A high-quality grinder that makes excellent espresso in a compact and attractive package
Positive Product Points
- 230 steps of fine-tuning capability (macro+micro, very easy to use)! - Makes excellent coffee, with consistent grind from espresso to French press - Small footprint; doesn't take up too much space on the counter top (S.O. bonus) - Built-in timer allows walk away convenience and reproducibility - Relatively quiet
Negative Product Points
- None to date
Baratza makes several grinders, with the Vario being their flagship model. It changes how you interact with your grind by utilizing a novel way to adjust fineness -- macro and micro. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, and while innovative for espresso grinders it has been around a very long time for other things (e.g. think microscopes -- course and fine adjustment, etc). You might often want to quickly switch between very different settings, say espresso and french press, but then additionally want more precision (i.e. fine-tuning) after doing so. This interface was done quite well; the different steps are marked by notches and you get the tactile feedback of 'clicking' between them when adjusting either slider.
The people who suggest that grinders are very important to making your espresso are absolutely correct. We upgraded to the Vario from a 2-year old Krups GVX2 (approx $60). While the latter is a burr grinder, these two are worlds apart in terms of the coffee they produce. The number one problem with the GVX2 (on the couple of espresso machines I was trying to use it with -- my Krups Novo 964, and a neighbor's Rancilio Silvia), was that it simply couldn't grind finely enough (it wasn't close). Immediately after setting up the Vario, and even with my old Krups 964, I was getting beautiful crema and appropriate extraction timing (25+ seconds as opposed to < 10-12 s). Espresso was thick and tasty. Interestingly, it is quite easy now to over-grind (read as: too fine) coffee and plug the poor old machine. While OK for French press, the GVX2 just couldn't keep up; and, even French press is far improved by the Vario. So, to clarify, I can't be more explicit here -- grinders matter and are essential components of your espresso machine setup and should be comparably part of the overall budget.
Perhaps a more fair comparison than my old GVX2 would be something like a Rancilio Rocky. Fortunately I had a bit of an opportunity to compare my Vario with my neighbor's doser-less Rocky a little. While we didn't do definitive, double-blinded taste testing, we did sample several espressos over multiple occasions. While the Rocky makes very nice coffee, I prefer the adjustability of the Vario. Also, the built-in timer and being able to walk away while grinding (not that I do, other than when making French press) were nice features. Looks were good for both machines, with perhaps an edge in my preference to the Rocky.
I have to comment on cost: grinder cost was the most considerable mental block for me while learning about how to produce café quality espresso, and about the equipment that helps you do so. The Vario costs considerably MORE than I think most people want to spend on a grinder when new to home espresso...BUT, it costs considerably LESS than most of the higher-end/prosumer grinders, and most experts (far more qualified than I) say it makes coffee on par with some of the best of them. My tastes are not that developed, however, the jump over a Rocky is justifiable in my mind, as I prefer many of the features and the flexibility of easily adjusting, timing, and the smaller volume of wasted coffee (excess grinds, stuck in the burrs) that the Vario has.
After all my research, at ~$400ish I consider the Vario to be a reasonable price, and a relative good buy for a very high quality grinder. I am exceptionally happy with it, and would purchase one again (in fact, I might buy a 2nd some day for the office).
I purchased my Vario from Chris Coffee. Rather than ordering online, I gave them a call to solicit guidance. Being fairly new to quality home espresso (and this being a considerably more expensive grinder than my prior Krups GVX2!), I wanted to chat prior to purchase. The rep was very nice and exceptionally helpful -- we chatted about my requirements and planned use, being primarily espresso but also French press. After 15 minutes of helpful Q&A I ended up placing the order over the phone, and was given a nice little discount on the purchase. This was of course very kind and most appreciated.
I never received an email confirmation of purchase (nor a response when I emailed a day later to inquire if everything went through OK)...but when I called the following day (two days after purchase) I was told that it had indeed shipped out on the date of order and was out for delivery that day! Packaging was EXCELLENT, with the Vario box being packed and shipped inside a larger (tougher) box. I am not a fan of styrofoam peanuts (there were lots!), but they did the job.
I am a bit more accustomed to email feedback at every step (confirmation of purchase, shipped out, tracking info, etc), but all in all, I would be more than happy to buy from Chris again.
Three Month Followup
Well, 3 month followup review time and absolutely no complaints. We have run several different types of beans through the Vario; primarily for espresso, but also for French press. I couldn't be more pleased. I'll try to come up with something to add...
As others have mentioned sometimes you can accidentally bump one of the adjustment arms out of its notch (almost always seems to be the macro arm). If you proceed your grind will be far too course and you'll sit there staring at your espresso machine for a few moments trying to figure out why your shot is blonde and gushing. I've done that a few times, and now have made it a habit to simply check the position before I grind. No problems since incorporating this step into the routine.
A last addition is that I have had the opportunity to use a Baratza Virtuoso a bit to compare. Closing out my initial review I stated I liked it so much I might buy a second for the office. Well, that was partly true -- I stuck to Baratza but decided our demands at work were less stringent and the Virtuoso would fit the bill. My general impression after about a month with the Virtuoso (and knowing the Vario pretty well at this point) is that if you are using a prosumer-grade espresso machine, I definitely would urge you to consider the Vario. For French press, or more typical consumer espresso machines (e.g. pressurized ones, and even maybe up to a Sylvia or Gaggia Classic), I think you would do fine with the Virtuoso. Not saying that you wouldn't appreciate the difference in flexibility, adjustability of grind, and speed..........because I think you would...but price is always a factor and it's a bit of overkill for a more modest setup. Ask me again in another 9 months. =]
One Year Followup
Still very much loving our Vario. It performs for us as it did on day one. The same features that initially attracted us to the Vario -- timer, quick grind adjustability, appearance/size on the counter, and quality (consistency of grind, durability of the grinder itself) -- keep us satisfied with the purchase today. I don't question the machine or have any upgrade ambitions. It simply fits our needs perfectly.
A quick aside on the 3 mo. followup and mention of the Virtuoso. I have since had to contact Baratza about THAT machine a couple of times for minor maintenance and parts... but I have NOT had to do this on the Vario. So, two lessons: 1) we got the quality we paid for in the product at home, and 2) Baratza is great to deal with; parts were quickly provided with no cost to me (not even shipping). I consider both their products and customer service great, and am thus a very happy customer. If I need another grinder some day I will buy from them again.