Whole bean coffee stays fresher longer than pre-ground—and it tastes better, too. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need any fancy equipment to good coffee fresh each time you brew. All you need is a way to crush the beans into relatively consistent particles, and a surprising number of common kitchen tools are up to the task.
The reason whole bean coffee stays fresh longer is that the outer surface of the bean protects the inside from the elements. This keeps the flavor and aroma compounds contained and prevents oxidation from ruining the flavor.
When it’s time to brew, though, you want water to get into the bean. Grinding coffee allows those contained flavor compounds to be absorbed by the hot water, resulting in the aromatic, flavorful cup you look forward to in the morning.
The finer the coffee is ground the more surface area is exposed to the water, allowing the oils and acids in the beans to be extracted faster. That’s why shorter brewing methods like espresso use a fine grind, while longer methods like French press call for a coarser grind.
Another important thing to remember is that you don’t want to extract every single compound that’s in a coffee bean. Acids and fats are the first compounds to be extracted. These add sour flavors and body, respectively. The next things to extract are the sugars. Once those are gone, the water will begin to break down the plant fibers of the bean.
You want to stop the extraction process before it reaches the plant fibers. Not only are these extremely bitter, but they’ll also overwhelm the taste of the sugars, fats, and acids, throwing off the balance of the flavor and making it taste one-dimensional. If you’ve ever had coffee with dirty dishwater notes, that’s what over-extraction tastes like.
This is the main reason you don’t want to just grind all your coffee extra-fine and call it a day. A good cup of coffee is all about balance. Matching the grind size to the length and style of brew lets you find the sweet spot, extracting most of the sugars without any of the plant fibers.
We mentioned above that keeping beans whole protects them from oxidation. What does that mean for the everyday coffee drinker? Here are the main benefits to grinding coffee to order:
There’s a reason dedicated coffee drinkers invest in grinders. Automating the process takes all the manual labor out of it, for one thing (grinding beans for a whole pot can take a long time with some of the methods we describe here).
More importantly, though, burr coffee grinders allow you to grind the coffee to a consistent size. If the grounds are different sizes they’ll extract at different rates, and you won’t get the best taste out of the beans.
With that in mind, here are some tips for effectively grinding coffee without a grinder:
#1: Mortar and Pestle
People were drinking coffee long before the invention of electricity. A mortar and pestle is the traditional way to grind coffee and is hands down the best alternative option if you’re looking for a fine, consistent grind.
The longer you go, the finer the grinds will be. Start by grinding in 1-2 second bursts until you get a feel for how long it takes to reach the right consistency.
#2: Pepper Mill
A pepper mill uses the same internal mechanisms as hand-powered coffee grinders. Many even let you control the size of the grind and the particles are more consistent in size. While it won’t grind finely enough for espresso brewing, it’s ideal for manual methods like French press and pour-over.
Some pepper mills struggle to crush entire coffee beans. If you’re finding this to be the case, crush them a bit first using a hammer or rolling pin. These smaller pieces will go through the mill more easily.
If you’re more interested in speed than precision, a blender is a great choice. They use the same basic mechanism as blade-style coffee grinders and have the same disadvantage: the particles you get aren’t very consistent in size. That makes it a better option for brewing methods that use a filter, like drip or cold brew.
#4: Rolling Pin
You can get a surprisingly even consistency crushing coffee beans with a rolling pin. It does take a lot more effort than the methods above, though, and isn’t a practical way to achieve fine grinds. For coarse or medium grinds, though, it’s a good low-tech option.
#5: Meat Tenderizer
This is the slightly more aggressive version of the rolling pin method. Any mallet or hammer will work, too. The larger the crushing surface, the faster you’ll be able to grind the beans. As to grind size, this is a better option for coarse and medium grinds.
That depends on what brewing method you’re using. The right grind size can range from extra-coarse (the size of Kosher salt or sea salt) to extra-fine (powdery like flour).
Each brewing method has an ideal grind size range, and some give you more wiggle room than others. Having said that, though, here’s a general outline of the different grind sizes and which brewing methods they’re best for.
Brewing methods: Cold brew, cowboy coffee
The largest grind size, extra coarse coffee particles are the size of large decorative salt, like Kosher salt and sea salt. This makes it suitable for long immersion brews.
Brewing methods: French press, percolator, AeroPress (immersion method)
A coarse grind is the best option for most immersion brewing methods since it’s small enough to allow full flavor extraction but too large to pass through metal filters.
Brewing methods: AeroPress (immersion method), Chemex
The thicker filter in a Chemex filter makes the slightly larger particles of a medium-coarse grind a good fit to get the right brew time. You can also use it in filtered immersion methods to get a stronger brew.
Brewing methods: Drip (flat-bottom filter), pour-over, Chemex, siphon/vacuum
Medium-ground coffee particles are the size of everyday table salt. This is a good place to start with manual brewing methods like pour-over since it’s right in the middle of the ideal range.
Brewing methods: Drip (cone filter), pour-over, AeroPress
About the size of white sugar, medium-fine particles are ideal for brews that take 2-3 minutes, like pour-over and standard AeroPress brewing.
Brewing methods: Espresso, Moka pot, AeroPress (espresso method)
Once you reach the fine grind level, the coffee will have the consistency of powdered sugar, and it will be difficult to pick out individual particles. This is ideal for getting the thicker texture and strong flavor of espresso.
Brewing method: Turkish
The consistency of baby powder, you’ll often see this setting labeled “Turkish” on grinders since that’s the only brewing method it’s suitable for. This is too fine even for espresso, resulting in over-extracted shots (if one will brew at all).
A grinder is the easiest way to grind coffee beans, but it’s far from the only way. Anything with the ability to crush or grind can do the trick, especially if you’re using flexible brewing methods like drip and French press. We hope you feel inspired to buy whole bean the next time you’re in the store and try out a few of these methods for yourself!
Freshly Ground Coffee – Why It Tastes Best
Why Won’t You Grind My Coffee
Coffee Grind Size for Every Brewing Method
How to Grind Coffee Beans Without a Grinder: 6 Simple Ways (With Your Hands)
How Coffee Extraction Works