I recently came across a paean to grinding your coffee by hand on Gear Patrol by Tyler Chin. It caught my eye because Chin uses the same manual tool I use every day, a relatively inexpensive ceramic burr grinder from Hario.
Like Chin, I’ve flirted with the idea of buying an electric burr grinder but never moved on one, partly for some of the same reasons Chin puts forward in favor of good ol’ fashioned hand-powered pulverizing.1
For starters, hand grinding elicits a different kind of engagement than an electric grinder does. As Chin writes,
hand grinding my beans brings me closer to the hands that farmed them. I try to buy coffee from roasters that are sustainably and ethically sourcing their beans. Coffee farming is a labor-intensive job, sometimes with minimal profit. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel a connection to the farmers who spend their days making sure the rest of the world stays caffeinated.
Chin may worry this sounds cheesy, but he’s actually getting at something rather profound, something Michael Sacasas discussed in a recent edition of his excellent newsletter The Convivial Society — that is, philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann’s distinction between focal things and devices. Borgmann explains the distinction in greater detail in his 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, but Sacasas offers a good précis.
He starts by explaining what Borgmann means by “devices”:
In Borgmann’s view devices are characterized by how they combine a heightened availability of the commodity they offer with a machinery that is increasingly hidden from view. Basically, they make things easier while simultaneously making them harder to understand. Devices excel at making what they offer “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.”
An electric burr grinder is a device in the Borgmannian sense. It’s easy to use and produces ground coffee quickly, but its operations are at least partially obscured behind plastic.
By contrast, focal things, Sacasas explains, “ask something of you. Borgmann speaks of their having a commanding presence. They don’t easily yield to our desire for ease and convenience. A radio and a musical instrument both produce music, but only one asks something of you in return.” A manual burr grinder, for example, asks you to grind, which, while not too strenuous for most able-bodied people, is an inconvenience, just as it’s usually “easier” to turn on the radio to hear music than it is to play an instrument and make it yourself.
A good way to think about the difference between devices and focal things, Sacasas suggests, is “the ideal device renders us altogether passive while the ideal focal thing renders us wholly engaged.”
But what about the connection Chin feels to the farmers of his coffee? Can a manual burr grinder produce that? Yeah, maybe. As Sacasas writes, quoting Borgmann,
a focal thing … “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” In other words, focal things draw us into a web of practices and relations. Immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world.”
Put differently, to use a focal thing like a manual burr grinder is to feel not only a direct, physical connection to the coffee you’re grinding, but a connection to the web of practices and relations of its production as well. The farmers who grew the coffee handled it, now you’re handling it.
If that weren’t enough, manual grinders also have the virtue of being less obtrusive. As Chin notes, “Electric coffee grinders are much more efficient, but they also take up much more counter space.”
Moreover, grinding coffee by hand makes available time for contemplation, which, if indispensable in the best of times, is doubly so nowadays. As Chin writes:
Hand grinding takes me at most a couple minutes — despite the strain, which makes it feel much longer — but in that time I can think about the day that lies ahead of me. I’m not making big batches of coffee, so the size of the Skerton is perfect for my daily grind. I’ve had my current model for almost two years now, but if it were to break, I wouldn’t hesitate about buying another one.
I feel exactly the same way. I’ve had my little Hario grinder for over a decade now; if it ever broke, I’d get another one.
The other thing that comes to mind here is a list at the end of Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (PDF). First published in the New England Review & Bread Loaf Quarterly and reprinted in Harper’s in 1988, I think I first encountered it in the obscure-but-delightful 1996 collection Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Second Thoughts on the Electronic Revolution.
As its title suggests, the essay is about why Berry isn’t going to switch from writing with pencil and paper to writing on a computer. I’m less interested in Berry’s position on computers per se than I am in the criteria he uses to decide if a new tool is worth adopting. Here’s his list in full:
- The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
- It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
- It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
- It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
- If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
- It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
- It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
- It should come from a small, privately-owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
- It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
I find this list useful for thinking about whether to “upgrade” all sorts of things. Of course, if one were to evaluate an electric burr grinder in light of these criteria as opposed to a manual burr grinder, it would fail most of them. An electric burr grinder is more expensive (#1), bigger (#2), uses more energy (#4), isn’t body powered (#5), and is harder to repair (#6). I’ll concede, however, that it might produce better ground coffee (#3). Still, like Chin, I am going to stick with my manual burr grinder. If nothing else, in addition to all the reasons touched upon above, it has the salubrious effect of limiting my coffee consumption to that which I grind myself. Ne quid nimis.
1. Needless to say, if you’re serious about coffee, you should be grinding your own beans, not buying them pre-ground.