Archive for the ‘Five-star reviews’ Category

Rancilio Rocky Coffee Grinder

Rocky Rancilio Doserless Burr GrinderThe Rancilio Rocky is a solid, well-built grinder for the aspiring home coffee enthusiast that should last, well, about forever.  If you want to pull beautiful, consistent crema-laden shots like the pros, you won’t regret getting a Rocky – although you might need to save up for it.   

My Summary Powerful, well-made semi-professional grinder stars-5
Appeals to Gourmets and home baristas who aspire to achieve the “god shot” in espresso 
Upgrade from Budget burr grinders (Cuisinarts, Capressos, Brevilles, and KitchenAids) or – horrors! – a $20 whirly-gig blade grinder
Price ~$350 on Amazon



Well, I normally would never drop $350 on a coffee grinder…   When I first read about folks dropping hundreds of dollars on fine grinders, I thought it was just another instance of people spending whatever they wanted in pursuit of their expensive hobbies.  But after a couple of years making my cappuccinos at home, I have changed my mind.

imageFor one, you won’t find any coffee geeks out there on the Internet who think that you don’t need a really good grinder to brew great espresso.  The blogs and comments and reviews and books are all remarkably consistent: the ability to produce a specific, uniform grind is essential to brewing the finest espresso caffe.  

The only way you will get the required grind consistency is with tempered, precision-machined “burr grinding” mechanisms.  The sub-$100 (“cheap”) burr grinders either lack the ability to reproduce the required grind, or will wear down much more quickly than their more professional counterparts.

Proper espresso grind

Consistency of the grind is key.

Zassenhaus walnut hand-crank burr coffee grinderIn my experience I have found this to be true.  I started out once upon a time with a whirly-blade grinder (bad!) then moved to series of family heirlooms, Zassenhaus hand-crank burr grinders that are actually still made by distant family on my mother’s side.  (There were pictures of folks like this on the walls of my grandparents’ house.)  While the Zassenhaus grinder did a much better job than the blade grinder, it was still very difficult to get the proper grind.  The Zassenhaus grinders tend to have an adjustable mechanism that has no means of calibration – and which cannot be locked in place.  Too fine a grind would stop the flow of water through the portafilter;  too coarse, and the result was a thin, underextracted, tasteless brew.   Despite all this I did, however, manage to make a lot of really tasty cappuccinos over the years. 

Espresso Coffee - Professional Techniques [Paperback]But the final straw was David Schomer’s book on espresso, “Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques.”  Over two decades ago, Schomer founded Vivace, a world-famous Seattle café.  His book is short, simple, brilliant, almost quintessential:  the work of a passionate technician who writes clearly about the art and science of making beautiful espresso. He focuses on the methodical isolation and perfection of every step in the process, including water temperature, grinding, tamping, dosing, pulling, and diagnosing. 

Schomer convinced me that I had to at least try using a decent grinder. 

Choosing a grinder

I settled on the Rocky after reading overwhelmingly positive reviews and comments on Amazon and a bunch of coffee forums (,, Amazon, and so on).   

I looked at other grinders on the market: see Sweet Maria’s excellent comparison chart.  But in the end, the Rocky was the best choice well under $500 that had no drawbacks.  

The next decision point was whether to get the “dosered” or “doser-less” model.  After a bit of Googling, I found that the doser – a binning mechanism that dispenses measured “doses” of grounds – is more of a pain than it’s worth.   Its intent is to help speed production in high-volume situations, but for home brewing seemed like overkill.  In particular, people tended not to like the higher wastage of coffee and the greater difficulty in cleaning it.

The experience

The stainless steel doserless model was delivered last week, and I found it to be pretty much as expected.  It is a heavy, well-built, solid piece of machinery.   The noise level is acceptable, even for me – and I dislike noise in general.  Certainly it’s a quieter and more pleasing sound than the whine of a whirly-blade grinder.   This Rocky’s sound for me brings back the bustle and clatter of a real coffee shop.   

Rocky's grind setting dialAfter setting it up for the first time, I began to calibrate the grind and try to pull some decent espresso shots using my Gaggia.  I chose some freshly roasted Mexican decaf as calibration fodder.   I first tried to get the grind into the ballpark by eyeballing the fineness of the grind, then adjusting the grind fineness (there’s about 55 individual grind settings). 

What amazed me was that a grind I would think from experience was far too fine actually was not!   I backed the grind off to a setting of around 45 — which felt like it might be appropriate.   I packed it into the portafilter, pulled a shot, and received for my troubles a thin weak watery stream of espresso.  Too coarse!   To make a long story short, I ended up dialing the grind all the way back down to around 10.   What looked like a fine Turkish grind that with my Zassenhaus coffee grinder would have certainly plugged up the portafilter was, with the Rocky, actually the right grind level!   This was the first tangible indication that the Rocky was producing a completely different grind than my hand-grinder.

Rocky Rancilio burrs

The best grinders have sharp, high-quality steel burrs
(Rocky burrs shown)


In the week or so that I have been using the Rocky, I definitely like it and I am very happy with the machine.  I’m still figuring out how to balance the grind fineness against  tamping pressure, but I can clearly see that having a consistent coffee grind is essential to consistently creating fine espresso beverages for myself and my guests.

Pros Cons
Solid build quality Relatively expensive for the home enthusiast
50+ grind levels Cannot easily remove or empty bean hopper
Commercial grade grinder burrs  
Quiet operation (< 70 dB)  

I got it on Amazon for about $350, shipping included.

Links & more…

See the Rocky on video

Campy but professional:  you get to see both the dosered and doserless versions of the Rocky in action.  As you can see at around 3:50, the dosered version is a pain in the rear even for professionals – mirroring the opinions in many blogs, forums, and articles: get the doserless version for home use.


Review: Fenix LD20 LED Flashlight

imageThe Fenix LD20 is a digitally regulated and digitally controlled six-mode LED compact flashlight that runs for up to 70 hours on standard AA batteries.

My Summary Extremely powerful, versatile all-around flashlight! stars-5
Appeals to Outdoorsmen/hikers/bikers, handymen and contractors, or just plain old manly men 
Upgrade from Old anemic MagLites, the cheap 5-LED flashlight you picked up in the checkout lane at Home Depot, or – horrors! – your daddy’s old flashlight
Price ~$50 on Amazon


This is my second Fenix;  when I inexplicably lost my first, a Fenix L2D, I mourned it like few other lost items in the material world.    I held off for a few months – as long as I could – before giving in and buying its successor, the LD20.  

image What’s really cool about this new breed of flashlight is that it uses a relatively newly developed high-power, high-efficiency Cree LED bulb.    This ain’t your daddy’s flashlight.  On high beam it puts out 180 lumens of goodness, making yesterday’s MagLite look like a candle.     It’s like a police searchlight or something.  Whatever it’s like, it gives a whole new meaning to looking for things in the dark.   (I have shown it to a few contractors and plumbers who have come by the house, and they were pretty much blown away.)    

Side note: For those of you wondering how a company like Cree (NASDAQ:CREE) was able to come out of nowhere to such prominence, they actually were pioneers in developing high-efficiency commercial LED lights.  A conventional light bulb puts out about 15 lumens per watt (lm/W), whereas a Cree LED can put out over 130 lm/W — almost ten times as efficient!   Energy inefficiency produces heat, and heat is a natural enemy of most things electrical. This is a major reason for the relatively short lifespan of a household light bulb, as compared to the Cree LED (50,000 hours, which if you had the flashlight on for two hours a day is something absurd like 60 years). 

imageThe build quality of the LD20 is excellent, a black machined aluminum with well fitting parts.   The size is small enough (6.25” x 0.83”) to slip into a jeans pocket;  it comes with a nylon belt holder as well.   It’s wonderfully flexible:  the six modes of operation include low output (9 lumens for an incredible 71 hours), turbo mode (180 lumens for two hours), and even SOS and strobe modes.   It runs on two standard AA cells, which is handy.  (I use rechargeable Sanyo Eneloops, which are excellent, high-quality NiMH batteries.)

I use the LD20 for most tasks that require a flashlight – because it’s so small and versatile, it’s easy to throw in a pocket and head on over to the dark place that needs light.   I also own an older StreamLight Twin Task, which is an excellent flashlight in its own right: much larger (uses “D” cells like your daddy’s flashlight), driving an LED/Xenon lamp combination, and made of aircraft-grade aluminum.  But the StreamLight stays in the drawer most of the time, next to the big 4D MagLite and the aging carcasses of a couple pocket MagLites. 


While this is pricey in general for a flashlight at over $50, it’s a versatile all-around tool for the flashlight enthusiast, and worth every penny.   If you’re looking to get into a better class of flashlight than the old MagLites, this is a great choice.  It would certainly make a great gift for any adventurer/handyperson/gadget freak in your life. 

Pros Cons
Incredibly bright beam Relatively expensive
Six levels of light  
Runs on standard AA batteries, extremely long lasting  
Rugged anodized aluminum case  
Small enough to fit in a pocket or carry comfortably on a belt  


Buy it on Amazon:  Fenix LD 20 6 Level High Performance Cree LED Flashlight, Black, 6- Inch, Maximum 180 Lumens



A little dated, but good review & selection…

For the hard-core techies out there… the Cree X-Lamp 7090 datasheet:

Fenix Flashlights on Amazon

A good review from the Gadgeteer: