- Created: Tuesday, 21 April 2009 20:30
- Written by colin newell
When Kyle and Kyra at Baratza coffee set out to create the ideal "every-persons" coffee grinder, they must have had, at least, a passing thought of Henry.
Because here is the deal: When you are making a product that is integral to the process of brewing coffee, the ideal device covers all the bases. It is affordable. It has fine design without being too ornate - function over form... It is reliable to the point of being bullet proof and it can take a licking. And when it fails to take a licking, it is brought back to life with the minimum number of inexpensive spare parts.
To drive this point home, Kyra and Kyle gave me about 1/2 dozen Virtuoso grinders in various stages of maturity (most of them highly mature) and said... "Get yourself a sledge hammer and give them all you've got - and let us know how they stand up..."
A few conditions from my perspective: North America is an all-access kind of place for whole bean coffee. And what I mean by that - We love our espresso. We love our cappuccino's and lattes. We love our drip coffee and aeropress... and Press pots and turkish ibrik and percolators etc etc.
And we want one grinder to do it all.
In the beginning, it just about did. I will be the first to admit that there were some range issues out of the gate. Some of the machines that were coming off of the line did not quite cut it in the espresso range or conversely, the coarse range.
That was fixed with some well thought out mods.
By the time I was half way through testing the first 3, most of the obvious range bugs were out of the way. Now was the time for me to start getting heavy with the grinder.
Thankfully, I did not have to do the dirty work.
I have the luxury of having a multi-member wrecking crew at my place of employment! You want a coffee machine or coffee grinder run straight into the ground? I have just the team. They will do everything up to and including putting a brick on the on switch to let a grinder or brewer run until it melts...
Better them than me. I just do not have a penchant for coffee cruelty - I am sure it is either a behavior that you are born with or you are not. Thankfully, I have chop-licking, coffee drinking coyotes ready and willing to void all warranty in a heart beat.
So let me set it up. I handed over a Baratza Virtuoso grinder (practically new) and a Technivorm KBT-741 thermal carafe brewer to one of the "teams". For 6 months they shovelled about 100 pounds of coffee through the grinder and brewer - often brewing 3 or 4 full batches a day through the combo... and sometimes more.
A combo like the Virtuoso and the Technivorm are ideal for the home - and small office... with limits.
When you remove the limits, you create the ideal test environment for the critic - that's me.
I gather the data... the forensics... examining the remains... and feed the results... to you.
So here is the short story of how it went. With 6 to 8 people brewing coffee upwards of 6 times in a 7 hour work day - often full pots with very questionable coffee, both units held up quite well... Unless the 6th month that is - when a critical part in the virtuoso "disappeared" - a rubber gasket that keeps coffee debris from making its way into the burr height adjust mechanism. When that happens and there is debris trapped in this part of the grinder, it jams the grind adjust - when the user forces the hopper rotation (to adjust the grind) one of two nylon nibs that inteface between the hopper and the upper burr assembly break.
And please note: This is not a design flaw. In as much as you need to add oil to your car regularly to maintain engine health - if you do not, the engine is damaged. Taking critical parts out of the loop results in minor damage - minor in that it is a $12 dollar repair to make it right again.
Factor in some human nature here and it becomes obvious that "loaner subjects" are the best ones for testing any appliance or coffee gadget - and if it isn't obvious, it is because people do not treat borrowed property as if it were their own. I know and for that reason, I am not a suitable test subject for the most hard-core phases of product evaluation.
So. For the Baratza Virtuoso, the worse they could do in 6 months of pummeling was lose a rubber gasket during cleaning - and in not replacing it, opened it up to jamming from a few pieces of coffee bean. Not bad.
And as for the Technivorm KBT-741 brewer (thanks to Transcend coffee for this sample...) - it merely snickered in the face of adversity during the onslaught.
For me, the Baratza Virtuoso grinder has been one of the most pleasant kitchen appliances to use - It is stable. It does all the grinds right, from espresso to press and everything in between. It is visually quite resettable for an active coffee drinker who likes to mix it up a lot. Maintenance issues are as close to none as possible. A regular wipe with a damp paper cloth - of the hopper and upper burr and maybe a burr cleaning (non-toxic) treat is good too.
Beefs? Of the current batch of grinders (that is, factory fresh ones from the last 2 years...) I would say that they have it all worked out. All of them arrive ready to grind the way you want to. And yes, for those that want to fine tune, there is a fairly straightforward calibration - if you are willing to pry your grinder apart. I have done it to a few of them but have not found it necessary in the last 3 samples. They tend to come from the factory leaning towards the espresso end of the spectrum - and judging by who is buying the Virtuoso, this is the right thing.