beans apart in a process called maceration - the tearing apart of the beans into smaller uniformly sized pieces.

So. The irony of the perfect coffee grinder? It is not a grinder at all - It is a macerator! Sadly, that is not as marketable a term as "grinder" - and the term "grinder" is easier to explain and understand - so let's not mess with it any further.

In a burr grinder, the burrs or "cutting" surfaces of the mechanism are made of hardened steel - if they are designed right, you are likely to get years and years of precise service out of a grinder - in fact, most burr grinders in the league that would satisfy the coffeecrew lab (the Baratza Virtuoso being a good example) are likely to last 10 years or more - and that is hundreds of pounds of your favorite coffee.

So what did we find out about the Baratza Virtuoso grinder while we were watching it grow to maturity? The Baratza Virtuoso grinder uses a commercial grade conical burr - in simple terms, a conical burr grinder set (the upper and lower burr assemblies) are like a upside down cone pressed up into a slightly larger upside down cone - as the space between the two surfaces is reduced, the net result is a finer grind of coffee. The Baratza Virtuoso grinder has a wide enough range between the burrs to precisely grind every style of coffee from Espresso to Drip to French Press and beyond. The mechanism is sufficiently stable and well designed that one can return to the same setting over and over again - switching between grind styles and confidently get the identical grind over and over.

The Baratza Virtuoso grinder has 40 steps or grind settings between espresso and French - that is very, very fine grind to very coarse grind. It really does do it all - We know. We tested them all at all the settings over and over and over again over a period of a year for most of our samples. Out of the box, the new Baratza Virtuoso grinder is ready to roll for any method of coffee brewing.

The Baratza Virtuoso grinder is a mix of heavy duty plastic and cast metal in the housing - At 8.5 pounds it is a pretty heavy unit in its class and it is very mechanically stable. Once again, it has to be if you are going to use this as an all-purpose grinder and return confidently to previous grind settings.

Early in development, the engineers at Baratza had to decide what kind of motor was going to power the Baratza Virtuoso grinder. In the end, they came up with a DC motor over an AC motor. Why? It comes down to the starting torque and how quickly the mechanism stabilizes. Here is the thing: No motor starts instantly. It is physically impossible. In the time period that a motor goes from zero to cruising speed (in the case of the coffee grinder) - it is not going to be grinding consistently in the interval between zero and stable speed. So, the goal is to get to speed as fast as possible. The DC motor in the Baratza Virtuoso grinder turned out to be ideal. I actually tore several of the Baratza Virtuoso grinders apart - right down to bits and pieces... It is what I do. Short of revealing a little too much about minute details and design features on the inside (because the average user does not need to know - and neither does the competition!) - I determined (while I held a fully energized Baratza Virtuoso grinder motor in my hand) that the DC motor had a start-up kick to it not unlike the kick of a Glock 9MM semi-auto handgun. And folks, this is the one and only reference to hand guns you will ever see on the coffeecrew website - no letters please, but I am not a gun lover - I was in the Canadian Army when I was a teenager and I have been on numerous rifle and gun ranges. Enough said.

Anyway - this really stuck with me. The Baratza Virtuoso grinder DC motor starts the grinding burrs right now - a very quick start-up - which means very little "off" coffee during the grind interval.

The Baratza Virtuoso grinder uses a gear reduction mechanism to rotate the burr assembly at 450rpm. Slow enough to generate little heat (heat damages beans afterall), and the right speed to deliver the beans into the burrs.

Like the Solis Maestro-plus previously tested, the Baratza Virtuoso grinder has a very solid base and is unlikely to wander around the countertop much. The hopper holds around 8 ounces of beans, but I never keep anymore coffee in the hopper than I am going to grind at that particular moment. I found the hopper easy to "calibrate" with an indelible felt pen - putting in "dose" markings for whole pots of coffee - I use a Newco OCS-8 and a Technivorm KBT-741 in my lab - and it was handy to have full-pot calibration marks on the inside of the hopper.

In part one of the Baratza Virtuoso grinder review, we give you the low down on the best practices of coffee grinding - and we critique one of the most beloved coffee grinders of the 21st Century. Your editor, Colin Newell, had the good fortune of observing the development of the Baratza Virtuoso grinder and had, at one point, no less than 5 Baratza Virtuoso grinders. That's tough! Stay tuned for chapter two!

 Proudly sponsored by...
Planet Friendly Coffees
Lower Level
St. Lawrence Market - Front Street - Toronto
Everyday Gourmet Coffee - Front Street - St. Lawrence Market