The Mahlkonig EK43, Specialty Coffee’s Hot New “It Girl”

pin-up-ek-yellow

There’s no question about it: Mahlkonig’s EK 43 grinder is the “It-Girl” of Summer 2013. The grinder was originally developed for milling spices, but now a passionate cadre of supporters representing the upper echelons of specialty coffee have come out in support of the EK 43 for high-end coffee, and they are extolling its virtues online and via all manner of breathless social media posts. Like Rita Hayworth and Baby Jane Holzer before her, the EK 43 has serious buzz right now. We’ve collected all that buzz right here for you, along with some glamour shots of the EK 43 sunning itself, making old timey phone calls, and twerking.

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The pied piper of EK 43 advocacy is Ben Kaminsky (@jaminsky), a noted specialty coffee consultant who has worked with Barismo, Ritual, La Marzocco, and more recently, with Matt Perger and St. Ali in Melbourne. The EK 43 featured prominently in Mr. Perger’s 2013 World Barista Championship routine (recapped here), and Mr. Kaminsky has since hosted a series of paid talks to share his thoughts and findings on the grinder of the moment. In a post published on his personal blog, perennial Irish Barista Champion and 3FE owner Colin Harmon sums up the EK 43 zeitgeist nicely in this post:

Matt (Perger)…did his whole routine using one coffee grinder, namely the EK 43. He used it not only to pull his espresso shots but also to make filter-style drinks that he called “coffee shots”. This sparked a massive interest in not only the EK 43 but also the extract mojo and everything that goes with it. Regardless of whether you think the EK is a good thing or not (which is entirely up to you, remember) I’ve definitely been happy to see a lot more discussion both here in Dublin and on the World Wide web in general. This is a really good thing for coffee and especially for espresso which to me has been dropped by a lot of folks who feel it can go no further. -Colin Harmon

In particular, Mr. Kaminksy’s recent talks in London have provoked considerable blogatorial discussion. Here’s a few excerpts.

From Workshop Coffee’s blog:

Upon purchasing a Mahlkonig EK43 grinder for our production department in Clerkenwell, all our coffees that we cupped were displaying a greater level of clarity and definition. We began to develop a preference for those bowls with very high extraction yields, none of them showcasing the traits typically associated with over-extraction, even when we were drinking what the SCAA would call over-extracted. Instead, things just got sweeter and fuller. Three of us attended Ben Kaminsky’s recent Brewing Class hoping to better understand what the EK-43 was doing differently. -James Bailey

From Prufrock Coffee’s blog:

We learned what grinder is best for making Coffee Shots and now we won’t stop until we’ve got one. I can tell you as of 10pm on the 8th of August, Coffee Hit has the only one on sale in the country for the next five weeks. The EK-43 by Mahlkonig. We’ve even done a Keep Cup mosaic that spells EK43. Evidence is pointing to the EK43 as having the most modal grind distribution of all grinders. The grinds are all mostly the same size.

All we really knew about fines before Ben Kaminsky came along was that they were cell wall particles and a coffee cell is about 50microns (a micron is 1000th of a mm). We knew all this from Scott Rao’s book. Then the fantastic Matt Perger entered the frey and used a 250 micro sieve to win the 2012 World Brewer’s Cup and we really started thinking about fines.  -Jeremy Challender

As can be expected, unbridled praise is naturally going to create some backlash. And while there’s doubt aplenty on this Home Barista Dot Com message-board post, the most substantive questioning has come from Dale Harris of HasBean.

From Bar1sta, a blog by Dale Harris:

It’s been proposed that the EK43, a grinder designed years ago for the spice milling industry which exhibits improved grind particle size distribution can be the solution for poor (or poorly controlled) extraction for both filter coffee and espresso brewing. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m skipping why improved distribution is desirable. Read Jeremy’s post above–he’s cool and we like his words.

This new application of technology allows (the salesman lowers his voice to a whisper, drawing in the expectant crowd) not just a new paradigm of what good extraction is, but the revolutionary idea of making filter style coffee from an espresso machine.

I have two issues with this:

1. Is it a good solution to the problem?
2. Is the problem really a problem?

-Dale Harris

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The above blog post by Dale Harris was deemed interesting enough to provoke a thorough, near line by line addressing of its major points by no less a source than James Hoffmann, a World Barista Championship and proprietor of prominent London specialty coffee roaster Square Mile. After talking through a number of the claims and questions made by Mr. Harris, Mr. Hoffmann summarizes his view point with class, acuity, and perhaps just a hint of shade.

From JimSeven.com, Mr. Hoffmann’s personal blog:

Some of us are playing with the grinder. It is being used in a way it is not designed to be. We believe there are commercial and qualitative upsides to this. We do not think we have a market ready solution to various problems. We are excited. We believe that we have access to a higher tier of cup quality, with a few caveats and challenges along the way.

If you aren’t ready to suffer through alpha and beta testing: please wait. Doing this without an an understanding of what you’re trying to achieve will decrease your quality and consistency. -James Hoffmann

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Let’s go back to Mr. Harmon’s post, and the scene at 3FE in Dublin. They’ve got the EK 43 cranking behind the bar there, and they’ve put together a whole video on how its been integrated into their bar service. Colin Harmon’s essay on the EK is really interesting and even handed, although it’s fair to say that he’s a believer.

Overall we’ve seen an increase in the quality of the espresso. It is definitely cleaner, sweeter and more aromatic than what we were producing before. We also have less waste, spend little to no time dialing in/redialling and have the ability to have any number of coffees on offer as espresso at any one time.

This brings me to a rather selfish bonus in that we now serve Kenyan and washed Ethiopian coffee as espresso quite regularly where as before it was something I rarely did. The acidity in the more floral/tealike/delicate coffees we have access to often manifested itself as soapiness and sourness once it hit an espresso machine. To me the EK brings a sweetness and clarity to these coffees but mellows out the sourness as the TDS drops.

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But what’s next for Summer’s “It Girl” grinder? Well, she’s been name dropped by more than one new cafe featured in our rolling “Build Outs of Summer” feature series, and there’s EK 43’s in service at US cafes like Box Kite’s pop-up in New York City, Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles, and Heart Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon (to name only a few). We keep hearing rumors about a three picture deal with Sony’s Screen Gems, though it’s just as likely that EK 43 will go the Chloe Sevigny route by sticking to quirky indie flicks and eventually flirting with Oscar.

But could it all be too much for EK 43? The fame, the hype, the endless dialing at the hands of Mr. Kaminsky…is there a starlet in the world who could keep a level head with such pressures? We think it’ll be okay; it’s a modern world we live in, and as Mr. Harmon says presciently in his essay, “This is not an end point, this a step in the right direction.” Still, there’s nothing wrong at all if EK needs to blow off a little steam…

twerking

 Mr. Kaminsky’s next infosession happens September 2nd at Coffee Collective in Copenhagen. Tickets are $200, and have sold out.