Coffee on the road

November 20, 2005

A substantial travel-hassle for the coffee lover is the fact that while most of the stuff served as coffee out in the world is brown and hot, that’s about where its resemblence to real coffee ends.

I’ve been doing a little pre-holiday travel this week, and have had more than a few too many cups of burnt, under-dosed, over-extracted cups of stale robusta to last me for a good long while.

At least back at the hotel, I can still enjoy a cup of real coffee, thanks to just a little planning ahead.

My travel coffee-kit consists of a Mini Ibis electric kettle, a C-Mill blade coffee grinder, and a 14oz thermal travel press mug, all from Bodum. Add in a pound of freshly roasted organic Columbian Mesa de los Santos beans (in a one-way valve bag), and I can have fresh french-press coffee in about five minutes anywhere I can find water and a power outlet. All of this packs neatly in my checked baggage, in really less room than one would expect.

Making coffee with this gear couldn’t be simpler. For those who are unfamiliar with a french press, the process goes like this:

  1. Fill the electric kettle and plug it in. Since we won’t need more water than will fit in the mug, we can simply add a mug-full of coffee into the kettle (this is about half the capacity of the Mini Ibis).
  2. Measure beans into the C-Mill. Having done a few test runs before I left, I found that 1/3 of a cup of beans was just perfect for my taste with this particular coffee and gear (I buy up cheapie plastic measuring cup sets when I find them in the bargain bin at the store, and so I just threw a 1/3 cup measure into my bag of coffee.)
  3. Wait for the kettle to come to a boil (if you’re in a hurry, you did start with hot water, right? If so, it’ll take about two minutes.) Since water at a boil is 212 degrees F (or slightly less, at altitude), we’ll want to wait a minute or so after the kettle clicks off for it to come down into proper brew temps (195 – 203 degrees). This turns out to be just about enough time to grind our coffee and get it into the mug.
  4. Plug in the grinder, and grind the beans. Anyone reading this site knows I’m not much of a fan of “whirly-blade” grinders, but since putting a full sized conical burr grinder into my bag is too nuts even for me, it’ll do in a pinch, and still be much better than the alternative. The trick is to get as consistent of a grind as possible, without grinding too small for the press. I’ve found that with the little Bodum press, grinding it just until you quit hearing the beans “clatter” against the blades (about 12 – 15 seconds) is about right.
  5. Add the beans to the mug, and pour in about 3 – 4″ of hot water. Since the coffee will “bloom” as soon as the water hits it, this makes sure we don’t foam over the top of the mug. At this point, I like to give the grinds a bit of a stir, to make sure they’re all evenly wetted (the “stir stick” from an in-room coffee service works nicely for this; in a pinch, most anything will do.)
  6. Carefully fill the mug up the rest of the way, leaving enough room to place the press assembly and top in without flowing grounds up and over the filter. In the Bodum mug, I stop about 3/4″ from the top.
  7. Tighten down the lid, and wait for the coffee to brew. The classic french press rule is four minutes; you may find you like a slightly shorter steep in a press as small as this.
  8. Press down the plunger with a smooth even gesture, and enjoy your coffee.

It all sounds much more complex than it is; I can manage it pretty easily even in my pre-first-cup-of-the-morning stupor, so it can’t be too hard.

The reward is a mug full of coffee that is much better than you’re likely to get at the coffee shop, let alone from the little 4-cup & prepackaged grounds coffee sets you find in hotel rooms these days.

On the second day of my trip I was heading out of the hotel with my mug in-hand, and had to stop at the front desk for a minute.

As soon as I sat my mug down on the counter, the desk clerk took a sniff and exclaimed “That smells WONDERFUL! Did you brew that in your room?” After telling her I did, I had to disappoint her when I admitted that it didn’t come from the little in-room coffee set, but was brewed in a french press using freshly roasted beans.

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