We endured many a cheap blade grinder for our best-grade-for-scant-bucks-beans, until seven years ago, when we received a wedding gift certificate for a local (and for us, upscale) kitchenware store. They happened to have the Capresso 551 on sale for $50. At the time, the general public was scarcely aware of the existence or advantages of burr grinders. Selection and availability were limited, especially for low end burr models. The 551 sale was a 1999 bargain, and the gift certificate was just enough to cover the purchase. So we took it home, brewed a pot of coffee, and were exceedingly pleased with the results. It was a case of, "You don't know what you're missing until…”.
Soon after our newly wedded blissful brewings, we were dismayed to discover "starred" crazing along the bottom of the plastic grinds receptacle, apparently from our (gentle!) whacks on the countertop to shake down the wall-clinging fines. (We were apprehensive, but the crazing didn’t progress to cracking, even after years of service.) Shortly after that, it chipped a bit at the top lip (cause unknown -- we washed it by hand and hadn’t yet dropped it), but fortunately not enough to leak dust while grinding. The bloom was off the rose by the time we realized that the 551 “fine” grinding left a bit to be desired for the purpose of whipping up lattes; however, we didn’t have much time to froth and foam on a regular basis, so we forgave it this shortcoming.
It wasn’t much longer before disenchantment set in, when the zombie-approach to the first brew of the day resulted in minor catastrophe: I stupidly forgot to replace the receptacle after wiping it out and loading beans for the morning pot. There IS a spring-button on top of the grinder’s base, and it looks as though the receptacle depresses it when locked into place, perhaps to prevent inadvertent grinding. But no such luck for me: a very loud and showy java dust storm brought me rapidly out of a walking coma. It was nothing that a half-hour of vacuuming and dusting ground-zero couldn't take care of, but still -- talk about rude awakenings!
In spite of its peccadilloes, the grinder did its job faithfully and often… That is, until yesterday. I had tried to dial up a "least-coarse" grinding for a rare mocha treat, and as usual, the wheel wasn't budging without a fight. After much tugging and cursing, it finally moved half an increment. Cleverly thinking that a brief grinding might dislodge any beans hanging up the dial, I pressed the “On” button. I heard a low whine, but no actual grinding noises. Shaking the machine and pressing “On” gave the same results. So I unplugged the beast, pulled out the plastic receptacle, and dumped out the bean container to look for a culprit burr-blocker, in the process scattering beans and brown dust to all points of the compass. After counting to ten, I unscrewed the grinding mechanism (this was the easy part), and was shocked to find a horrifying, oily-brown mat of bean-goo cemented to the bottom plate and lower container sides, damning evidence of long-term owner neglect. I cleaned out the crud, refilled the bean container, and made another attempt to start it up, but only produced more motor groaning. I again dumped out the beans (with the usual messy results), but didn’t see any impactions that would explain the grinder’s complaints. Clearly this called for the delicate art of jamming toothpicks along the grinding mechanism to dislodge some invisible blockage. After much disgraceful pick-probing and numerous attempts to replug-and-play, the grinder still seized and threatened to overheat, at which point my husband commented ominously, “You’re going to burn that thing up!” But soon (about the 23rd trial), I was rewarded with a violent spew of bean chips and dust – all over the kitchen, since I had once again neglected to replace the receptacle. Frantically jabbing the “On” button proved fruitless in stopping the brown mini hailstorm (which only made sense, since the button isn’t intended to power off). Eventually, panic subsided enough that I was able to slide the timer lever to the “off” position. Blessed silence accompanied a gentle rain of coffee dust.
I was almost happy about the mess, having prevailed in fixing the grinder – or so I thought. I vacuumed the ejecta, carefully replaced the receptacle, refilled the bean container, slid the timer lever to “8,” and triumphantly hit the “On” button, only to experience the disconcerting sensation that a perfectly serviceable coffee grinder had been transformed to a chunk of perfectly inert matter, evidently at light speed. There was no clicking, whining, or buzzing, no matter how many times I pushed the button or slid the lever. I debeaned, unscrewed the burr mechanism, vacuumed crevices, reassembled, rebeaned, powered on at various electrical outlets, and finally, opened the lower case to inspect grinder guts (this after my husband expressed several variations of “I told you so”), but to no avail. The lower works didn’t smell or look burned. It’s possible that the upper-electronics portion melted down or disconnected. Hard to say, since I can’t figure out how to access the upper works (and evidently procurement of an online repair manual requires security clearance that I do not possess).
After seven years of heavy use, it was probably our laziness and my ignorance and brute force that killed this respectable (for its price and the level of user-sophistication) burr grinder. Our fortunes have improved enough to shop for a $50 to $100 model (wheee!). Preliminary research indicates that a grinder in this price range will likely have many of the cons of the Capresso 551. It should also have a few more pros, albeit at twice the current price of the 551. In summary, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the 551 to someone whose only alternative is a bladed grinder. With proper care, it should last well beyond the stage when the owner has improved his means and developed an appreciation of all things brewable, at which point he will be ready to move up to a pricier, more refined coffee grinder.