I ended Part 2 of the Versalab M3 Grinder Review stating at this level, all of the options are really very good, and differences in personal preferences factor in heavily. Appearance, workflow, ergonomics, etc., all influence which may be best for you, and which suit your personal preferences, but what about taste? Excellent espresso is what this is all about after all, right? Interestingly enough, those workflow preferences may be influencing that outcome as well…
The M3 is a very different grinder due to different priorities or principles it was designed to. The long, more gentle cutting path was designed to preserve the coffee by not heating it up, the single-dose, zero retention concept was designed to always have freshly ground coffee, the fluffy, mounding grounds to promote a quick workflow was designed to preserve the freshly ground coffee, and the preservation of the freshly ground coffee was designed around to make the best tasting espresso. Versalab’s principles behind the M3 are not just trying to achieve zero retention, or consistent grind quality, which it does, but to also start the extraction/brewing as soon after grinding as possible, to preserve and extract as much flavor as possible.
They emphasize this by encouraging you to grind some coffee onto a plate and smell it every 30 seconds for the next few minutes, and take note of the aromatic compounds that the coffee is losing/emitting into the air. And that by taking the time to WDT, groom the basket, etc., is allowing the coffee to go stale and lose flavor. But with as many people and cafes that don’t pull shots this quickly after grinding, using grooming tools, grinding into tumblers, WDT’ing, or even pre-grinding shots, I started to wonder if this made that much of a difference.
I tested this idea a few different ways. First, against my Compak K10 PB, that requires a minute or more additional prep time to sweep the chute and prep the basket. That’s 60-90 seconds of additional time the coffee is sitting after grinding compared to the quicker workflow of the M3. The results, however were somewhat puzzling. Flavor preference was a bit of a draw after 3 rounds on consecutive days, but the shots from the K10 would extract to a higher yield with everything else held consistent.
I then tried the test by simply pulling two shots with the M3, grinding the first shot and allowing it to sit in the basket before tamping and pulling for 1-2 minutes versus an immediately ground, settled, tamped, and pulled shot. By preheating the first cup and not the second, I was able to control temperature drop and have a pretty even playing field, by closing my eyes, mixing up the cups and trying them back and forth in the same cups that were marked to indicate which was which. And with this, I again found the shot that was left to sit out to have an increased flow and produce a higher yield in the same time or a faster shot to the same yield.
And I actually preferred the taste in two of three rounds from the coffee that was left to sit. THEN, it occurred to me on one shot where I tasted clearly under extracted flavors from the shot left to sit: I was preferring the shots left to sit out because I was using a coffee that I felt lacked acidity and brightness or interest, in general, so allowing it to stale and pull faster was favoring those notes by under extracting it. The stale coffee actually tasted better because it was being under extracted. So when you try this with a more balanced and preferred coffee, you do indeed notice a positive difference in the shot quality due to the faster workflow with the M3. That’s one point for the M3, with its inherently faster workflow, by design, allowing more of the coffees aromatic compounds to make it into the cup.
I followed this up with a more balanced espresso blend that emphasizes sweetness, and the results were again clear, that both the shots from the M3 (vs the K10) and the M3 pulled immediately (vs left to sit) were richer, sweeter, and more balanced in extraction. So, the additional one minute or so the ground dose sits before it’s extracted is in fact allowing the coffee to stale or lose some of its flavor in form of aromatic compounds dissipating from the coffee, and detracting from the potential results in the cup. And when you think about it from that standpoint, that’s pretty significant considering every other single dosing grinder requires additional steps to prep the basket, limiting the full flavor potential of the coffee. This improvement is incremental, but at this highest level of grinders that are all excellent, that is a significant differentiating factor.
Versalab M3 vs Kafatek Monolith Flat
I conducted blind testing with the Monolith Flat with the help of two others using two different coffees, and like when I compared the Monolith Flat to the Compak K10 PB, the Monolith Flat shots are always easy for me to pick out by their “thinner” mouthfeel and different profile. I struggle to put it into words, but the all of the Monolith Flat shots I’ve had always have lighter crema, in color and thickness/density, and a thinner or lighter mouthfeel, regardless of actual yield or shot strength. Neither of these are necessarily positive or negative, and the “thinner mouthfeel” should not be translated as “watery”, it’s simple a less thick liquid. The flavor and acidity are also difficult to articulate since shots are not necessarily more acidic, but the profile is distinctly different from the Monolith Flat. The best way I can think to describe is like a slider when adjusting the brightness or exposure of a photo on your phone, and the Monolith Flat operates in the brightest third of the spectrum, and the K10 and Versalab exist more in the center. Shots are not necessarily more acidic but would be represented by lighter or brighter colors on the spectrum.
This remained consistent, and the consensus was that shots were not necessarily better with one grinder over the other, but distinctly different in this regard. The M3 has a more rounded and sweeter flavor, with a thicker more viscous mouthfeel, more associated with thoughts of traditional espresso; more coating and staying in the finish. Ideally, I’d have these two grinders on the bar for an extended period and could see if the large flat burrs of the Monolith provided any additional clarity with other coffees, pulling out more or different flavors than the M3, but I so far have not seen evidence of that.
I’m going to call this one a draw, since both grinders produce excellent shots, but they are different profiles. Again, keeping in mind that at this level, we are comparing very good espresso with very good espresso, so differences are not night and day dramatic, but I can routinely identify those from the Monolith. What’s confusing is that I cannot necessarily choose one grinder over the other, since they were good in different regards, and I really enjoy light and bright coffee with pronounced acidity, so on paper it seems that I would favor the Monolith Flat.
Based on my findings in the ‘Freshness Test’ I would suspect the Monolith Flat suffers from the same staling exposure of the ground dose due to the requisite steps needed to prep the basket, but because the shots have distinctly different profiles, it is difficult to make that determination. It would potentially be interesting to try this against a Monolith Conical, and see if that matches more closely, but even if I backed down the prep time on the M3 similar to that of the Monolith Flat, the profile differences remained distinct.
Versalab M3 vs Mahlkonig K30 Vario
This test was conducted on a single group Slayer, using a more classic profile Northern Italian style blend, since that’s what the hopper of the K30 was loaded with, but the results were somewhat surprising. I was anticipating the K30 to provide distinguishable shots, similar to how the Monolith Flat does, but at least with this coffee, the results were fairly close. I was able to pull shots nearly identical in parameters, using a classic “Slayer” profile of 15 seconds of prebrew, and 27 seconds of pump on at 200*F for 18g in to 36g out. Taste was comparable, but I did give the advantage to the M3, with having a bit more punch and sweetness, likely due to the speed of workflow since the grounds were distributed so neatly, the basket didn’t require any prep. Taste wise, this would again be a draw.
Versalab M3 and Slayer Single Group
Testing 2 additional coffees on the Slayer single group with the M3 proved to be a perfect match of sorts. I was somewhat concerned I may need to fuss with the grind adjustment to accommodate the “slayer style” shots and that there would be so many additional variables with the different extraction approach, but all of that ended up being a non-issue. I left the grinder at the setting I had dialed in for Go Get Em Tiger’s Minor Monuments Blend at home, and pulled 3 shots in a row with “Slayer” profiles, that were delicious and beautifully extracted. I did not have my machine as well to do a direct comparison, but I feel as though this Minor Monuments blend really showed it’s fruit and sweetness the best it could when pulled around 17 seconds prebrew, 25 seconds full pressure at 199*F and 18 grams in to 42 grams out. I also pulled a shot with a more lever like profile ramping back down to restricted flow for the last 5 or so seconds of the shot, and it really rounded out the profile to be very approachable. This blend has been “okay” in general, but really seemed to shine when paired with the M3 and Slayer.
The second coffee used was PT’s Tanzania Mbeya Mwalyego AA purchased from Crema.co, and I had my suspicions this would make for a densely sweet, raisin/prune/date syrup shot and I was not wrong. Brewed cups with this coffee were dense and very syrupy, so I felt that weighty profile would do well as espresso, and using that Slayer profile just made for an extremely sun-dried fruit syrupy shot. I used the same parameters of the classic Slayer profile, and didn’t even adjust the grind setting and was super pleased by the results.
I left feeling like the M3 grinder was made for the Slayer, since everything just worked so smoothly, the shots were fantastic, and they look so damn good on the counter next to each other. After I used this coffee on my machine at home, this same grind setting did not work, so, I know there is some truth to how forgiving the pairing is. The ease of workflow the aesthetic and engineering level at which the Slayer and the M3 complement each other just felt so “right”. Both are slightly different takes on the usual, both are extremely attractive, and both are at the top of their respective game.
Taste Test Conclusion
I apologize to anyone that was looking for the ‘who should buy which grinder’ discussion in this post. I had intended to begin incorporating it, but the taste test notes alone are pretty lengthy, and I want to reiterate, that at this level all of the grinders are extremely good. So, I do think there are other factors beyond taste alone that would make up that decision. Now for the flavor conclusions:
The Compak K10 hangs in there but is edged out by the M3 on flavor. Even though the process of sweeping and using the doser doesn’t necessarily take longer than a Monolith or an HG-1, it feels so antiquated. It’s huge on the counter, loud with the doser, and the sweeping gets old.
The merits of the M3’s workflow are real. With the grinder dosing an evenly distributed, clump-free dose, the workflow is sped up enough to make an appreciable improvement in the cup with richer more amplified flavor. This is not necessarily like watching TV in full HD for the first time, but it was detectable on a repeatable basis, and at this splitting hairs level of options, could be a deciding factor.
The Kafatek Monolith Flat, in my experience, pulls a distinctly different shot. I would love to have one on my counter long term to really wrap my head around how to articulate that, as well as compare it to a Monolith Conical. (If you have a MonCon in Arizona, please get in touch!) This difference is so distinct, that it’s quite difficult to choose one grinder over the other. They were both excellent, but it was like comparing different coffees almost.
The Versalab M3 and the Slayer Single Group are sublime together*. I’m including the asterisks because I only used three coffees, and for one morning so far, but man it felt right.
I hope that is helpful, since I know as someone that has done this research before, it is rare to be able to directly compare some of these options. Please, let me know if you have any questions or comment below. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back for my final thoughts on which to buy.
A special thanks goes out to Bicycle Haus in Old Towne Scottsdale, Arizona for always allowing me to come in geek out on coffee equipment with their amazing gear. Be sure to check them out for any of your cycling needs, or just to check out a great building and grab an espresso.