I have spent hundreds, nay thousands of euros on coffee equipment. I did not start that way, however. My earliest coffee equipment purchases now seem trivial, but then as someone merely dipping their toe into something unknown, they seemed like sizable investments. It can be hard to get that epiphany, “I get it” coffee moment without the ability to grind to order. In a way the availability (or lack thereof) of a competent low priced grinder is a rate limiting step in the appreciation of speciality coffee, and the growing of that audience.
Marco, who have recently become the agent for Baratza’s line of home grinders (minus the Vario), asked me to take a look at the Maestro, Maestro Plus and Virtuoso grinders. These grinders, seemingly around for eternity stateside, have never fully appeared over here, in civilization. Sometimes certain models have appeared under the Swiss brand Solis – and I think the Starbuck’s Barista grinder is an ancestor of one of the current models.
I first evaluated all three grinders for filter brewing, then for espresso. Cup quality was really my primary interest, but also observations regarding usability and build quality were made.
After I had dialed in all three grinders to produce identical cups (in terms of strength and extraction), I noted a few things. Firstly, the numerical scales on all three grinders seem to have been calibrated quite uniformly. I found notch 18 on both the Maestro and Maestro+ got me to 19% extraction, while setting 20 was required on the Virtuoso. This I like, it feels reassuring in terms of quality control, but also perhaps if consistent in the broader sense of production runs, may prove useful in terms of giving people starting points for particular brews.
The Maestro and Maestro+, which share a burr set distinct from that of the Virtuoso, produced a cup that was head and shoulders above any other domestic grinder I have ever used. So much so, that I felt it necessary to cup them against my Tanzania. While they did not meet it’s standards in terms of clarity and separation of flavour, their cups were relatively untouched by the malignant hand of bitterness resulting from excessive fines. No such luck with the Virtuoso. It’s cup was closer to what I would expect from a home grinder.
Tables were turned when it came to the espresso section. At one step above burrs touching on the Maestro and Maestro+ I was unable to produce an acceptable espresso. The grinds produced insufficient resistance and the brew water gushed through. The Virtuoso, on the other hand had no such difficulties. The espresso produced seemed perfectly acceptable, rounded. Fine.
In terms of build quality the Maestro is very much the poor cousin. Just pick them up, it lacks the heft and solidity of the other two. This also translates into a somewhat worrying hopper wobble during grinding (although I can’t say it affected the cup). It also lacks the front mounted button for activating grinding. Surprisingly I did prefer this on the other two grinders, not because it did anything particularly amazing, but instead because the side switches were near uniformly cack (that’s a technical term). I don’t like analog timers, I cannot turn them the same amount each time with any accuracy, especially as the burrs start turning before you even release the switch (ie as soon as you start turning it). I don’t really get the point of them. I’d much prefer a simple on/off button.
Grind retention seemed very low (0.5g perhaps) across the board.
While I don’t have grind distribution profiles for the grinders, all signs point to one burrset (Maestro and Maestro+) that produces a unimodal (one peak) distribution, and a second (Virtuoso) that produces a bimodal (two peak) distribution. Interestingly from the Baratza specs the Maestro and Maestro+ burrs are claimed to be German manufactured while the Virtuoso is Italian. You could perhaps draw a conclusion about traditional coffee drinking habits in those two countries and what they may have been trying to achieve in terms of burr manufacture (Baratza don’t have any role in the making of these burrs – they are “off the shelf” parts).
I would have no qualms recommending the Maestro or Maestro+. It will be my go-to recommendation for those looking to get on the better coffee bandwagon (that and a list of urls to Europe’s best roasters). If you are looking for something to also use for espresso, then forget the Maestro and plus. The Virtuoso would be a reasonable choice for that task, but that is a much more crowded sector. Though, at €150 cheaper than the Mahlkonig Vario, it might very well prove quite popular.
The first units have just gone on sale through Coffee Angel (in very limited numbers). It is my understanding that another small number will pop up also through HasBean. Initial numbers will be low, but expect supply lines through these sellers and others to fill up by summer.