I’m an admitted coffee snob. But even if you’re happy to get your caffeine in the most convenient possible format, damn the taste, so long as the mud is hot, if the potential exists to brew something that offers great taste as well as convenience, you’d probably prefer that to mud. And if the goal is yummy, especially if you’re car camping rather than lugging equipment on your back, just how much are you willing to spend, and how much effort will you put into getting to “good?” Would you spend $150 on Presso’s self-powered espresso maker, shown above (and reviewed below)?
And what exactly is “good coffee” in the first place? A friend of mine thinks Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is great. I disagree. Further, since this is a story about brewing in the backcountry – whether that’s on the tailgate of your pickup for a post-surf/-bike/paddle/bouldering java hit – or five days into a 10-day, 100-mile through-hike, just what do I mean by “convenient?”
Hmmm. So while this review will cover the beans themselves (and their relative goodness) as well as the machines you need to make decent brew in the wilds, it’s important to break down terms before diving straight in.
For our review of America’s most outdoor-friendly coffee suppliers, click here.
“Good” coffee to me goes farther than the subjective part of the question: taste. It has to do with the roaster, and their intentions and relations with the farmers and whether said farmers are getting screwed, or are being helped as part of a sustainable program of investment and cooperation so that they can earn a decent livelihood. Coffee doesn’t come from anywhere north of Mexico. It’s grown, largely, in third-world countries around the globe and just as you’re slowly getting to know all the farmers in your own backyard at summer farmers markets and eating local, etc., you should respect the tremendous dedication and brutally hard work of farmers who grow the beans you love.
Also, “good” means good deeds. For happy reasons coffee roasters and store owners are often athletic, adrenaline junkie types, and they tend to like to give back to causes of sustainability in their local communities, and also to sponsor everything from individual athletes to races and events. To the extent possible I tried to connect to as many such smaller players as I could around the country, and to taste their coffee. The regionalism was on purpose: My hope is that you can frequent/patronize a coffee roaster/brewer in your own community who appears on this list, posted here. If not, there’s always mail order, as most of these folks will ship. And, you bet, I’m sure I missed more good baristas, brewers and roasters than I nailed. Feel free to pile on with those peeps and their info in the comments section.
Coffee making can demand both heavy and bulky contraptions. No big deal if you’re car camping, although even there, you don’t want serious mess to clean up, especially if water is scarce. Depending on where you park on the X axis of mess vs. the Y axis of taste/quality will pretty much determine how you define convenience, and this comparison aims to cover the spectrum of ease vs. barista-snob joy.
The 3.68 lb. Presso is about as convenient to bring into the woods as lugging a large-format camera on a wooden tripod to capture some snappies of your assault on Denali. But the Presso is here for anyone who road trips and simply will not put up with drip coffee as a substitute for espresso. It’s also here because it doesn’t rely on either non-recyclable pods for coffee, or litter-making CO2 canisters to create pressure.
Instead, here’s how it works:
After filling the porta-filter (that thingie with the black handle) with finely ground coffee, (not quite the fineness of climbing chalk, but reasonably close), tamp the grounds with the back of the provided scoop. Go ahead, tamp hard. Wipe away any grounds around the lip of the filter.
Replace the portafilter and thread on tightly.
With the arms of the Presso in the down position, pour just-boiled water into the plastic top of the device.
Lift the arms, wait a few seconds for the water to infuse the coffee, and then lower the arms.
Voila, you have a double shot of espresso, extracted via your own “steam,” as it were. The shocking thing is that while the coffee doesn’t come out with the syrupy richness of a “real” espresso you might get at Stumptown in NYC or PDX, for an espresso extracted in the wilds it’s pretty darned impressive (see photo), although I learned a few quirks that can make it more pleasurable.
First, the biggest limitation of the Presso is that it’s hard to get a really hot shot. So fill the plastic top of the contraption with hot water and let it sit for a few minutes to heat the top element. Dump that water before brewing, replaced by just-boiled water. You should also pre-warm the porta-filter in some hot water in your coffee mug, heating both simultaneously. Also, you can pull a tighter shot by overfilling the Presso to beyond the double-shot line, which adds extra pressure to the extraction, just stop squeezing when you’ve pulled enough of a shot, because the dregs at the bottom of the pull will be a bit watery.
Bialetti Stovetop Espresso Maker
If I’d had a little Italian grandmother rather than a tiny Moldovan one, she would have made coffee with one of these. And this little Bialetti is as close to a personal heirloom as anything I might bequeath to subsequent generations, as it’s sure to outlive me. I’ve had it for nearly 20 years already and it’s survived countless trips to the crag, banging off rocks, falling out of my pack and tumbling down crevices, laughing it all off and only needing an occasional replacement gasket. Mind you, even my little two-cup Bialetti is both too bulky and too heavy (1.1 lbs.) for me to lug on more than an overnight mission hiking, but if I’m going to be parked by a cliff for a day of climbing or doing a multi-pronged mountain bike expedition based out of a single base camp, I don’t hesitate. The coffee? It’s not espresso, but slightly more supercharged than drip. Tip: Don’t over-tamp, as just a little compression is all you need, and don’t go overboard with too-fine a grind.
Primus LiTech Coffee Press
French presses are inherently finicky. It takes some trial and error to get the grind just right, and then if you only use one occasionally for hikes, you forget just what that “right” grind was and your brew comes out as silted as Turkish coffee dregs or as thin as brown water. For this press the sweet spot is coffee ground to about the consistency of fine rock salt, or slightly finer. Trial and error is your friend here: do a few dry runs at home so you’re not bummin’ on the trail. Also, even if you don’t nail the grind exactly, a little more or less extraction time can save the day: sample after 2-3 minutes, no more, to get the status. This press is also a hair finicky to pour from, but if your grind is right that problem is minimized, or you could bend the spout out a little with a pair of pliers. The bonus with the Primus is that you get a 240-gram, one-liter pot for cooking, just unthread the French-press screen and use the plastic lid on its own for quicker boiling.
Planetary Design Double Shot 2.1
I wouldn’t take this French press deep into the woods with me, because it’s relatively heavy, at .91 pounds. But more, it’s bulky and cannot double as a pot on your stove, like the Primus LiTech. Then again for car camping or brewing at the trailhead/base of the crag, it’s a superb French press. For one thing, you can vary the grind of coffee much more than with most French presses, and although you want to stick with a coarse grind, even slightly finer-ground coffee won’t become a huge issue, as long as you don’t let the coffee over-extract before imbibing. Thumbs up for a secondary screen at the sip spout that prevents any grinds from slipping down your gullet, and for the nifty storage compartment that screws right into the base of the mug and seals tight, so your beans are always right with the press (it’ll hold about four tablespoons of ground coffee). A carabiner hole in the handle is also smart, and this mug insulates all 14 ounces of brew for a good half hour (although by then your coffee is going to have sat on the grounds for waaaay too long, FYI).
GSI Ultralight Java Drip
I don’t know why, but something about this widget is slightly…lewd. It just screams, “Desperate Man Strains Coffee Through Underpants!” Nonetheless it’s easy to use, weighs a mere 20 grams, and has just about no footprint in your pack. Some forum folks have whinged that it drains too slowly, but the key is in the grind, which can’t be too fine. And just as with the hotel-room coffee maker, don’t hesitate to stir your grinds with a spoon to speed up the action. As drip goes, the GSI does just fine, but as with everything listed here, it always pays to experiment before you hit the trail.
The 30-gram Mugmate is shown here with the Innate Doppio Tumbler because the MSR filter happens to nest perfectly inside this beautiful, insulated cup. Nope, MSR doesn’t own Innate or vice-versa, but I found this was about the lightest, simplest way to make backcountry coffee that’s seriously strong and stays hot the whole time you’re brewing. Add fine-ish coffee grounds to the filter (more for stronger, less for weaker), pour in hot water, let steep, extract Mugmate, drink. Ahhh! The Mugmate cleans up in a jiffy, too, just bang the extracted grounds out, return to the water you’re using to clean your coffee mug and rinse both.
GSI Mini eXpresso
I’ll admit to bias here: When people say “express-oh” when they mean “ESS-press-oh” I get concerned. (I already told you: I am a coffee snob.) So my armor was raised before I even tested the GSI. And unfortunately I wasn’t too shocked that it didn’t hold up well against my Italian-made Bialetti – the GSI is made in China. Some of this comes down to craft, as the GSI refused to thread cleanly, allowing some pressure drop during brewing, so the extraction wasn’t quite strong enough no matter how I fiddled with the grind, even though eventually I managed to get serviceable coffee. But more, it’s about the limitations of this kind of design, which is in fact a rip-off of an extant Bialetti. The Mini eXpresso is heavy (.91 lbs.), just like the Bialetti, and too bulky to bring backpacking for more than an overnighter, but for me the biggest drawback is that it’s a serious heat sink as well, so it takes a looooong time to cool back down. If you have to break camp quickly you’ll still be waiting for the Mini eXpresso to chill enough to pack away. Also, that design requires a triple balancing act: coffee maker on top of stove, mug on top of coffee maker. And that thing about the heat? You must bring a metal mug; a plastic one will cook on this thing.
I know, I know. My coffee snob friends are screaming to Facebook as I type this. Starbucks? Starbucks?? Starbucks is the devil! They over-roast. Blah freakin’ blah. It’s coffee, people, not the crisis in the Middle East. And don’t forget that without Starbucks there might not be Intelligentsia, or Stumptown – and you can sure bet that there wouldn’t be incrementally better coffee everywhere had there never been a Starbucks. And oh, by the way, VIA, an instant powder you just add to hot water, kills it. KILLS it. This brew comes in individually sized packets that take up less space in your pack than a lip balm and each weighs 5 minuscule grams. And the taste is exponentially better than any other instant on the market. I know. I have the bitter beer face to prove it having sampled a dozen other instants, not one of which I’d dare drink black, nor would I recommend a single one of those other brands. But this stuff, which comes in several roasts and varieties, is truly palatable. Nope, it’s still not as good as real, freshly ground coffee, but in seconds you get hot, strong, fast, and convenient java. Until your local barista works with Willy Wonka to come up with espresso in jelly bean form, Starbucks wins the hearts and minds of minimalist backcountry coffeenistas.
$10 (12 servings) LINK