Living with the Orphan manual Apex grinder

Let's talk about coffee grinders

Ghost Burrs 2022 Orphan Espresso APEX Manual grinderLet's make one thing abundantly clear:

Your cup of coffee, regardless of the brew method, is only as good as your grinder.

It is the coffee grinder that is the key to the success of every brew cycle. 

Frankly, I can extract a pretty decent cup of coffee from beans that have seen better days. But without a credible coffee grinder, there is no perfect cup of coffee.

Some coffee science: The perfect cup of coffee is dependant on dose (quantity of ground coffee), volume of water, water temperature and the dwell time (the period of time that the water passes through the coffee particles).

Photo above - Orphan Espresso APEX Manual Grinder Ghost Burrs

More importantly, the quality and uniformity of the ground coffee particles is the one thing that pushes the quality of the brew into that stratospheric realm of what you would enjoy at your favorite cafe.

Your cafe can create some incredibly nuanced coffee because of the quality of the grinder - an item that can easily cost $1500 to $4000 or more.

Based on some reviews I've read recently, the Apex Manual Coffee grinder has been compared to the Mahlkönig EK43 - a unit that finds its home in many high-end cafes. The Mahlkönig EK43 is signifcantly more expensive to the tune of 5-times more dollars!

The average person this is not going drop this kind of money on their home set-up.

At 1/5th the price tag of the Mahlkönig EK43 , the Apex Manual Coffee grinder is often referred to as the Rolls-Royce of hand grinders. We shall see. 

Enter the Orphan Apex coffee grinder

 2022 Orphan Apex manual grinderAt a modest $495 (USD), it comes with some interesting concepts and promises. Let's dig in.

The Orphan Espresso Apex manual grinder weighs it at just shy of 12 pounds. It arrived via Canada Post and was superbly packed for long distance travel. The Orphan Espresso Apex manual grinder is a skoosh shy of 12" high and is engineered to be attached to a piece of hardwood/plywood/breadboard of around 14" wide and 12" deep (wood not included) - more on this a bit later.

Bottom line:
It needs to be secured to a solid base for its level best performance. I used some scrap 1.5" plywood and got some immediately good results. 

What's inside the box: The grinder. Tool kit. Silicone pads. Coffee grind catch cup. Instruction manual.

My first thrill with unboxing was the inclusion of a small tool kit to do all the take apart and service intervals that you will need to know about. 

The initial assembly is attaching the hand grind to the grinder body. Reading the manual, which took around 5 minutes and I was ready to go. 

 Under the hood

The Orphan Apex manual grinder has a pair of burr groups, 78mm rotational, 75mm stationary. The grinding burrs are described as "pyramidal molars" - like nothing I have ever seen before. The Orphan Apex manual grinder operates bi-directional which is handy - whether you are left handed or right handed - no matter.

Planetary drive: As it turns out, the optimal speed for ghost burrs is around 400 rpm. To do this manually would be extraordinary. Thankfully, the designers of the Orphan Apex manual grinder integrated a 4 to 1 planetary drive - meaning for every single turn of the handle, the Orphan Apex manual grinder ghost burrs rotate 4 times. 

Photo above - The Orphan Apex manual grinder prior to being mounted on a solid surface.

The upside to the 4 to 1 drive is that once rotation is established, it is easy to maintain a steady rhythm and achieve the most effective speed for perfect results. Back to our coffee particle science for another moment - The key to great coffee is having a single particle size with the least amount of integrated or interloping "powder" or "fines".

In reality, the perfect coffee is created by having a specific  rate of extraction -- or in other words, water at the perfect temperature passing through identically sized particles for a very specific time period. If one varies the particle size too much, some coffee is overextracted or underextracted from each grain or particle of coffee. 

On a molecular level, when you underextract a coffee particule or "grind", this can lead to a watery or insipid brew. If you overextract a coffee particle or "grind" you can introduce very unpleasant flavours into your cup - most commonly bitterness, a lack of balance and muddled flavors.

Many, many home grade grinders, even burr grinders, can produce a high percentage of "fines" or powder, reducing the potential of great coffee. What my initial test results and observations indicate: There is a remarkably low incidence of fines in the ground coffee output from the Orphan Apex manual grinder - so few in fact that I had a hard time seeing any.

Other credible reviews on the internet indicate the same thing. My kitchen counter sports a very elderly Rancilio Rocky - which is more suited to espresso but handily will output coffee into the coarsest spectrum. Sadly, it delivers a lot of other stuff alongside the desired grain size -- and this is entirely not surprising considering the vintage. There are now better grinders for the job.

The Orphan Apex manual coffee grinder is solidly built and engineered. The axel between the handle, planetary and burr cluster has no less than 5 bearing groups. They could have gotten by with less, but this grinder is not about cutting corners and cost.

 A solid foundation

The Orphan Apex manual grinder has heft. Ticking in at just under 12 pounds, it has 4 mounting holes on the base. This is not a subtle hint. This stallion of a coffee grinder needs to be bolted down or its bolting from the counter with your hand attached to it. The minimum, I discovered, was around 14-16" wide by 12" deep - and the heavier the block of wood the better. 1.5" plywood works but that is the least heft that you are going to get away with. Do yourself a favor and buy a cutting block exactly for this purpose. Better idea: Get an extra wide cutting block that you can stain (or get pre-stained to your specifications) and use it to store your other coffee tools; brushes, carafes, scales, etc. 

Pick your grind

The Orphan Apex manual grinder has 20 distinct settings that run the gradient from (in my own perception...) Aeropress, through paper and solid filters, to French press. This is a grinder designed explicitly for gravity brewing -- not espresso. The manual explains the grinder settings in something of an abstraction, but for me: I suggest standing in front of the grinder and settings starting at full counter-clockwise (or fully left) are the finest settings and to the right are progressively coarser. Barb and Doug call the settings C for Centre detente, C-1 through C-9 as the fine settings and C+1 through C+9 as the coarse spectrum. In terms of usual spectrum, HARIO V60 is likely in the realm of C-1 to C-3 depending on the bean, C-8 for Aeropress and C+4 for French press etc. I have not ground any coffee at the most coarse setting but I suspect that it might work for cowboy coffee or perk (good forbid, why!?) More experimentation called for!

The grinder in use 

 The Orphan Apex manual grinder is a very easy device to "get into the groove" with - the improved results are astounding and immediate. The only caveat to this is the "physical learning curve". Once you have the unit "turning" and grinding coffee, it is easy to keep the unit turning at the desired speed. The key thing to establish (that I found...) was the "start up energy profile..." And what I mean by that is: The burst of energy required to start and sustain the Orphan Apex manual grinder while in use. If you have ever started up a lawn mower,  you'll know what I mean. Perhaps a better definition is starting a shopping cart rolling from a full stop. It needs a little push and then it is easy peasy.

More technically: The amount of energy required to sustain the rotational motion of the Orphan Apex manual grinder is much less than the "start up" force to start the process. It is not a lot of energy but there is enough resistance to make you think, (for the first few times of use...) hey is this right?

You just need to find that sweet spot. I call it the energy displacement arc. In the very moment you start cranking out coffee from the Orphan Apex manual grinder, you need a burst of energy. After that it is a breeze!

The capacity of the Orphan Apex manual grinder is 60G - and based on my SCAA approved chart for brewing coffee (ratio of water to ground coffee...), that is just short of 1L of coffee you can brew from a full hopper load of beans. Personally, I rarely brew more than 600ml of coffee at a time (and that is only when I have a coffee loving guest!) - so this represents a lot of head room!

Loading whole bean coffee into the Orphan Apex manual grinder is easy. Pop the opaque plastic cover to the hopper and drop in your dose (weighed of course!) - replace the plastic cover and off you go. If you leave the hopper cover off, some beans may get ejected out in their attempt to avoid... well... grinding. Because the beans are gravity and motion-vibration fed into the burrs, there are always a few holdouts and that is where a soft bristle brush comes in handy -- you know, to offer encouragement! 

Ground coffee ends up in the hand-blown Apex catch cup - which, by the way, would make an incredible 3.5 oz shot glass.

Like virtually all other coffee grinders, the Orphan Apex manual grinder generates static electricity when it is in use. Anywhere from 1 to 2 grams of coffee (from observation, more powder than anything else...) gets "electrically" acquainted with the exhaust port on the Orphan Apex manual grinder. Again, normal. It is easy to sweep this out with your fine bristle brush, but do yourself a favor and put these "charged" grains/powder into the bin with the compost. As much as I hate throwing out coffee, the static attracted "fines" do not belong in your coffee brewing process. It is a personal call on my part. My feeling is: The product that ends up in the catch glass is the ground coffee you want and is meant to end its journey in the filter basket. Try it both ways. Your taste buds will demonstrate the difference!


It's in the cup - the taste

After setting up the Orphan Apex manual grinder, reading the manual and watching a couple of awesome YouTube videos from the creators of the the Orphan Apex manual grinder - Barb and Doug (and the team...) I set out to brew my very first Hario V60 carafe brew. I picked a single origin Ethiopian bean that I knew would shine if treated with respect. I ground around 22G of whole bean coffee at the mid-setting of the grinder (maybe not the ideal setting but the one that I was going with...) I ran 285 ml of water through the coffee grounds in around 2 minutes and 30 seconds - and paused in cautious optimism as the brew completed. Pouring the brewed coffee into a pre-heated mug, I imagined the journey from the farm to this moment in time - would I do it justice?

Well, the expression on my face, based on my wife's observation was priceless - "Wow..." I uttered. "This is it..." I have had great cups of coffee in great cafes but I have never had the "Holy Grail" of poured coffee at home. It was a home run. The body was full, balanced, the flavors nuanced and crystal clear. This was a fine African coffee prepared in a way that it truly deserved. To me, this is the completion of a journey with so many steps along the way. I sipped along. I hestitated as the coffee cooled. Again, wonderful clarity was experienced. Normally, when I am trying out something for the first time there is a "dial in" process as I lock in the best settings. This was an "out of the box" first brew. And it impressed. 

Subsequent brews of bean of varied heritage and "resting periods" have revealed the same surprrise. The APEX grinder is a very powerful lens into the world of great coffees allowing me, for once, to more clearly "see" and taste what their true potential is. And it has been a long time coming. For the price point, the grinder meets and exceeds all of my expectations. There are no short comings. No features that could have been perfected. Nothing left out. This is, for me, the most significant step I have taken to achieve, consistently, that great home brewed cup of coffee. Let's face it. When you consider all that coffee goes through - to get to you - the least you can do is showcase it in the best way possible. 

The People

Barb and Doug Garrott of Orphan Espresso - PhotoThe create a great product from the ground up takes energy, perseverance, and a tireless dedication to perfection. Barb and Doug Garrott, of Orphan Espresso are two such individuals. We spoke for a few minutes short of an hour one evening recently about the genesis of this product, the journey, the pathways and the potential pitfalls. Barb and Doug reminded me of an Olympic team going for gold. I got a genuine sense from Barb Garrott, that the bronze or silver medal on this podium was not going to cut it, "It's all in. During development, we focused on what we knew we could go -- given the development time and the flow of resources (sweat equity and dollars!) " Thankfully, there was an element of "open source" to this project. Meaning, various peole in the industry offered some great tips and connected the Garrott's with the manufacturering genius of Taiwan -- where the grinder components are produced. It may seem a tad cliche, but the development stages of the grinder was as much a labor of love as it was an exercise in inexhaustible doggedness. Barb and Doug both possess the dual attributes of a clear vision for success and a childlike fascination with the most minute functionality of this device. I get it. There has to be love and devotion to an undertaking like this... or as they say, all or nothing,

I've been playing with the manual grinder for a couple of weeks now and I can honestly say it feels like the coffee tool I have been waiting a lifetime for. I've been looking for a grinder that checks all the boxes, is a joy to use and maintain and allows all the best elements of the coffee bean to proudly shine through.

The Orphan Apex manual grinder does that and more without hesitation. For that reason, I give this grinder one of the highest ratings I've ever attached to a product. 

 Proudly sponsored by...
Planet Friendly Coffees
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St. Lawrence Market - Front Street - Toronto
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