I first heard about the Vario grinder back in May of last year. Coffeegeek had some photos and info from the SCAA show floor, referring to a “hot shit” new grinder that was due out in late summer. I’ll admit now, my interest was piqued, majorly. The grinder is a collaborative effort between the US grinder manufacturer Baratza, and the German grinder manufacturer Mahlkonig. Baratza have a reputation for developing competent, well priced, if somewhat unspectacular home grinders, while Mahlkonig are synonymous with large retail bag grinders, cupping grinders, industrial grinders, and more recently the whole espresso grind-on-demand K30 thing. Whereas Baratza have previously used off-the-shelf burr sets for their grinders, Mahlkonig make their own burr sets. So it’s fitting here that Mahlkonig have designed a brand new proprietary ceramic flat burr set for the Vario.
The Vario is being pitched, price-wise at least (going for £316 – haven’t seen a € price as of yet), in the space between basic home grinders and larger professional grinders (so I reckon in the Mazzer Mini, Macap M4, Anfim Best etc space). Among the many product claims are broad grind range, narrow particle size distribution, near-as zero grind retention, easy adjustment, ultra precise grinding time settings, fast grind speed, cool belt driven motor, and hands free dosing. Phew!
My attention was caught, because Baratza/Mahlkonig had seemingly cherry-picked a smorgasbord of features most people would want in a do-it-all and do-it-well home grinder, and instead of building on the foundations of old designs, they started with a blank piece of paper. Having briefly owned a Mahlkonig Guatemala, which was hands-down the best filter/press grinder I’ve owned (amazingly even, and practically retained nothing, but too big for my kitchen), my hope was that this might be a diminutive alternative.
The Vario was kindly provided by Marco for evaluation purposes. I’ll spare you the unboxing story, needless to say, the Vario came in a box, and I took it out of it.
As far as setup goes, you twist in the hopper, and you’re done. I found the hopper fit and twist to be very tight and stiff, requiring more force than I thought would be necessary. There is a tab at the back of the hopper which actually depresses a button/switch, which otherwise would prevent the burrs from spinning. My portaholder came assembled, though I’m not sure if all do, as there is some reference in the US manual to assembling it.
The very first thing I did was set the grinder to its coarsest setting, because I really wanted to see how it performed on the filter end of things. Even at the extreme coarse end it wasn’t particularly coarse, only slightly coarser than what I would consider for drip filter brewing. At the other end of the spectrum though, without even setting it to its finest setting, the grinder was producing talcum powder fine coffee. You know when you tamp a puck, and the surface is ultra-smooth, with no evidence of granularity that you are going to choke your machine. I knew this, but I put it in anyway. It choked my machine.
Backing of to the second macro adjustment setting honed me in to where I needed to be, and I started pulling shots. The shots looked good, very good in fact. The lack of any evidence of premature blonding was a really good sign, it is something that I expect on smaller home flat burr grinders (MDF, Rocky, Anfim Haus etc). Depending on the fineness, which in turn depended on the bean, clumping was apparent, not necessarily to the extent I’ve seen with the K30, but it’s a flat-burr, doserless grinder, it’s fairly much inevitable.
I hate the WDT (or “stirring” as humans would call it). I refuse to do it. The grinds would probably benefit from a good lash with a needle or something else similarly pokey. Some combination of Stockfleth or Chicago Chop (another silly term), will however, help to some degree. However, the most common thing I’ve seen is extractions that start ever so slightly donut-ish, a “problem” I don’t have with my dosered Macap M4.
Removing the hopper (again very stiff), and looking inside, the top burr is mounted on aluminium, which is seated in plastic. Some bean fragments had somehow popcorned out through the space between the hopper and the grind throat and were sitting on top of the upper burr mount. Twisting the aluminium mount counter-clockwise releases it from the plastic, but even at that point it’s so tight that it takes considerable effort to pull it out. The ceramic burrs seem small, with proportionally large breaking surfaces and proportionally small cutting surfaces. The aluminium mount is quite light, and the plastic, is, well, plastic. If there’s a valid design reason for the plastic aside from cost, then great, otherwise it maybe seems a pity to cut corners on a machine that has set its sights so high.
The next day, going back to the coarsest setting, it seemed to have gotten coarser, whether through reseating the burr set, or just breaking in the grinder by running about a kilo of beans through it, I seemed to have gained a bit of leeway at the coarse end, without apparently losing anything at the fine end. It’s still short of the shards that James Hoffmann advocates, but I’d consider it French Press territory. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t like more elbow room. I would.
Even with the Tim Wendelboe / James Hoffmann cupping style clean, I was still getting a mess at the end of the cup, which in fairness is probably about the same performance as most home flat burr grinders (ie plenty of fines). I also took this opportunity to check the grind retention claim. 17g went in and 17g came out. The weighing scales I was using was only accurate to 1g, but it’s hands down the best home grinder I’ve ever seen for (lack of) grind retention (well perhaps the $1700 Versalab M3 is comaparable).
I took a detour on my way back to espresso with an aeropress brew, which was also nice (and clean!). Back at espresso, now using different beans, I found just a single micro notch finer change from the previous beans got me back in the zone.
The fact that I had changed beans meant that this was no indication of consistency in returning to a previous setting. So a follow-up test was performed (see the video). Shots were dialed in with lined glasses to a scant 1oz in 34s, using micro 6 macro 2 and 13.0s grind. These were repeatable. Both cams were then adjusted to a medium grind, some beans were ground, and then with the burrs spinning the cams were repositioned as per the previous shots. To my dismay the shots were now racing to 1oz a good 9s faster, repeatedly.
Going back to a predfined setting gets you in the ballpark I suppose, but it’s far from ultra-precise, and raises questions as to the true benefit of the twin cam adjustment system. It doesn’t seem to be more precise than most home grinders I’ve seen, nor does it seem particularly easier than say a Gaggia MDF or a Rancilio Rocky where the hopper is just rotated to a number on a dial.
I would speculate that a potential source of this problem is the fact that the adjustment cams don’t really click in to their steps with any great vigor (this is especially evident at the espresso end where there is a slight increase in resistance). They kind of slump into them, and it seems possible to not fully engage a particular notch. It’s hard to communicate this point, but there is a displeasing tactile feel to the adjustment.
Clumping and static combine to a certain degree to cause both a mess, and inconsistencies in dosing. Aside from the distribution woes, when the grinds start to pile up above the rim of the portafilter instead of forming a nice neat even pile, the clumping actually sends some of the little balls bouncing off the pile and out of the portafilter.
The mess is an inconvenience, despite much of it being caught in the portaholder, enough gets scattered around the kitchen counter to necessitate vigilant cleaning. A more worrying consideration though might be: what is the point of having a timer with 0.1s resolution if 0.3s of ground coffee can just randomly jump out of the portafilter? This limited me to dosing in the 14g-17g region, despite often dosing up to 20g using my Macap M4, because grinding beyond that range sent too much debris over the edge of the portafilter.
Despite these annoyances I was still getting shots that looked and tasted great. I started thinking that this was just another espresso grinder masquerading as a filter grinder. Somewhat alarming though was the presence of chunks of beans being really evident on the surface of the spent espresso pucks. Relatively speaking the puck seemed to be mostly normal espresso grind size, but scattered in their midst were these big obvious, out of place pieces. This has been reported by at least one other source separately.
This discrepancy, seemed a little out of place with the observed quality of the shots, which were the equal at the very least of those of the Macap M4. It also did not seem to create any big channeling issues.Nonetheless, it is a worrying observations and what I can say, though, is that the claim for a very narrow grind size distribution, at least on my unit (and reported elsewhere), based on this and on the fines in the grind bin at the coarse end, seems not to have been met.
The portaholder, while a clever idea, does not work in its current guise. Using standard enough E61 portafilters, and a bottomless E61 portafilter, I found that none of these were held flat by the portaholder. In all cases the gap between the top clip and the bottom fork was too large, even at its narrowest setting. This resulted in the portafilters sloping towards the user. Once grinding begun the portafilters would often slip completely from their position.
I am left extremely disappointed by my observations. For starters, in terms of grind consistency, the Vario certainly appears not to be a viable home alternative to a cupping / bag grinder. I wouldn’t rate the grind consistency as any better for filter/press purpose than any other home grinder I recall using. The grind range seems that if it was calibrated correctly it might just be wide enough to accommodate all desired grinds, but why not make it have a wider range than necessary at the coarse end just in case? The repeatability of returning to dialed-in settings also seems imprecise, not wildly so, it may return you to one adjustment away from where you want to be, but nonetheless, it’s not meeting the hype. I would really like to see the adjustment cams really slot into each detent, so you are sure when the slider is at certain position you really know you are where you ought to be. The hopper design, makes removing the hopper a chore, and changing beans a pain. I would really have like to have seen a trap door on the bottom of the hopper, it seems especially relevant to this grinder that claims to be able to switch readily from espresso to filter.
In terms of what the Vario does well, the espresso shots, despite the distribution issues, and despite the apparent presence of shards of bean, were by and large excellent. In a face-off using the same beans, dose, shot brew time and volume, with the Macap M4, there was little to choose between the two (in the cup). In fact, I often thought the shots produced by the Vario grinds were superior. Grind speed was also 1.5 to 2 times quicker than the Macap M4. Grind retention is stellar. It’s a big bugbear of mine with so many grinders, and it’s great to see an implementation that addresses it so well. The usability of the electronic interface is actually pretty-good also, programming new grind times, setting them to the preset buttons is all intuitive and straightforward.
Putting aside the hype, and the performance claims, we’re left with a pretty decent home grinder. It definitely has quirks and flaws, but if you 100% only want one grinder in your home to do espresso and french press / filter, you could do a lot worse. As an espresso-only grinder, for me personally, the distribution issues are a “feature” I do not wish to become part of my routine again. For that reason I will stick with the M4, whose doser demolishes its clumps prior to entering the filter basket. If you intend to use it as a filter-only grinder, I have seen nothing to suggest it is any better than grinders one-third of its price (eg Solis 166 / Starbucks Barista / Bodum Antigua), nor is it any worse. For doing both espresso and filter, yeah, not bad.
I would comment that there seems to be a lot of variance in reported calibration of the burrs. Some users have claimed it will barely do fine enough for espresso, while others like me have observed ample fineness for espresso, but are left wanting at the coarse end. Perhaps it might be wise to hold off to see if these issues are resolved with future production runs.
Overall, I applaud Baratza / Mahlkonig for their bravery and originality, and for what they got right. In this incarnation though the Vario fails to meet expectations on many levels. Perhaps the expectations were too high to begin with.
I’d like to thank Marco for providing the evaluation unit.
Video post to follow…