Review: Baratza Vario – The Best Home Grinder Under $500?

I’ve been living day and day out with my Baratza Vario for about 2 years now, and thought I would take the opportunity to provide my long-term experience with the grinder. To preface my review, my typical use is for a 2 cup pourover in the morning (either with a V60 or a Chemex) and often an espresso in the evening or on weekends (using my La Pavoni Europiccola). Consequently, I’m often changing the grind back and forth between pourover and espresso. This grinder seems to handle the changes well, but not without some minor quirks.

Overview

The Baratza Vario is a high-end home grinder that is targeted at the espresso market (as evidenced by the use of flat burrs but that touts the ability to switch easily between espresso grinds and a coarser setting. The grinder uses a unique two-sided adjustment (macro and micro) to provide 230 unique grind settings. The benefit of the macro and micro adjustment is that you can dial in an espresso shot on the “micro,” and then move the “macro” for a different brew method without compromising your espresso adjustment. In practice, this feature really does come in handy, especially for a “once in a while” espresso shot.

The grinder has a few basic features, the highlight of which is the grind timer, which can be used to dose shots. The three buttons allow you to program three distinct grind times (corresponding with different coffee doses). I tend to pre-weigh my shots, but if you are interested in keeping the hopper full and avoiding the use of a scale, my testing has found that the grind timer is accurate within about 1 gram. Combined with good espresso distribution technique (Weiss, Stockfleth), then I think you could easily achieve dosing repeatability within 0.5 gram. For regular espresso drinkers, this could drastically simplify the morning ritual, and make pulling back-to-back shots much faster.

The grinder footprint is very small relative to the quality, which is great for most home countertops. It’s fairly attractive without being too flashy, especially compared to it’s primary competitor the Baratza Sette. It comes in with both a plastic grind bin and a nice metal portafilter holder, as seen below.

While I won’t go too much into the flat versus conical burr debate, the Vario does feature 54mm flat burrs, which differs from most grinders in this price class. While I can’t say that I have direct experience, the Baratza research has shown that the unimodal distribution that comes from flat burrs can increase espresso extraction yields, which in turn leads to an overall improvement in flavor.

Grind Size

I’ve ground coffee at both the coarsest and the finest settings on the Vario for a comparison of the range of the grinder. For reference, here are the macro settings that I typically use on my brew methods with the Vario. I only adjust the micro for espresso and not for drip.

  • Espresso – 1
  • Single Cup V60 – 5
  • Two Cup V60 – 6
  • Chemex – 8
  • Bonavita Dripper – 7
  • Clever Coffee Dripper – 7
  • French Press – 10

I’ve found the grind range to be absolutely perfect for my daily usage, and can’t imagine a scenario where the 1 through 10 macro settings would not provide enough adjustment.

Reliability Concerns

One of the major issues that I’ve read online about the Vario is reliability concerns with long-term usage. Although I haven’t experienced this, the motor in my previous Baratza Encore failed after approximately 3 years of usage. I did have a minor scare a few months ago, when the Encore stopped turning and made a horrible high pitched whining noise. As it turns out, it was the fact that my burrs were very clogged with fines. Pro tip- always clean your grinder! It’s pretty simple on the Encore by removing the hopper and then twisting the top burr out (see below).

Pros

  • Great grind quality at espresso and all the way to French Press
  • Small footprint
  • Good build quality
  • Fairly quiet operation (quieter than Baratza Encore or Virtuoso)
  • Easily adjustable between espresso and filter

Cons

  • Ground retention – I’ve found that this grinder can retain up to 2g of coffee. I’ve found myself “purging” with 2 grams prior to making espresso (I don’t worry about it for filter) or when performing a cupping. Not a big deal to me, but might be a bigger problem for others.
  • Static in plastic grounds box is fairly high. Not a major concern for me since I brew primarily filter coffee, but could cause some dosing issues for avid espresso fans.
  • Reliability concerns – I haven’t experienced them, but I’ve heard rumors of motor electrical problems.

Overall, I would highly recommend this grinder for those looking for a great “all-around” option. 5 years ago, this was the best grinder under $500 even for espresso, but with the advent of the Baratza Sette 270, that may not be true for espresso only fans.

Please feel free to agree or disagree with anything I’ve said in this review by providing your comments below!

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