It’s not immediately clear why there are so many different types of grinds when it comes to coffee - and why experts and baristas are so preoccupied with grind size.
More than just a preference or a convenience, grinding coffee beans is done to shorten steeping time. If you were to try to make coffee out of whole beans, you’d probably fall asleep by the time the water even starts to change color.
This, of course, is a fundamental principle when it comes to the kitchen: Chop something in very fine pieces, it cooks faster and more evenly than if you were to cook it whole.
But why shorten steeping time? - That’s the more important question. More than a question of patience, it is about flavor. The longer coffee grounds are exposed to water, the more one risks extracting unpleasant tastes like bitterness and sourness. A balance needs to be found when talking about the size of the coffee grounds and the steeping time -or the time these grounds are in contact with hot water- in order to make a good coffee.
Let’s see what the most common grind sizes are, what type they are used for and why.
Let’s start with the actual coffee bean. The whole bean is one of the best options out there because, if you have a grinder on hand, you can turn this whole bean into any type of grind you might need. Did you know that coffee beans are actually seeds? They are called beans because they look more like beans like they do seeds, but they are the seeds of the coffee fruit.
Whole beans are much cheaper than pre-ground coffee and usually can be stored for longer without risking flavor or aroma, which is one of the biggest reasons why most coffee shops prefer shopping whole beans and grinding on site.
This type of grind is usually reserved for some types of specialty coffee that call for this type of grind specifically, although it is the go-to grind for brewing methods such as the Cowboy Coffee. Extra coarse grind might take some extra work, but it yields different flavors that would otherwise be hard to find with other grind sizes.
Commonly, this type of grind is not sold pre-ground so you would need to own a semi-professional coffee grinder to be able to achieve it.
This type of grind is best suited for brewing methods that call for longer steeping times, such as the French press. Coarse ground coffee is, in many ways, the best accessible of all grind sizes since you don’t require a mechanical grinder.
Coarse grind coffee is today still the most favored for making Cowboy coffee, French press coffee, and for cold brew - a type of brewing that lets coffee steep for at least twelve hours at either room temperature or below.
Coarse grind coffee takes its sweet time making, and can take anywhere from three to ten minutes before it’s ready to drink.
It’s not coarse coffee, and it’s not espresso grind; Medium grind coffee is the sweet spot in the middle where a great many brewing methods coincide, making this grind the most popular there is. Medium grind offers the best of both worlds, much like Hannah Montana, resulting in a coffee that is both strong but not overly bitter and unpalatable. Medium grind coffee is usually ready to drink between one and three minutes, depending on how you make it.
Although this type of grind can be achieved without a coffee grinder, such practices are not common anymore since we now know that coffee grinders offer an even grind that makes for a better tasting cup of coffee.
It’s the espresso grind. Everyone knows espresso, and most people love espresso: It is, after, all, the base of most coffee-based drinks like lattes, ice blended drinks, and so on.
But most importantly, this grind size was vital to the globalization of coffee. The ability to produce such a finely ground coffee -and in great quantities- meant that we no longer had to wait several minutes in the coffee shop for our order to be ready: Such a finely ground coffee could be extracted in seconds, meaning your order would be ready in an instant.
Espresso made coffee go viral. Good, strong coffee in less than one minute. Who wouldn’t love that?
Last, but not least, is the finest of coffee grinds. This is coffee ground until it couldn’t be ground anymore. This type of grind, ironically, is not a product of our modern times like the espresso grinds, but has existed for much longer.
This type of coffee has always been a delicacy, and is most famously known as Turkish coffee. It is brewed with water and not filtered at all, so that when you drink the coffee you are also drinking the coffee grounds. This type of coffee has an incredibly unique and rich flavor that cannot be found with other grind sizes.
Now you know why grind size matters so much and, more importantly, you are more knowledgeable about coffee. Knowledge is the most important thing not only for enjoying coffee, but for making better coffee every time.