How to Brew Great Coffee on the Road
If you travel often, be it for work or pleasure, chances are that at some point on the road, you’ve stared down at a cup of bitter, silty hotel coffee (which probably tastes suspiciously like instant) and thought to yourself, “There’s got to be a better way.”
The good news is, there is, and it’s not just hunting down the nearest chain shop for something coffee-flavoured without any metallic aftertaste. These days the coffee enthusiast has a range of options at her/his disposal for brewing fresh, delicious coffee on the road, whether that's hotel-hopping, bundu-bashing or backpacking from cheap hostel to cheap hostel.
Here’s what you’ll need to brew the best cup of coffee you can while travelling.
If you’re only just getting into the world of specialty coffee, you may not have heard this yet, but it's important: you need a scale. Why? So you can weigh your ingredients (i.e. coffee and water). Again, why? Simply put, one of the most important contributors to the overall taste and quality of your brew is your ratio of coffee to water. Fine-tuning this is crucial to finding your perfect cup, but to do this you need to know your numbers so you can repeat and adjust your ratios as you like, consistently.
The only real tool for this is a scale. Eye-balling it and relying on spoons or the various scoops that come with some bags of pre-ground coffee and other paraphernalia will only get you so far, and leave a lot of room for ambiguity. Any small kitchen scale is generally sufficient, and most will fit fairly easily in your luggage.
That said, there is a range of great scales specifically designed for brewing coffee. This usually means they can weigh in 0.1g increments (most kitchen scales only measure in 1g increments which still leaves some room for error), and that they have a built-in timer. In addition to the coffee-water ratio, brew time is the other important numeric variable affecting your brew, but you could always do this with a phone or watch.
You need water to brew coffee, and, save for specific brewing circumstances, you generally need that water to be hot. To that end, you’ll need a kettle.
If you’re hotel-hopping at nice enough places, you may find an electric kettle of some description right in your room. This works well for a number of brewing methods, but if you’re brewing by campfire, need a more precise pour, or would rather not risk that your hotel doesn’t provide you with one, you’ll want your own kettle.
For this, we recommend Hario’s V60 Buono Drip Kettle. For travel, we specifically recommend the 1L model. It’s fairly compact as far as kettles go, and with its precise goose-neck spout, it’s perfectly suited to just about any brewing instrument. It’s also sturdy enough that you can use it right over an open fire if you’re camping. We’d usually recommend the larger 1.2L model if your suitcase can afford its additional bulk, but either will work perfectly once you’re ready and brewing.
It’s a simple truth that anyone with even a passing interest in improving their brew needs to acknowledge sooner or later: freshly ground coffee is simply better than pre-ground coffee (like you might find at a hotel). It tastes better, it smells better, and not by a small margin either. If you want a truly delicious cup of coffee, you want to grind your beans just before you brew. To do that, you need a grinder (burr, not blade), and if you’re travelling, you want something that will easily fit into your suitcase, hiking pack, or duffel bag: in a word (or two), a hand grinder.
You’d have a hard time finding a hand grinder that you can’t just toss into your suitcase, and an almost impossible time finding one that uses blades instead of burrs (Here’s why that’s important, plus more on grinders generally). For those not looking to break the bank, we recommend the Hario Mini-Slim Plus. Pint-sized and durable, its only significant downside is its capacity: it can only grind around 24g of coffee at a time, which is really only enough for one person. This sort of limit is pretty common for hand grinders; it’s the price you pay for portability. Naturally, you can get around this by just emptying your grinder out and grinding more if you’re brewing for more people.
If you can afford to spend a little more for a noticeably better quality grinder, we often recommend the Timemore Chestnut C. Made of aluminium alloy and featuring a dual bearing system for grind stability and consistency, and an adjustable grind setting suitable for just about any brew method, the Chestnut C is as premium as it looks, and well worth the asking price.
If your budget is a bit more generous, you could also consider Comandante, the brand that arguably blazed the trail for the premium hand grinder category. The X25 Trailmaster is made of a technopolymer which makes it perfectly durable even for the roughest hikes, and it effortlessly grinds to any consistency, consistently, thanks to its patented Nitro Blade burr set.
With that said, grinders come in a lot of shapes and sizes, and while they all aim to accomplish the same main goal, they can often come with qualities you may or may not really want. Have a look around and you’ll undoubtedly find one that fits your needs.
Here’s the fun bit. The coffee-loving nomad has a number of portable brewing tools available to them these days.
Right out of the gate, an obvious pick for a travel brewer is the AeroPress (and, by extension, the slightly smaller AeroPress Go). It’s easy to use, compact, and versatile, allowing for long, smooth cups or short, intense, espresso-style drinks. It also comes with a range of third-party accessories (which are also generally very portable), if you’d like to take your brew to new heights. True, it’s not exactly built to brew more than one or two cups at a time, but there are ways around this problem.
Additionally, if you’d like to avoid the hassle of travelling with hundreds of the AeroPress’s micro-filters, we recommend you pick up a reusable metal filter like this. One of the most convenient aspects of the AeroPress is that it doesn’t demand the precise pour that most pour-over brew methods do, so you don’t need a gooseneck kettle to get the best results. You could probably even get by boiling your water in a pot or saucepan so long as you’re careful when it comes time to pour.
If you would prefer to enjoy a traditional pour-over coffee while you’re travelling, we’d recommend the Hario V60. Arguably a symbol of the specialty coffee world, the V60 is an essential piece of kit whether you’re on the road or not, and it’s really not going to take up much space in your bag. The plastic model is specifically suited to travel due to its durability. Just don’t forget to stock up on paper filters before you head out.
If the classic pour-over still seems a bit overcomplicated (and we won’t judge you if you feel that way) check out the aptly-named Simplify Brewer, which, thanks to several clever design choices, brews delicious pour-over coffee without requiring any fancy pouring techniques. Or, take a look at the Clever Dripper, which capitalises on the best qualities of both pour-over and immersion brewing methods to make up for their individual limitations. These are made of durable BPA-free plastic and nylon, respectively, so you don’t have to worry about them breaking in your suitcase.
If you’re more familiar with the French press brewing style, there are many small, portable plungers to choose from. We’d specifically recommend something that isn’t made of glass though, like this, to avoid possible breakages during baggage handling. You could also consider packing a small moka pot. Moka pots are generally quite sturdy so there’s no chance that they’ll break in your luggage, and they also don’t require their own kettle because your water is boiled in the pot itself. As long as you have a heat source, say a stove top or even a campfire, you’re good to go.
If you’d prefer to enjoy something closer to an espresso while out and about, we highly recommend Wacaco’s Nanopresso. Wacaco makes a lot of great portable coffee equipment, but mobile espresso makers like the Nanopresso are what they’re best known for. This light and impressively compact gadget promises to deliver the best quality espresso you could hope to achieve other than with an actual espresso machine, and, unlike the AeroPress or one of the pour-over brewers mentioned above, the Nanopresso requires no filters that you could easily forget if you’re rushing for a flight.
Something to drink out of
Image by Wacaco
Naturally, brewing coffee usually requires something to actually brew into and drink out of. If you’re staying in an Airbnb, hotel, or something similar, chances are you’ll be able to find at least a generic mug or two somewhere. If your travels often take you to cupless, mugless places, we have several kinds of travel mugs on offer that you can throw into your bag without a second thought.
Finally, and this goes without saying, the most important thing you’ll need to brew a delicious cup of coffee on the road is: delicious coffee. Specifically, delicious coffee beans.
Now, if your travels allow it, we’d recommend hunting down a local roastery or two wherever you are and trying out what they have on offer. Otherwise, you can always check out the beans we have in stock, all of which would be glad to accompany you wherever you may roam.
And there you have it! Say goodbye to gritty hotel instant and hello to delicious coffee every morning no matter where you go. Safe travels, and happy brewing.