We review the Baratza Vario - a coffee grinder for the ages.

My Rancilio Rocky sits proudly on the kitchen counter like an old Sherman tank resting on an aged and not-to-recently used battle ground.

I plug it in when I need something done - and done right.

And despite a parade of other grinders that have crossed the kitchen threshold, there have been few ready to challenge this seldom grumpy old stalwart or the tasks that it faces with aplomb and without sweat.

(And) When I first unboxed my Baratza Vario, what seems like an eternity ago, I am sure that, if it had eyes, the Rancilio Rocky would have been be blinking them somewhat nervously... and looking backwards over its trusty hopper.

When I first heard that Kyra and Kyle at Baratza.Com were contemplating this unit - a steroid infused big brother to the well healed Baratza Virtuoso - well I had to sit down and pour myself a couple of drinks.
One for me... and one for Rocky. Because as was the nature of the relationship I had with the Baratza team (they would get an idea and I would hear about it quickly...), there was a lot of confidence and skill going into the Vario - and I knew, without question, that - as they described it - The Vario was going to be a Rocky contender - if not a Rocky killer.

As this point I pour another finger of Bowmore 12 year old Scotch and offer Rocky a handful of Panama La Hacienda Geisha.

For me, the Rocky by Rancilio has not only been the perfect companion for any espresso machine that came across our test counter - but also, it has been the perfect all-duty grinder for any method of coffee brewing.
And that fact remained unchallenged until the day came when my Vario arrived at the door.

Delivery day:
It came in a solid box (like every other Baratza product) and within that box another box even more robust than the one on the outside. Within that, the grinder, the hopper, the ground coffee bin, a portafilter holder for exclusive espresso use and a well worded instructional manual.

The Vario is quickly set-up, plugged in and through its show of flashing LEDS upon power up. Yes, it does have a digital display, a start and stop button, 3 memory presets and that are fully programmable. The 3 memory settings are for Drip, Press and Espresso - pretty good choices (and again, they can be anything you want them to be...) And timed to 1/10 of a second!

And how is this a benefit? Well, for starters, in my lab I spend a few minutes each morning setting up for the 10 AM Coffee Show -- I mean coffee break, and the ability to set the grinder to grind a batch of beans and then allow me to walk away is really sweet. I put the required amount of ultra-exotic coffee into the hopper, press the DRIP memory setting, hit START and walk away knowing that all the coffee put into the hopper with be waiting when I come back.

Has guts: At the heart of the Vario grinder is a 240 Watt DC motor. Like the Baratza Virtuoso, that is also powered by a DC Motor - and the advantage of a DC motor over an AC motor is start-up time. When you hit the power switch on a grinder with an AC Motor, the start up time to get the burrs up to speed depends on a bunch of variables - which is to say that it may be almost 100ms or more before the unit is stable. In the meantime - in this 100ms the burrs are grabbing beans but not grinding them right - and that product ends up in your grinds bin. With a DC motor, when you hit the grind switch, the motor is up to speed in a fraction of that time - hardly enough time for the grinder to do anything - in a blink of an eye... Milliseconds until the unit torques up to working speed.

Can you taste the difference? From all the testing on all the grinders I have done, I would say - Yes.

Coffee nag: I have pointed out in previous articles that there are 2 kinds of coffee grinders that you can buy - Blade and Burr. Blade grinders can be found in most homes and retail for about 20 bucks. They use a small motor connected directly a to a chopping blade. It rotates at high speed and chops the coffee beans into irregularly shaped particles - and the down side to that is, when brewing this coffee, there are overextracted grinds, underextracted grinds and even the perfectly extracted coffee grinds - just to little of the latter generally!

Because (as I have said in a myriad of other articles on the subject of coffee grinders) great coffee depends entirely on the consistency of the ground coffee - that ALL of the ground coffee is ground to the same particle size.

The better grinder is the burr grinder - it uses ceramic or metal cutting surfaces that can uniformly tear apart coffee beans at a reduced speed (reduced heat generation and damage of the coffee) and can be as sophisticated (and expensive) as the engineering and design will allow. Good burr grinders start at $99 and commercial ones cost upwards of $2000. The Vario and Rancilio Rocky: Under $500!

Coffee Science Fact: Great coffee depends on surprisingly few important details: Water temperature, water quality, coffee freshness, grind consistency, dose and brew time.

Those first 3 are probably pretty obvious. The last two? Dose is the specific amount of water used to pass through a very specific amount of ground coffee. Brew time is the time in minutes (or whatever measure of time that you use) that the water is in contact with the coffee.

In use: What I liked about the Vario (something that grew on me over time...) was the ergonomic sensibilities of the grinder. Everything about controlling the unit is within your hand print - that is, without having to shift your hand to one side of the unit or the other. On either side are 2 sliders that control grind - on the right a coarse setting that spreads the spectrum of the grinder from Espresso to Press or from the finest to the most coarse grind. On the left is the "fine tuning" that gives 20+ soft settings for every soft setting on the right. That is a lot of fine tuning. A lot! Within the front fascia is a digital display that tells you how much time will run on the grinder when you press go. Below that are the start (stop) and manual over-ride buttons. Below that (note photo above left) are the presets. Note: All of them are completely fluid. So, if all you do are single, double and special shots of espresso, you have three memory settings for those.

Other words:
EspressoTec.Com who sell the Baratza Vario describe the grinder thusly: "The Baratza Vario's 54mm ceramic burrs are manufactured in Germany by one of the world's most respected grinder manufacturers - Mahlkonig. Ceramic burr grinders are exceptional at producing consistent grinds which is imperative to a high-quality extraction and excellent coffee. In fact, the ceramic burrs remain sharp for up to at least twice the life of even the highest quality steel burrs. In addition, the burrs have a newly designed, precision, dual cam adjustment system to ensure a stable platform for accurate grinding. In addition to the ability to remain much sharper, longer - ceramic burrs also grind quieter; making the Vario one of the quietest grinders in the market."

Reg James, affable proprieter of EspressoTec.com spoke with Kyle this year when a customer asked about using the Vario for light duty commercial as a Shop and portion grinder.
Kyle offered: "Light Duty Commercial Applications? There has been considerable interest in using the Baratza Grinder for light duty commercial applications."
and continued, "While the Vario is certainly no replacement for a fast, large and powerful commercial grinder - there are some suitable light duty applications where it can be used successfully."

Having spoken personally with Kyle at Baratza, we can pass along the following guidelines for lighter duty commercial applications:

Espresso etc:
  • For espresso a maximum of 1 pound per day ( about 63 single or 31 doubles). A double shot will take about 15 seconds to grind - the grinder motor should then have a one minute cool down period
  • Suggested use: Decaf, Office, small restaurant and bar espresso grinder Drip Brewing:
  • Assuming a 1/2 gallon brewer requires about 1/4 lb ( 90 -120 grams) coffee per cycle .Vario grinds this in about 1 minute - followed by 3 - 4 minute cooldown .
  • Maximum 10 "cycles" per day - change burrs in 2 to 3 years ( 2000 - 2500 lbs of coffee)
Notes:
  • Bean and Grounds Hopper each hold 226 grams of Beans/Ground coffee .
  • Vario motor is rated for 25% duty cycle - thermal protector will shut down motor after grinding 90 to 120 seconds.
My year of use: About the time I received the Vario grinder from Baratza, I started getting bombarded by wonderful single origin coffees from a variety of North Americas best roasters. The Vario became the de facto shop grinder for my drip and press pot adventures. Truth is, I only used the Vario in a handful of brief espresso tests. And if the Vario shines in 1, maybe 2 areas, it is the espresso and drip range. As an espresso grinder, it is an equal to the Rancilio Rocky. As a drip grinder, it might have a slight edge - but based on the side by sides I have done so far, I am not prepared to award the gold medal to one or the other.

So which grinder is the better grinder and why? Oh. That is a tough one!

For weight and portability, the Vario wins - at 10 pounds it is almost half the weight of the Rocky (18 pounds). For ease of set-up and locking in your prefered grind, there is no question that the Vario is a dream. For integrating a grinder into a modest sized kitchen? Vario wins.

Pricewise the two units are very close. So in the end it comes down to looks and personal preferences.

Kyle, Kyra and the Baratza produced a great grinder with the Virtuoso and with the introduction of the Vario grinder... well, it is an utterly brilliant and well thought out machine. I can only wonder what they have up their sleeve for the next decade!

Thanks go out to Baratza for the grinder(s), the endless support and to Reg James and the EspressoTec.com family for more of the same right stuff that they have been delivering year after year.

In the next chapter on our Vario review we will get down to the finer details with in depth analysis of its performance next to a handful of other grinders. Stay tuned.

Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada and has been writing about coffee culture since 1995. He counts on the support on coffee companies and manufacturers like Baratza for timely articles like these.