Jun 13, 2023

Baratza Encore ESP Review: A Grinder for Almost Every Kind of Coffee

Joe Ray

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A big hunk of my work is testing the kitchen products and cookbooks I review. Words don't write themselves, but I live with the gear I review for weeks or months at a time, scribbling away as I incorporate it into my life before I start a rough draft. The weird thing about testing a new coffee grinder from Baratza, one that could purportedly make everything from fine-grind espresso to coarse French press, was that I barely took any notes at all. Typically this means it was fantastic; either that or I was really slacking.

Part of that is pure familiarity. Baratza's new $200 Encore ESP is a souped-up version of the original Encore, the high-performing critical favorite and the grinder I use at home. The two are so similar, my old one fit perfectly into the ESP's packaging. My original Encore is a beloved workhorse, well suited to make grounds for anything from AeroPress to drip to French press. I've had mine for more than 10 years, had an over overhaul done on it a few years ago, and it's still running great. Baratzas are fixable and the company is pleasantly pro-repair.

The key difference between the ESP and the original Encore is that the new one can grind for espresso. (Or should I say ESPresso?) Yes, you can get the original to grind for espresso, but it isn't made to do it. Espresso grinders need the ability to make very tiny grind-size changes to cope with fine-ground coffee's fickle needs—a simple fluctuation in humidity will change the quality of a shot—and the original Encore is not built for that.

The ESP is. Half of the steps in its grind range deal with the coffees most of us commonly brew at home, like AeroPress, pour-over, drip, Chemex, and French press. The new capability is that the other half of that range is for the fine-grind needs of espresso. A company rep told me that for steps zero through 20, each click moves the burr 20 microns vertically, and from steps 21 to 40—what they called the "filter range"—it moves 90 microns.

Home grinders struggle to achieve this all-in-one style, which is a bit of an industry unicorn. Usually, manufacturers focus on the filter range and leave espresso grinding for the coffee shop. The possibility of finding a grinder that does it all at a reasonable price is a coffee nerd's dream.

Joe Ray

Like the original Encore, coarser grinds pour into the ESP's grounds bin, but for espresso, you can grind into a "dosing cup," which fits neatly into a portafilter, the "handle" that holds the puck of grounds in an espresso machine. Since you can't use the ESP to dispense the grounds directly into the portafilter, which you can do with some pro grinders, this is a nice workaround, allowing you to transfer the grounds without making a mess.

For my testing, I borrowed a lovely, sturdy, Diletta Mio espresso machine from the good folks at Seattle Coffee Gear. Not only did the Mio class up my countertop, but using it meant I could treat its consistent performance like a fixed variable in my testing, allowing me to give all my attention to the grinder.

The ESP did great. Dialing in an espresso shot involves trial, error, and experience. Unless you're lucky, every time you use a fresh or new batch of beans, you almost certainly need to adjust the grind, something you might even need to do daily. You pull a shot and make adjustments based on how it came out, working your way to something wonderful to drink. I kept it simple with home testing and stuck to a one-to-two ratio, usually 16 grams of beans to 32 grams of liquid espresso, which I weighed out by placing my cup on top of a scale as the shot poured. To avoid under- or over-extracting your coffee, you want your shot to hit that weight in 24 to 30 seconds.

If there wasn't enough espresso after 30 seconds, I adjusted the ESP to make the grinds for the next shot a little coarser. If it poured too freely, I tightened it up. Having struggled with this using other grinders and machines, I was impressed with the ESP's performance. I rolled through several different roasts: some from Passerine Coffee Roasters, which I picked up at Seattle's Empire Roasters and Records, Fidalgo's Organic Italian roast, Herkimer's Espresso Blend from Columbia City Bakery, and an unlabeled dark roast my dad picked up on a visit to Bainbridge Island, Washington. Using different beans forced me to use the grinder to adapt. These weren't precise shots for espresso perfectionists, but they were great for people like me who want to make espresso at home along with a variety of other coffee styles. I quickly realized that I could potentially be happy with the ESP for mixed use, for years, if not forever.

With that in mind, I took the ESP with me to see some friends at Olympia Coffee Roasting Company's Seattle lab. I wanted to see if they thought that the ESP was as solid as I did at espresso, then try some filter coffees and see if it was capable of doing it all.

We immediately hit speed bumps. First, we realized that the ESP is just as loud as a normal Encore. (We were also looking at another, quieter grinder at the time and the noise really stood out.) Another is that while the ESP has 40 steps between coarse and ultra-fine, those steps don't correspond at all to the settings on the classic Encore, which also has 40; this will be surmountable but confusing for Baratza devotees. Slightly worse, the indicator on the ESP we tested didn't line up neatly above the step numbers.

Baratza Encore ESP Grinder

Rating: 9/10

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"I don't know if I'm on step 15," said Olympia co-owner Sam Schroeder, who was twisting the hopper to adjust grind size. "That's really sloppy."

Things got better after that though. Sam manned the grinder and Olympia's retail trainer, Reyna Callejo, ran the espresso machine while I sat back and watched the experts work. Each time, the duo used 18 grams of Big Truck blend, working their way to 36 grams of espresso. Grind size 15 was too coarse, and 12 and 8 were, too. Six was too fine, and 7, as Reyna declared, "tastes like Big Truck!"

In Olympia barista parlance, that meant it was right where it should be.

Sam was still a little hung up on the off-center numbering, but that one dialing-in session told him a lot. "I don't like the way the numbers don't line up, but do I love the fine adjustment."

We all appreciated the taste of the coffee and enjoyed the body, too, something conical burrs like those in the ESP can often do better at than their flat-burr competition. Flat-burr grinders are typically good at grind-size consistency, but the coffee they make can be a bit more one-note; it's complicated, but in the end, it's usually a matter of personal preference.

"There's more variability in the ESP's grind size, but that's not necessarily bad," said Reyna.

Heading out for an appointment, Sam gave the ESP his blessing, calling it "pretty impressive for a $200 grinder."

Reyna took it from there as we explored the coarse-grind capabilities. She started making pour-over in a Kalita Wave, one batch based on grind size 28, one on 25, lauding its grind speed as she went. On grind size 20, she pronounced that this would be the one, and it turned out to make a damn fine cup.

Next we tightened the grind back up a bit to try Reyna's current favorite brewing method, putting a Chemex filter into an Origami dripper, creating what was essentially a hybrid between classic Chemex and pour-over coffee. On grind size 30, it ground through the beans at what she called "turbo speed," revealing a slightly varied consistency in the grind.

"Boulders!" she declared, "Look at all of them."

Relatively large grounds rose to the top of the bed after she poured the water in, and Reyna said next time she'd try a finer grind. We agreed that what she made was already quite good, with a pleasant texture, and it would be easy to finesse our way to an even better cup.

"Variance in grind size is a personal preference," she said, taking on the somewhat controversial issue of grind consistency, "Some is desirable, none is too one-note, but a lot can be a lot for some people."

From there, we went to the far end of the grind size capabilities, exploring what fans of French press and cold brew had to look forward to. To start, she poured a tablespoon of grounds onto the countertop, where we noted a fair amount of variability in grind size.

"This could give you a more sludgy French press," she said, with what may have been a note of disappointment in her voice, "but it's also a more forgiving method."

We had come far enough in the testing that I asked Reyna if we had a true all-rounder, a grinder that could do everything from espresso fine-grind to French-press coarse.

"Almost! You're not gonna have a good time grinding really coarse."

Oh man, we were so close.

Back at home, I saw what she meant; it made for good but sludgier French press than I'm used to. As a regular French-press drinker, I don't mind a bit of sludge, but wasn't sure if I'd want this much from here on out. Still, I found this machine impressive.

Overall, I hadn't taken many notes on the machine because it was so impressively capable at grinding for a near-full spectrum of coffee types. If I was a regular home coffee maker who wanted to make espresso—and also liked the simplicity of drip, the meditation of pour-over, and the coarser grind of Chemex—it might not be coffee-shop perfect. But as Reyna reminded me, "It does espresso. That's a lot."

Baratza Encore ESP Grinder

Rating: 9/10

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