Versalab M4 Grinder Review
The M4 is Versalab’s complete update of the original high-end single dosing espresso grinder, the M3. The style of coffee has changed dramatically since the M3 was first introduced in 2005, and as such, the demands of a well performing grinder have also evolved. The M4 thoroughly updates the benchmark design of the original to work beautifully with all coffees of all styles. The M3, and the M4 have interesting histories that I feel help one to understand the why or the methodologies behind the grinders, I would encourage anyone new to the site to visit those reviews for context on where we are today.
This post is very much a follow up to the “Versalab M4 Grinder First Look Review” posted a little over a month ago. That post stated a lot of the facts of what was updated, why, and what the initial resulting improvement were. I hope this post will finalize my findings and add any new observations after over three months of daily, continuous use. I also hope the first part of this post will address, head-on, any speculation, doubt, or gray areas open to interpretation or bias. This review is very positive, and I’m happy to elaborate on just why that is. And in full transparency all around…
In the “First Look Review” I provided context on my relationship with Versalab, and that although I do not receive any compensation for this review or for the sale of any grinders, I did receive compensation for testing and providing feedback and creating a Versalab Grinder Instagram and YouTube accounts with generated content.
I have been thinking a lot about how to really sum up my experience using the M4, and have really been struggling to come up with the words to do it justice. It works beautifully and brilliantly, and perhaps the highest regard I can provide is that I cannot think of anything I would change. If this were a meme, it would be the one that says, “the perfect grinder does not exi….” This is coming from someone that typically feels there is some room for improvement in nearly everything, and although a product may be good, sometimes we will create work arounds or a slight crutch to mitigate any slight shortcomings. The M4 grinder doesn’t have any of those, it just works really, really damn well, and looks fantastic in the process. As a result, this review is somewhat difficult to write, since all of the marketed improvements discussed in the “First Look Review” deliver. And if you’ve been following Versalab over the years, you know marketing isn’t their thing, so stating something as an improvement is more factual than marketing.
You might be thinking, ‘of course, the person with a partnership with Versalab is writing positive reviews about the grinder.’ I could tell you that I promise these are my own thoughts and findings, but I could also tell you that the proof is in my communication with Versalab. When I first received the M3 for review there were daily emails, weekly calls, and tons of back and forth with Versalab with questions, things I felt weren’t right, struggles I might have had with lightly roasted coffees. And working directly with them to do things like pour the dose in very slowly, clean and replace the belt, tricks for dosing, etc., on the M3 are good examples of those “crutches” I mentioned in the last paragraph. The grinder worked well, but I also had to be patient and work in a certain way to ensure it worked well. Those crutches are all gone on the M4, and as such, Versalab and I are talking less than weekly, because I don’t have anything else to report, say, contribute, or question.
I will also admit that the First Look Review always felt a bit marketed, stating each new change, why it was changed, and the net result. But the fact is that the changes were made to address any of those “crutches” or shortcoming, and they have successfully done so, those changes are very real. Even the lid, that I would entertain an argument that while I don’t love it, and that I certainly didn’t like it at first, is extremely versatile, functional, and simply works no matter how you’re using it. From all of my usage and testing, each one of the improvements fully accomplishes what it was set out to do.
Perhaps the biggest change since the First Look Review is the new SSP flat burrs. I didn’t really notice a big difference from the M3’s original flat burrs at that time, but now that they have over six pounds of coffee through them, I do. They really seem to have settled in nicely with very little static, very consistent performance, and I almost feel like the grind quality is better distributed or most consistent. The consistency comes in four main forms:
The shot to shot, day to day consistency is spot on. There are no surprises from day to day, even as a bag of coffee ages, even exceeding what I previously knew of “Titan” level grinder standards. I find myself making less grind setting adjustments when dialing in, between coffees, and throughout a bag (which I don’t seem to need to do anymore), and when I do make a grind change…
Grind fineness changes are more predictable. It’s hard to describe, but it’s more intuitive how much I need to adjust the grind fineness to achieve the results I’m seeking. And, equally important, the shots seem to perform more predictably based on those grind changes. With any grinder, there is never an absolute correlation between grind adjustment and net result, since it can be so dependent on the coffee, dose, etc., but knowing as a barista approximately how much adjustment is needed to get it where you’re trying to go takes knowledge and experience. The adjustments on the M4 with the SSP flat burrs seem to be more intuitive than any other grinder I’ve used, including the M3 and M4 with the original M3 flat burrs. This makes dialing in a coffee more efficient, effective, and easier to do.
Distribution also seems to be improved. I don’t know if I can make sense of why, how, or how to quantify, but I feel that the dose in the basket is more consistent. Especially using the settle while grinding by flicking the portafilter handle a few times, and then simply using vertical taps to settle the dose distribution method and workflow (the workflow shown in the video below (and linked in this bold text)), extractions seem to be more even and consistent when using a naked portafilter. I would occasionally get some dead spots or areas that flowed faster than others using this workflow with the M3, which seemed reasonable since I wasn’t redistributing at all, simply grinding into the basket settling, tamping, and pulling the shot. Keeping the workflow the same seems to result in more even extractions across the bed every time. My best guess is that the dose or grind quality is more consistent such that the consistency in distribution is more uniform. The net result is that I’m getting perfectly even, beautiful naked pours, shot after shot, with very little effort.
Kind of a combination of points 2 and 3, I also find the flow of the shots to be more predictable and consistent across the spectrum. This is judged more by appearance of flow through the course of a shot, which seems to better match the intended shot style. Particularly with shots that targeted faster flow rates, I felt the old burrs would result in flows that could be a bit wild or erratic, whereas targeting the classic 1:2 or shorter in 23-25 seconds produces a nice even, but thicker/faster flow that would be more classically characteristic. Likewise, long superfine grind settings for extended prefinusion and high yields also results in more linear flow and even extractions.
As previously reported, I don’t notice a big difference in flavor or taste since the geometry and design of the flat burrs was intended to be the same. But more consistent performance and more even extractions should play into an overall better tasting shot(s).
The other main area that makes the M4 a real game changer is the ability to fill the funnel with the dose prior to turning the grinder on. Majority of the improvements in the M4 over the M3 are to increase torque and eliminate belt slipping. These improvements go so far that you can now add the dose before starting the motor of the grinder, which in combination with the lid, streamlines the workflow even further to what has to be the simplest, most straight forward workflow of any top tier single dosing grinder. Combine that with the increased consistency in the burrs just described, and you have great shot after shot with very little fuss or extra steps. The more efficient workflow should also further contribute to better tasting coffee since the fresh grounds are able to start brewing faster, minimizing the amount of time the coffee is spent staling otherwise, as discussed in Part 3 of the Versalab M3 Grinder Review - Taste Test.
Simply put, the Versalab M4 grinder is about as close to perfect as I think a grinder can reasonably be, there are no shortcomings. It’s the only single dosing grinder that doesn’t require any additional tools or steps (RDT, funnels, transfer of dose, WDT, grooming, etc.) to pull perfectly even shots with any coffee. It has the ability to be hopper fed through volumetric dosing, fully capable of any commercial environment, even with two different beans. It is extremely well built and aligned with superb manufacturing tolerances. And if high extraction yields are your thing, yeah it’s capable of those too.
The video posted above was using a washed Ethiopian coffee at 17.9 grams in to 55.8 grams out using an 18 gram VST Basket, with a TDS of 7.79%, and an Extraction Yield Percentage of 24.91%! That’s a nearly 25% EY shot that looked and tasted fantastic and can be repeated over and over throughout the bag.
It’s a great time to be a Home Barista, with more (extremely capable) high-end, home friendly equipment available than ever before. And pretty much all of the equipment in this range is excellent, as it should be. But in terms of a complete package, one that can be single dosed, has zero retention, rock solid build quality and finishing detail, the most straight forward workflow, fantastic taste, and easily capable of perfectly extracting all coffees, including the ability to achieve high extraction yield percentages with lightly roasted single origin coffees, the Versalab M4 stands out in my mind as the best overall.
While I have not used all of the other contenders typical of this discussion, I do know the extra steps associated with their workflow, or that they may need an alignment, or that they may not have a home-friendly footprint, or they may be extremely difficult to even buy. And from that standpoint, I don’t think there’s another grinder out there that checks every single box. Large flat burred grinders are certainly today’s preference, and I think that makes the M4, with it’s hybrid DRM burr set even more interesting: the effective grinds path is said to be equivalent of 96 mm flat burrs, and I find it tends to provide a middle ground between the divisive conical vs. flat discussion. Shots tend to retain more of the body and richer mouthfeel commonly associated with conical burred grinders and the clarity and ability to achieve high extraction yields with lightly roasted coffees commonly associated with large flat burred grinders.
I’m not quite sure what else to say than, I’m just not sure it gets any better.
The Versalab M4 Grinder is available for order directly from Versalab for $2,970 USD or $3,165 with portafilter holder as shown. Call or email directly to order. That concludes my official review period with the M4 Grinder. Thanks to Versalab for providing the test unit.