Walk into the Mahlkoenig factory in Hamburg, Germany, and if you look quickly, it would seem that the poster on the wall is the typical “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster that you can pick up at any kitsch shop. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that the poste
r is a custom design for Mahlkoenig: “Keep Calm and grind flat.”
Despite the hype in the past decade over conical burrs in the coffee industry, Mahlkoenig has stayed true to its founding philosophy of coffee grinder manufacturing, which is based on the use of flat burrs.
Jochen Christoph, CFO of Mahlkoenig’s parent company Hemro Group, says that the company has continued to build upon this sound foundation by further developing their own original design and technology.
While at times working in the shadows of their competitors, Mahlkoenig’s values and work ethics have helped steer the company back to the forefront of the coffee industry, explains Christoph. He says this is evident in the wildly growing demand for their best known coffee grinders, the K30 and EK43.
A look at Mahlkoenig’s history helps explain the progression. The company produced electric motors when it was founded in 1924. It was in the 1960s that the company decided to concentrate solely on the production of coffee grinders. Today, along with Anfim and Ditting, they are an integral part of the Hemro Group. This joint venture of the three principal coffee grinder manufacturers has allowed Mahlkoenig to share access and subtle manufacturing principles with, what were until recently, their major competitors. Christoph says that the partnership with Anfim and Ditting has helped to further the quality, efficiency, and marketing capacities of Mahlkoenig’s production without compromising its basic structure and technology.
GCR Magazine recently visited the Mahlkoenig factory. Stepping into the facility, one cannot escape the sensation of the 90-year-old tradition of Mahlkoenig manufacturing coming to life. It embodies the stereotype of German meticulousness, organisation, and standards of high quality engineering, by both its personnel and the organisation of the work space.
The majority of the grinder parts are manufactured in-house. Most of the materials used continue to be sourced from Europe – something the company has been committed to since its earliest founding.
“While the company was primarily associated with the production of high end shop and industrial grinders, in 2004 Mahlkoenig made a significant impact on the way we approach grinding for espresso by issuing model K30,” explains Christoph. By introducing the on-demand feature to an espresso grinder, Christoph says they challenged the industry to re-think the link between freshness and quality, showing that freshly ground beans are needed to get optimal taste from coffee.
“Mahlkoenig’s radicalisation of how we approach grinding for espresso continues even today,” says Christoph. In 2013 Australia’s Barista Champion Matt Perger opted to use the Mahlkoenig shop grinder EK43, explaining how the technology that goes into the production of the EK43 gives more to coffee than anything that the industry has come to expect from our top espresso grinders. This idea took the coffee world by storm, making EK43 a highly sought-after product. The same year US Barista Champion Pete Licata won the World Barista Championship using Mahlkoenig’s K30 Twin, showing that Mahlkoenig’s basic manufacturing methods, paired with improvements the company has made over the years, can bring about the highest results in espresso grinding.
Mahlkoenig’s major contribution to the industry is breaking down self-imposed limitations (some imposed by coffee professionals and others by grinder manufacturers), explains Christoph.
“That good espresso taste is less a question of a grinder category. It’s all about dedication for the best cup of coffee,” says Christoph. He says that this idea is embodied by the EK43 perhaps more than any other Mahlkoenig grinder. While traditionally used and classified as a shop grinder, the EK43 is efficient in achieving aimed percentages of extractions for filter and espresso. This is why it is now less unusual to see baristas using the EK43.
Christoph credits much of this success on Mahlkoenig’s in-house burr production. As one of the most important steps in grinder production, the shape of the burrs is valuable knowledge that stays within the company. All burrs are manufactured on-site, in a specific facility within the factory. This facility hosts more than 40 different machines; from steel saws and five axis turning centres, to precision grinding machines.
Christoph explains the intricate production process in detail: “Most burrs start as a tool steel bar with a length of up to 5 metres. At that starting point you could never imagine that the final product could be something so precise and sharp as a grinding burr for coffee. Based on decades of experience, Mahlkoenig uses various ferrous alloys, some are even tailor-made for our needs.”
Following a clear workflow, steel bars are cut into slices and pre-tooled, for example, for precise diameter and flatness. The following steps involve the cutting of the teeth into the steel. This is done on modern tooling machines and constantly monitored by experienced staff. To achieve the required abrasiveness and creeping strength, Mahlkoenig applies hardening and annealing technologies to the burrs. Then the semi-finished burrs are sharpened on grinding machines, a process that can take quite a while for burrs made of carbide metal. In the final step Mahlkoenig applies abrasive glass blasting, washing, and labelling of the final burrs.
Mahlkoenig also produces ceramic burrs or cast burrs, and in both cases the process starts with the pre-tooling or the sharpening.
Quality assurance goes hand in hand with the production process. At all critical points burrs are measured and compared against samples using state of the art laser measurements and other optical and mechanical devices.
Along with selecting high quality materials, Mahlkoenig also pays close attention to durability and reliability. The finished grinders are tested for performance and efficiency in coffee shops and coffee production facilities.
For each grinder Mahlkoenig keeps a grinding test protocol with a traceable link. They also test if each Mahlkoenig grinders comply with the required performance. In the case of a K30, for example, this is measured as grinding capacity in a given time. They thereby ensure that every K30 is ready to deliver the requested number of shots per minute.
Building so many different types of grinders requires exquisite organisation. There is clearly a meticulous order in the rows of burrs to be made and grinder body parts waiting to be assembled.
“Mahlkoenig grinder types are designed for a defined application range, determining the selection of components,” explains Christoph. “For instance, motors and burrs vary by power and size for different purposes such as a heavy-duty shop grinder versus espresso grinders.”
He says that customer specifications require a flexible answer to key components of the grinders. Consequently, the company bundles assembly in competence centres. Finally, but importantly, order sizes vary between home, espresso, and shop grinders.
“This also has an impact on the way grinders get assembled,” says Christoph. “The larger the average lot size the more we strive to achieve a constant assembly flow.”
The production of a single grinder happens in several phases. The key steps are pre-assembly, final assembly, testing, packaging, and shipping. Some parts are produced upstream, such as body elements or burrs, due to their lead times. To ensure the highest quality and assembly compliance, EK43 and K30 are produced in different competence centres in their Hamburg factory.
Both of these models have a defined set of assembly steps that require a specific set-up of tools and workspace. Because the production of the burrs happens on-site, grinder assembly and production of burrs occur hand in hand. The final assembly takes more than two hours, not including the testing and packaging.
Although Mahlkoenig is known for its innovative technologies, human hands are essential to the creation of each grinder. All grinders are hand-assembled, and employees have a solid background in craftsmanship and a passion for high quality, says Christoph. Most of the staff have worked with the company for many years, some even for decades, which has created a stable company structure and working environment.
All new staff – including administrators – participate in a mandatory production program during which they assemble grinders by hand. For those in the production line, Mahlkoenig ensures job rotation, so that everyone has the skills to fully assemble shop or espresso grinders.
Mahlkoenig is a privately-owned company, so while exact sales figures aren’t disclosed, their annual output of all grinders numbers several thousand, and they produce over half a million grinding discs each year.
While these numbers may not be the largest in the industry, they are a testament to the high quality and attention to detail that define the company. Mahlkoenig’s ability to maintain excellence and precision from the production line to the espresso bar, in combination with their forward-thinking approach to coffee grinding (and grinder distinction), will surely ensure their position as a leader in the specialty coffee world for years to come.