There are all sorts of levels of commitment when it comes to coffee. A number of my readers wouldn't blink when told that my coffee grinder sells for about $300- quite the contrary. Some of them would comment that it was a shame I couldn't have gotten a "good grinder" for espresso, but that I could probably make due with what I had. On the other end of the scale are the "X-Mart" grinders that sell for $15-50 or so. I look at some of those and wonder how a grinder that sells for less than the cost of a replacement set of burrs for mine could ever make a decent cup. In the middle is somewhat of a no-man's land between the home toys and the professional level equipment. In that region from about $150 to $300 you will find maybe four or five contenders from which to choose.
When it comes to coffee, and particularly for espresso, the grinder is the most important tool. Precise adjustment has a great amount of control over flavor, and beyond that, a cheap grinder or one with an "economy" set of burrs can create a lot of dust. This coffee dust, when it gets into the cup, causes excessive bitterness and ruins the taste of what could otherwise have been a decent cup of coffee. So if you don't have $350 for a pro grinder, and your $15 whirly-blade "coffee chopper" isn't cutting it (sorry), what can you do?
Take a look at the Baratza Virtuoso. While a $225 MSRP (street price $199) will not sound like a centrally priced grinder to a some folks, it is in that region that can be considered the least amount to spend for a grinder that can be considered well-suited for espresso. The good thing about that is just about any grinder that can grind for espresso can grind for just about any style of coffee you want. Why? Because espresso is the most demanding form of coffee when to comes to the variables involved in creating a drinkable cup.
If you noticed that the Virtuoso looks like a Solis grinder you are not only observant but correct. Baratza designed the Solis grinders while they were the importer of the Solis equipment in the US, but later left the importation of Solis in favor or pursuing further development of their own grinder designs.
You can imagine what an undertaking it could be to design a grinder and get it to rest in a specific price point, yet still deliver a quality grind. That was the task the folks at Baratza have taken upon themselves with the Virtuoso. What parameters need to be met for a quality grinder?
Consistent grind, day after day, once set to a specific grind degree
Paricle size within a reasonable range for each grind setting
As little dust production as possible
Easy to disassemble for cleaning
Minimal amount of leftover coffee in the grinder when done
Minimal static problems
adjustment range that allows fine control for espresso use
Precision burrs that are made of quality material for long life.
Let's take a look a closer look at the Virtuoso design and see how well it does in regards to those parameters.
- Sharp, hard, precision burrs
The burr set is made in Italy. They are sharp and appear to be well formed as you can see here (as opposed to the burrs in the Cuisinart I mentioned in Chapter 79). Running a finger across the Virtuoso's 44mm burrs reveals sharp edges and precision machining. The tolerances are reportedly closer than in previous models.
there is another obvious thing to comment on here. Conical burrs. There are ongoing debates as to the benefits of flat versus conical burrs, and that debate will go on for years to come, but the basic benefit is that conical burrs reportedly create a more forgiving grind supplying a particle size and range that is less sensitive than flat burrs. A generalization to be sure, but more on that later.
BODUM Antigua - only 8 settings for grind
- A Quality, powerful motor
The Virtuoso uses a large, heavy duty DC motor that spins the burrs at . I am told that it will grind for over 20 minutes without getting much more than warm to the touch, although that is not recommended. That is the equivalent of enough coffee to make well over 60 double espressos! The speed of teh burr is 450-500 RPM which is adjustable by means of a potentiometer locarted internally on the printed circuit board.
- A stiff mounting system to hold it all in alignment.
The Virtuoso features a top burr carrier that holds itself in alignment with three tabs. In actual use this carrier is locked firmly into place in the grinder allowing virtually no rocking or movement of the alignment between the top (fixed) and bottom (spinning) burrs.
- An adjustment system to allow precise regulation of the size of the coffee particles.
The 40 steps of the Vitruoso grind fine enough for Turkish and espresso and coarse enough for drip. If for some reason the grinder does not grind fine enough, the baratza website features detailed instructions on how to recalibrate the grinder so that it can grind as fine as possible.
- Static Control
A design that controls static electricity so the grounds don't fly all over the counter then the ground coffee is removed.
There is a metal flap in the grounds chute that is meant to lessen the static electricity created when the coffee is being ground, and it does lessen it but does not eliminate it. I did notice some signs of static in chaff flying onto the sides of the receptacle, but we have had a very wet winter and so the humidity makes it difficult to test static problems.
- Easy to clean
A silicone seal on the upper burr carrier (shown here) keeps coffee where it belongs. The path where coffee goes is relatively easy to clean as well. It really is simple and can be accomplished without tools:
- make note of the current grind setting if it is to be used again
- Set the grinder to the coarsest setting (just turn it anti-clockwise until it stops)
- Lift the bean hopper straight up and off
- Remove the black silicone seal
- Lift off the upper burr and carrier assembly
- Brush clean with the included cone-shaped brush
- Set the burr back in place by aligning the red marks (partially visible in this photo).
- Place black seal into place, aligning the notches to the tabs on the burr carrier
- Replace the hopper, being sure to get the thin tab into the thin slot and the thick tab into the thick slot
- Turn the hopper one click clockwise
All of that can be easily accomplished in about three minutes without rushing.
- Easy to use
When used for espresso you can remove the plastic bin and grind directly into the portafilter with one hand using the conveniently-located momentary switch on the front of the machine. It takes about 20 to 25 seconds to grind for the La Marzocco double basket, so figure a little less than that for most double baskets on the market.
The heavy metal base keeps the machine firmly located in place even when pushing the button. If you don't want to hold that button down there is a convenient grinding timer on the side of the machine making it easy to grind into the hopper while you complete other tasks. The hopper is an 'air-tight' seal in the grinder keeping the grounds in place.
Additionally, the hopper is easy to use and makes an air-tight seal on the grinder when inserted. That goes a long way towards keeeping the coffee in the grinder and off the counter top.
If you remember to look before disassembly and make note of your grind setting it can be easily repeated and verified after cleaning or adjusting to another brewing method so that you don't waste coffee searching it out. There is a single detent between each of the numeral settings painted on the machine.
Putting it to Work
One of the things that is immediately noticeable is that the gind from the Virtuoso is very consistent and, at the finer grind settings, they have a very "fluffy" feel to them. The difference to the grind produced by Rocky can be felt when tamping.
The first grinding I did for test purposes was done at the finest setting. Each grinder is factory adjusted so that the finest setting is as fine as possible without damaging the burrs. At that point the result was an extremely fine grind that felt more like talcum powder, and when tamping the smoothness of the coffee could be felt through the handle of the tamper. It totally choked my espresso machine- not a single drop in thirty seconds, and the bottom of the puck was dry! I then began to dial it in for espresso and in short order could tell that Rocky and I had a long-term relationship to which I had adjusted. I made about six doubles and could not find the correct grind point. One click was runny water and the next finer click seemed to choke the espresso machine. I later realized that if you turn the hopper very slowly to find an adjustment point that it is possible to defeat the clicking of the detent to a great extent. If you watch the adjustment vernier along the grinder it becomes an easy matter of finding the next setting.
The next morning I put it to work in earnest and I found the correct grind point on the second try. I don't know if I did some adjusting to the grinder or if the grinder had to break in a bit, but I did find the correct adjustment and was able to pull some very nice shots that flowed as good as with the coffee ground with Rocky.
It is a well designed, good looking, and highly functional home grinder. From its design it would seem that it will be capable of giving good home service over a long period of time, even with daily use. At a street price of $199 it has some stiff competition. Compared to many of the other grinders in and around this price range designed for espresso use, the Baratza Virtuoso has a non-commercial look to it and a compact size that would make it a better aesthetic fit in many kitchens. I keep one in my motorhome along with an Aeropress so that I am always ready for great coffee!
It is a well thought out grinder that not only looks good but is easy to maintain and works as advertised. It includes a one year warranty and Baratza will send the replacement directly to you as well as pay for the return shipping of your failed grinder. Is the Virtuoso worth $199? Only you can answer that question.