The Voltaire Smart Grinder was a Kickstarter project by Get It Right with a lofty project statement. "Making fresh coffee is as much an art as it is a science. And truly awesome coffee starts with two things: fresh beans and a great grinder. We've taken these two critical elements - fresh beans and consistent grind - and combined them into one amazing machine: Voltaire."
The Voltaire Grinder can be paired with an airtight container (for storage of grounded coffee). Both the grinder and container can become "smart" with the addition of a sensing platform that is design to keep track of how fresh the coffee beans are, and how much there is left in the hopper or past their prime and re-order on your behalf.
So, how did we go?
My partner is a barista, we love our coffee and were in need of a new grinder. So together with another 1283+ backers we took a plunge into the Voltaire Kickstarter / Backerkit pool. While I was at it, I also threw some money at the Airvault container just because.
To recap the campaign, "Voltaire is the world’s first high-performance portable burr grinder. An IoT-connected (Internet of Things) sensing platform and smartphone app allow users to measure bean freshness and receive replenishment alerts or auto-replenish when it’s time for fresh beans. Voltaire’s high-performance LiFePO4 batteries will last through over 3lbs of beans and hold a charge for up to three weeks. This is seriously smart coffee. Voltaire has components and features you’d expect from a barista’s dream setup. It’s what they’d bring home from the coffee shop - and you can even take it on the road."
The campaign ended on 9 August 2016 with a stated delivery goal of March 2017. Full disclosure here, I had missed the original Kickstarter deadline and used Backerkit in March 2017. It arrived a couple of days after my birthday in July 2019. At the time of writing, only the grinder part of the project has been fulfilled.
The post campaign period is best described by long periods of silences from Get It Right, occasional dose of mea culpa and generally setback after setback. Because I used Backerkit vis-a-vis Kickstarter, I was not even getting the snippets of updates that were for backers only. I had to glean bits of information off the comments section on the Kickstarter project page. It was pretty apparent that Get It Right bit off far more than they could chew and was not getting it right at all.
But eventually the Voltaire Smart Grinder turned up at the start of July 2019, where I was more than horrified to find that it was shipped without the need to sign for the package and an expensive, long awaited grinder was just dumped on my doorstep. Lucky for me that I am on good terms with all my posties and couriers, they at least put the rather large package out of sight for me.
Project schedule woes aside, when I unbox to finally lay eyes on the Voltaire, it looked just as stunning in the flesh as the project photos. The Voltaire only comes in a semi-gloss white finish. There were options for a silver or copper highlights for the coarseness setting band and the button. I opted for the copper and it looks amazing. It is a product you want to leave out on the bench in between uses rather than hidden away.
I was really keen to put the Voltaire to good use, but I finished off my last lot of ground coffee and sort out my long dormant coffee subscription. So in the meantime I charged up the battery, washed the catch cup, gaze at it longingly and wait for the big moment.
It is a coffee grinder, with a stepless adjustment collar to control the grind fineness. Whole beans goes into the top, press the button and I expect whole beans to be turned into ground coffee. Creating a great grinder could be rocket science, but using it should be simple, particularly when it is a single purpose device with one button.
I set the adjustment collar to the fine setting which according to the marking on the collar is third from the finest grade available. The collar was pretty stiff to work with but I meant it is less likely to slip during use. To err on the cautious side, I only put in a fistful of beans to see how the grounds will turn out. I pressed the button and the catch cup lights up really prettily with warm coloured LEDs, the grinder starts and I am excited to see my beloved coffee beans get massacred by the conical burr ..... followed by dead silence a split second later. I pressed the button again and the grinder makes a feeble attempt to move. I gave it a few more tries and it was not going to play ball.
The grinder jerked a bit, and as stupid as it sounds it felt like it was jammed by the beans and there was just not enough torque to get going. In desperation I tipped the coffee beans out of the hopper and tried again (and again and again). Eventually it fired up and cleared whatever beans were stuck in the burr. It took 36 minutes for me to get enough grounds to fill about 3/4 of the basket. At the fine setting the grounds were far too coarse for my espresso machine, and in combination of not enough grounds, the extraction was non-existent and the net result was coffee coloured water was dumped into the cup. I accept that it was my first use of the Voltaire and grind settings need to be played with, but having a purpose built coffee grinder choke on a handful of beans and stop working was not comforting.
I broke out the packaging to re-read the minimal amount of text on it in case I was just too coffee deprived to work the Voltaire. I sent through an email to Voltaire support detailing the issues I encountered and detailed my troubleshooting steps. The answer I received was generic and really does not address any of my issues. Nevertheless I followed their suggestions and gave it another go.
As requested I charged the Voltaire up overnight, with the switch in the off position. I press the button once, twist the knob for the timer and I had a repeat of day 1. The Voltaire made a feeble attempt to grind for a split second and stopped. At one point the button stopped responding at all and the unit played dead, and after about 15 tries, it finally got going, with about 5 beans in the hopper. I threw a few more beans in and it took another 15 odd goes to get the grinder to get going. This time when it finished with the beans in the hopper, I quickly tried to throw a few more beans in while the going was good without stopping the grinder. The Voltaire started to ground through these and then promptly stopped a second later.
By this stage I have chewed up another half hour to get barely enough to fill a basket. A couple of tries to process the last of the beans stuck in the burr resulted in acrid smoke from the unit and that is where I called a halt to the proceedings. My beans comes roasted already and I am sure I did not ask for a roaster to come with the grinder.
Sadly when I look on the Kickstarter forum, I am hardly the only person with multitude of issues with the Voltaire Smart Grinder. I sent off another email to Voltaire support along with the video they asked for, and apparently "if you saw or smelled any, that may be from a bit of excess lubricant in the grinder". I was sceptical but hey, the Voltaire has not caught fire yet so we must still be ok?
Let's be honest here, by this point I am pretty peeved and in any other circumstances would have taken it back to the shop for a refund. Voltaire support responded once a day to me, not necessarily addressing my issue yet not necessarily off topic either. The most frustrating part is the absolute inconsistency in whether the Voltaire will fire up and grind my beans or jerk for a split second and die. Miraculously the smoke was not the PCB going crispy and I did get some signs of life.
What was interesting, but never mentioned in any literature that I have read, is when Voltaire support states to me the grinder runs purely on battery power and the power cord does not pass-through power to the grinder. It is also in contradiction to what I observed which was the grinder purportedly out of battery power (or for whatever reason refused to power on), and plugging in the power cord resolved the issue. It is absolutely baffling to me why Voltaire would design the grinder this way - if I run out of juice (both power and java) then I have to wait to charge it up before I can grind more beans? It would warrant a case of murder against the grinder if that is true.
At the end of the third day of grinding, I have managed to collect enough to fill a basket for a coffee. The finest of the grind was getting better, although it was still not quite there. The extraction got better although lacking in crema.
Where do I start? I think the Voltaire Smart Grinder has the dubious distinction of one of the worst products I have had the displeasure of writing about. Let's break it down the problems I encountered.
The hopper is designed to hold about 220g (0.5lb) of beans, in practice I found that anything more than what fills just the burr is enough to be a problem. Look to be honest it could be a compound problem with the weight of the beans pushing at the burr, but it is my experience that I could randomly get it to work with a tiny number of beans in.
The torque of the burr starting flexes the structure. Whether this is enough to cause my grinder to cease up I am not sure.
The flexing of the structure is enough to pop the catch cup underneath from it's locking tab, which is probably enough to trigger the sensor to detect it's absence. That said holding the catch cup in place made no difference.
The coarseness of the grinds is inconsistent, probably because the unit just does not run long enough for me to work with it.
I am doubtful about the airtightness part of the hopper. Half the time when I put it back on it does not seal properly and I have to push it into place.
The "anti-static catch cup" is anything but. There are so many factors in grinding coffee beans that can cause static, a catch all marketing statement is ill-advised at best.
The Voltaire is supposed to be built from ground up as a "smart" grinder, why are we still using DC connector? To make it truly portable why is it not using USB power? I should be able to take just my phone charger which I will need on the road anyway.
I am not convinced about the customer support, I am slightly more amenable to them after a fortnight of back and forth, but the position right now is a little more testing for them and a replacement grinder is on the cards.
When I pitched in monies for a coffee grinder at Kickstarter, I was in the market for a coffee grinder. Instead I grind my teeth waiting for it, and I grind it some more trying to make it work. I waited for 28 months for part shipment of a Kickstarter project, and went up in smoke on my second try at using it. The last batch of grounds at the finest setting is still coarser than what I need. It is better than the first few batches but it really is not good enough to use with my espresso machine. The extraction just does not happen properly due to the coarseness of the grind.
Is it a "barista’s dream setup"? Only if the barista like their dreams go up in smoke. The smart part of the project, the sensing platform, is not ready and the companion app appears to be in beta - for iPhone users only.
The Voltaire Smart Grinder is available for USD$299, and I am so disappointed that I am refusing to provide a link to their shop. If you have money to burn and the time and patience to painstakingly grind 5 beans at a time, by all means Google it for yourself. I'm sorry, Get It Right, by no stretch of imagination did you get this one right. Hopefully GIR will provide a replacement unit and one that will do the job properly. Stay tuned for updates.