Like a beer
snob connoisseur on holiday, disheartened after rolling into a promising bar to discover the place only slings ice-cold Bud Light and Heineken, those of us who appreciate our daily coffee commiserate. Finding a good cup on the road can be a serious challenge when you consider diner sludge and Dunkin’ Donuts the caffeine equivalent of bland, mass-produced beer. It’s even worse for those who enjoy camping, and don’t consider RVs and cowboy coffee charming.
The good news is that it’s not that hard, not that expensive, and doesn’t require heavy equipment to make your own brew on the road, but it does require some prior planning. With summer travel about to hit its peak, here’s a primer to get you started for your next trip, whether you’re headed to the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley.
The most important item to pack is fresh beans, preferably roasted within the last two weeks, or sealed with nitrogen flushing, which can extend a roast’s lifespan for months until opened. Without that, don’t bother reading on.
Next, measure your beans and divide them into little packets, each the equivalent of a cup, before your trip. Since I recommend the Aeropress brewing method (see below), approximate fourteen to fifteen grams (about half an ounce) for each packet, using a scale to ensure accuracy. Pack the following three items (four if you’re outdoors), download one app, and you’re ready for at least a week:
1. Coffee Mug: Joco Reusable Coffee Cup (12 ounces $24.95)
Reusable mugs may seem like an odd thing to pack, and even more odd when the vessel is not a mug, but a glass, yet the Joco is more than just a great way to enjoy drinking coffee, it’s the best way to stem the incredible waste of the 500 billion paper and Styrofoam single-use cups that fill trash bins and streets worldwide each year. You can, and should, use this cup at home, during your commute, while camping and while traveling. It comes in three sizes, over a dozen colors, and is dishwasher- and microwave-safe. Say goodbye to the #1 Dad mug, your enamel-coated tin camping mug, and those plastic, collapsible, telescoping gimmicks. Save those for the Sanka.
I’ve championed the Joco before, but it’s worth also highlighting the physical features that make it so great: a splash-proof lid; a long thermal sleeve that provides some protection for the glass; the glass itself, which means it won’t interfere with the taste; and the lack of a handle, which makes stowing easier.
2. Manual Coffee Grinder: Porlex Hand Burr Grinder (order the “tall JP-30” for $40 on Amazon)
One of the key factors in getting a fresh cup is to grind the beans right before you brew, so you’ll need a manual grinder. The contraption can double as an icebreaker with fellow campers around the firepit, and only adds about 45 seconds to your prep time. Porlex makes a great device, but the real key to this brand is that it fits inside an Aeropress coffee brewer (more on that below), whereas most of the other brands do not. Get the tall, which holds more coffee beans (44 versus 26 grams — roughly equivalent to grinding two large cups instead of one) and is just three ounces heavier and roughly three inches longer. Like any mechanical equipment, you’ll need to clean it regularly by disassembling and removing the accumulated oils, but you learned that in Boy or Girl Scouts, right?
The Aeropress is the only coffee brewer that combines small size and great brewing potential in a virtually indestructible, lightweight package. Just ditch the instructions — and half the included equipment — and look them up online from your favorite trusted source. There are global competitions based around this device; many competitors suggest inverting the contraption for the best results (and the risk of a scalding and creation of an eight-ounce mess). Plus, it’s easier to clean and makes an arguably better cup of coffee than a French press, and even takes a little less time to brew. Whatever you do, however, don’t use it on the plane.
4. Water Heater for Camping: Jetboil Zip ($79.95 on Jetboil)
Portable camping water boilers can easily exceed $100 and can burn a variety of fuels, but we’re focused on weight and speed as well as cost. This twelve-ounce contraption can boil two cups of water in two minutes. At that rate, expect to be able to pour yourself a cup of coffee in just under three minutes after lighting the Jetboil. The third minute requires waiting for the boiled water to cool to around 200 to 205 degrees, just hot enough to extract flavors, but not so hot that you burn the grounds in the process. The Jetboil is also compatible with many canisters, for those who want to pack it for a flight and buy the fuel after landing.
5. Coffee Shop Review App: Beanhunter (free on Android and iPhone)
As a last resort, if you don’t have the time, space, or inclination to brew your own El Salvadorian honey beans while on the road, download Beanhunter, the free app for iPhone or Android; it’s like Yelp for coffee shops. It’s not comprehensive to every city, but it covers many first- and second-tier locations. Similar to all crowdsourced resources, you’ll have to parse out the morons from the informed, but the ratings do have some variance, and are thus useful. If you simply want to decide where to drink off the numerical score, consider 7.0 and above your approximate specialty coffee threshold. If you don’t get what you wanted, however, blame yourself for not spending the extra five minutes to properly feed that single-origin coffee addiction.