Ah, coffee. It’s not only a delicious beverage capable of granting temporary superpowers to mere mortals, but also one of the most hotly debated, argued, and contested subjects in the world. And that’s no hyperbole.
Take the brewing method, for example. There are some who swear by their French presses, while others refuse to consume anything that didn’t come out of a proper espresso machine. And don’t even get me started on those AeroPress folks. Pro tip: if you want to see a coffee geek go nuts, just casually mention how you love single-serve coffee pods and, upon seeing their puzzled look, add that they taste a lot better than regular coffee. You’ll probably lose a friend, but it’ll totally have been worth it.
Then there’s the roasting process, which is apparently affected by more variables than Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and the Laws of Thermodynamics combined: What’s the optimal temperature and duration of the roasting process? How light or dark should your roast be? What adjustments should be made to account for different origin beans? How about ambient temperature and humidity? How long should you wait before consuming freshly roasted beans?
For each of those questions and about a billion others, you can find people who swear they’ve found the One True Answer, and developed a thoroughly scientific method to recreate the ideal conditions for optimal coffee brewing. Conversely, you can also find people who like to eyeball things and play it by feel and, astonishingly, they somehow seem to enjoy their coffee just as much. Of course, these latter ones drive the former ones mad.
To put it mildly, had Walter White decided to roast coffee beans instead, Breaking Bad would have been a much more controversial show, and many people would still be up in arms on the Internet arguing over his technique.
Given how opinionated the community is, there are precious few areas where a consensus seems to have been reached. If there is one line in the sand to separate amateurs from serious coffee enthusiasts, it’s the use of burr grinders vs. the typical blade grinder you can buy at your local Starbucks. Pro tip #2: If you’re serious about your coffee, don’t ever admit to going to Starbucks.
Burr grinders are widely considered superior to other grinding methods, but even here there’s the conical vs. flat burr debate. It’s complicated. Luckily, grinders come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and price points, so chances are your dream grinder already exists. The hard part, then, is to sift through the many options available in order to pick one.
Today we will be taking a look at the Ascaso i-Mini burr grinder, which is a great entry point for those who are ready to step into the deep rabbit hole that is the coffee world. Before we get into the review, though, we need some context.
What makes for a great grinder?
In order to choose a great grinder, we must first select a specific profile of coffee drinker. This review is aimed at someone who is interested in creating the perfect cup of coffee — most likely espresso — and willing to put in the time and effort it takes to dial in every variable that comes into play. If you’re not picky about your coffee and all you’re looking for is a nice grinder you can set on your countertop and forget about, you can stop reading now. Go buy one of the great Baratza grinders we recommend and you’ll be all set.
If you’re ready to take your espresso-brewing abilities to the next level, though, here are some of the features I’d consider a must in a grinder:
Moderate size with a small footprint
Good build quality
High-quality burrs, conical shape preferred
The difference between flat and conical burrs, while worth considering, is not as profound as it may seem. Both types will produce very consistent results suitable for all machine types, and they’ll both last a good long while. I prefer conical burrs because they feed the beans a bit more easily and tend to be a little more forgiving when it comes to both the quality of the beans and the adjustment setting you use — all of which makes them better suited for beginners. Burr size also plays a part here, and arguably an even more important one. A good rule of thumb is: when the burrs are roughly the same size, go for conical, but larger flat burrs beat smaller conical ones.
The doser feature, while nice to have, is only important if you like to grind your beans immediately before consumption, or if you prefer brewing methods that require a precise amount of coffee, like espresso. In these cases, the ability to grind a consistent amount every time is very convenient.
The last one is important when considering a purchase. While there are very good stepped burr grinders in the market — like the aforementioned Baratza Encore and Vituoso that we love here at Tools & Toys — many commercial-grade grinders are stepless. The reason for that is they allow for much more precise fine-tuning when it comes to finding the perfect setting for your particular beans and your particular machine. They also make it a lot easier to account for changes in ambient humidity and temperature, as well as the age of your beans.
Stepless grinders are not without their shortcomings, though, and the main one is versatility. If different people in your household have different brewing preferences, or if you like to switch your brewing method throughout the day — say, a French press in the morning and an espresso in the afternoon — then consistently re-adjusting the settings for each method may be a challenge. In this case, a stepped grinder would offer greater convenience. But, if you’re loyal to your brewing method, stepless is definitely the way to go.
Now that we have a rough idea of what we’re looking for, let’s see how well the Ascaso i-Mini grinder stacks up.
The Ascaso i-Mini grinder
The problem with the feature set I outlined above is that most of those are found exclusively in high-end, commercial-grade grinders easily costing many hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, the Ascaso i-Mini does a rather fantastic job of bringing those features down to a reasonable price point and, while it probably won’t be the last grinder you’ll ever buy, it is a wonderful starting point.
Here are the i-Mini’s main features:
Commercial-grade steel burrs (38mm conical or 54mm flat, depending on model)
Doserless, with a twist (some models feature built-in electronic timers)
Small size and footprint, low height
Solid polished aluminum construction or, alternatively, hardened ABS plastic.
As you can see, the i-Mini covers nearly all of our bases, and best of all, it does it while keeping the price well under $300. For comparison’s sake, similarly featured grinders often cost over twice as much, which definitely makes the i-Mini one of the best values in the market.
Ascaso makes several models under the i-Mini brand, and there are several important differences between them.
The body of the i-Mini comes in either aluminum or ABS plastic, as reviewed here. While the aluminum one is definitely nicer, the hardened plastic used here is pretty durable in its own right. Both models come in black, red or white, with a choice of shiny or textured finish. Additionally, there is a silver polished aluminum version.
Cosmetic differences aside, there are also several important differences under the hood. All i-Mini models can be equipped with either the i1 motor group (54mm flat burrs, 700 rpm) or the i2 (38mm conical burrs, 1200 rpm). The i1 models can grind faster and are less noisy, but they also consume more power. I chose the i2 because of my preference for conical blades in a starter grinder, as stated above.
Finally, some i-Mini models come with a built-in timer that allows you to program the exact amount of coffee you want to grind. You can identify these models by the timer knob in the lower right part of the body, opposite the power switch.
All i-Mini grinders are the same size and roughly the same weight. At only 12.2 inches (31.1 cm) tall, this is one of the smallest serious grinders available, and it will fit under most kitchen cabinets with ease.
The remainder of this review will focus on the black ABS plastic i2 model with built-in timer, but most of what is discussed here applies to the other models as well.
Build quality and design
Regardless of which model you get, the i-Mini is very well built. The body feels solid and durable, and the switches, buttons, and knobs are all of very high quality. More importantly, the heavy-duty, commercial-grade burrs used in all i-Mini models will last for a really long time, while providing superb grinding consistency.
The i-Mini features two guiding rods below the exit chute that betray its purpose as a grinder designed with espresso drinkers in mind. These guides allow the portafilter of your espresso machine to rest comfortably and collect the grounds from the chute without any issues. This small detail makes the i-Mini a bit more convenient to use, although it does take away some versatility because using it with larger containers is a bit uncomfortable.
If anything, the only part where I’d knock the i-Mini’s build quality slightly down is the bean hopper, ironically dubbed “unbreakable” by Ascaso. Now, I haven’t actually broken mine in over three years of use, but it doesn’t take much to see that Ascaso’s claims are greatly exaggerated here.
As far as controls go, there are subtle differences across models. The particular model I own has a power switch in the lower left side of the body that allows you to turn the grinder on and off. Models without a built-in timer don’t have this switch, however.
The grinding button is the same in all i-Mini models. It’s a pressure sensitive button that activates the grinder when pressed. In models without a timer, simply releasing the button is enough to stop grinding, which allows you to control the amount of coffee on demand. In models with a timer, all you need to do is press the button once and the grinder will operate for the programmed amount of time and then stop automatically on its own.
And speaking of the built-in timer, its control knob is located on the lower right side of the body, opposite the power switch. You can use it to program the grinder to stop after grinding enough coffee for a single shot, a double, or more. However, the main issue with this knob is that the lack of a time scale makes it impossible to do precise adjustments with any kind of consistency, so you’ll have to dial it in by trial and error. I find the minimum setting works well for a single shot of espresso, provided you keep the internals of the grinder clean of any excess grounds.
The fineness adjustment knob — perhaps the most important of all the controls on the i-Mini — is located in the upper right side of the body, next to the base of the bean hopper. There are markings next to it indicating which direction increases the coarseness of the grind and vice versa. The knob itself has a very precise feel and a very long throw, allowing you to fine-tune your settings with ease. And since this is a stepless grinder, there is a virtually infinite number of settings you can use thanks to what Ascaso calls the Micrometric Regulation System (MRS). There are no memory locking points to store and recall frequently used settings, though.
As far as grinding range goes, the i-Mini is capable of grinding fine enough for Turkish coffee, and coarse enough for a French press, without any issues whatsoever. Consistency is excellent throughout the range, so you’ll be able to enjoy your preferred brewing method regardless of the required fineness. That being said, the grinder is aimed primarily at the espresso drinker, and in fact it comes pre-adjusted for Ascaso’s own espresso machines from factory.
The i-Mini is also easy to take apart for cleaning and maintenance. You can do this yourself at home, which could reduce the cost of ownership in the long term. Moreover, the modular design makes it easy to replace individual components should any of them fail at some point down the road.
Overall, the Ascaso i-Mini grinder features excellent build quality without being overly flashy. All the necessary features are there, and there are no superfluous controls to complicate the experience. It’s a really solid grinder that can do everything higher end models do, at a much more accessible price point. What’s not to love?
I’ve already touched on most of these above, but here are some of the issues I’ve come across in the three years I’ve been using the i-Mini:
- The bean hopper, though dubbed “unbreakable” by Ascaso, is nothing of the sort. It doesn’t feel weak by any means, but it’s definitely the most breakable part of the whole package. It also has a slight tendency to creep upwards after prolonged use. This happens because the hopper doesn’t lock into place and instead merely uses pressure and weight to remain in position. I’ve never had it come off myself, but there were a couple close calls here and there. This is not a huge deal, but it is worth keeping an eye out for.
- The electronic timer lacks a scale, making it about as precise as a sundial on a cloudy day, and just as useful. In the end, your only hope is to dial in your desired amount by trial and error. Definitely not optimal.
- The delivery chute retains quite a bit of grounds, which can then drop all over your countertop as soon as you touch or even breathe near the grinder. If this bothers you, place the grinder inside a larger container to collect the excess grounds.
And speaking of excess grounds, they also have the unfortunate side effect of making the electronic timer harder to use. You program it for a given amount, only to get a few extra grams dropped on your portafilter at the last second. It’s frustrating.
Finally — and this will be a deal breaker for many — due to the lack of memory locking points to recall frequently used settings, the i-Mini is hopeless when it comes to frequently alternating between different brewing methods or beans. This is a grinder designed for consistency and aimed particularly at the espresso drinker — hence the design of the portafilter guides, for example. That said, you can still make great use of the i-Mini for other brewing methods thanks to its wide coarseness range, provided you stick to one. If versatility is what you’re after, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
Value and alternatives
At $216-$304 depending on the model you choose, the i-Mini is an excellent value, especially when pitted against other similarly featured models in the market. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s the only choice worth considering, so here are a few other excellent grinders I can recommend without hesitation:
- The Baratza Encore ($129) and Virtuoso. These two stepped grinders are Tools & Toys favorites for a reason: they are well-built and have great quality burrs that produce incredible results and last a long time. Best of all, they’re even cheaper than the i-Mini. If you like versatility and don’t want to break the bank, these are two fantastic choices.
- The Rancilio Rocky ($355-$365). A very nice stepped grinder with 55 different settings, this is a great choice if you want great quality results without giving up the convenience of a stepped grinder. Slightly more expensive than the i-Mini, the Rocky is a classic, and it comes in both doser and doserless versions. On the minus side, some people have reported that it doesn’t quite go coarse enough for a proper French press or fine enough for Turkish coffee — but this is probably just nitpicking.
- The Mazzer Mini ($525-$1,000). Another legendary grinder, the Mini is the most popular home grinder in the world among coffee enthusiasts, and with good reason. This stepless grinder is an absolute beast and in fact, many cafes and bars use it as a secondary grinder for decaf, where a lower output volume is typically required. With an incredibly solid metal body, this thing will last you a lifetime with proper maintenance, and the results it puts out are up there with much more expensive commercial-grade machines. The traditional doser model is roughly double the price of the Ascaso at $525, and unfortunately its large doser makes it poorly suited for basic home use. It also comes in a doserless configuration with an electronic timer, but that one costs almost $1,000 and is quite a bit bigger than the Ascaso. It’s definitely a hard pill to swallow but if you have the space and can spare the money, this is as good as it gets.
The Ascaso i-Mini is perhaps one of the most overlooked grinders available today. It’s small and simple, and it doesn’t have a powerful marketing campaign behind to drive sales. Its unassuming looks and average price also put it in an awkward position in the market — it’s a bit too expensive for most casual users, while being too cheap to be taken seriously by the “big boys”.
This is unfortunate. The i-Mini is a tremendous grinder that punches well above its weight, and once you take a long hard look at its rivals, it becomes increasingly clear what an incredible value it really is.
I started off this review by saying that coffee enthusiasts are a rather unique breed of people. A common trend among many of them is that, in their quest for the perfect cup, only the absolute best equipment will do. As a result, many of them won’t ever look past the Mazzer Mini. In many ways, this form of misguided elitism is no different from what we see in the photography world, or the high-fidelity music community.
Such extreme views are not only foolish, but they ultimately go against the interest of the people who abide by them. If you love coffee and want to work your way up to the perfect cup, starting off with a $1,000 grinder is hardly a necessity. There’s nothing wrong with buying super high-end equipment if you’re committed to the journey and you can spare the money, but don’t ever trick yourself into believing you need it to get great results.
The Ascaso i-Mini is a great example of a sensible design and pricing philosophy: it delivers where it counts while sparing any superfluous stuff. It has its fair share of problems, but at the end of the day it remains a wonderful grinder, and one I can heartily recommend.