I’ve always adored The Far Side comic series, and this one is a classic. It’s also Backpacking Food Tip #5: Coffee and Espresso.
As with Tip #4: Bring Meat, I am following the presence of eggs with another breakfast item, coffee of various forms, and methods for their production.
Many of us, let’s admit it, are addicted to coffee, or at least tea or caffeine in some sort. Many of us, and this is a Venn diagram of overlapping consumption, just plain enjoy it and savor the dark beverage. Now, tea is easy for the trail, what with convenient tea bags or baggies of loose leaf if you prefer to take it that way. Same for packeted hot chocolate or cider and other warm beverages. Coffee, however, requires more than hot water, unless you’re really into “cowboy coffee” and drinking your grind. Not me, though it’s better than nothing, right?
That seems to be the premise behind Starbuck’s Via coffee products, where the grain is so fine it dissolves very evenly. This is great if you like Starbucks, and the coffee is doled out into convenient little packets, one per cup. It’s, however, not really my cup of coffee. I find their beans to be a little too acidic, produces waste that is easy to loose, and even though the Via has been improved, it doesn’t taste fresh or dissolve evenly in my experience. There are plenty who swear by them for travel, and I’m not going to knock them.
In a similar vein, Lipton makes tea bags of coffee, and you brew it like tea. The premise is the same, but they can be a little weak to me. I prefer to grind some beans up right before leaving and put them in an appropriate sized baggie, which will keep them well enough for the trail. And you can choose your preferred bean. The question is really how to brew the coffee on the trail now that you have your grounds of choice ready to go.
One method that is along the lines of the bag approach is to use something called a coffee sock. I met a naturalist who used one that he got on a trip through Latin America. He said they were fairly popular there.
It also reminds me of a story.
One of the faculty who goes on our 7th grade backpacking trip had an experience once where on the trip, which is led by professional naturalists, he was offered coffee by one of the naturalists. The naturalist, upon finding that he had forgotten coffee brewing tools, proceeded to make his own coffee sock using his sock. And I don’t mean a fresh one, I mean the one off his left foot.
Don’t go there. Please.
A coffee sock is not off your foot and it looks like this:
The holder of the sock lets it rest like a little strainer on a pot (or small ones for cups) while the coffee rests in the sock. It works just fine, is light weight, and collapses. It’s biggest bonus is that it fits a pot, which is good if you are in a group. you have to be careful to get the right amount though, and the grinds will sit in the water potentially without a lid to keep it warm. Otherwise, its like a giant tea bag.
The next method is super old-school: the percolator.
I actually have one, but it’s buried in the equipment bin, so we’ll have to do with stock photography of the camping/backpacking version. It’s aluminum, and not as fancy as the steel one above, but it’s lightweight, and the percolator part is removable (the post isn’t built in), which makes it easy to clean and useful for just boiling water for other food purposes. You can pick one up for between $10-$25, which is great if you also need a convenient way to boil water. I suggest it for camping, but if you are going to be big on the backpacking, invest in a Jetboil stove or similar. For the casual camper cum backpacker, a percolator is a useful tool, whether you’re just boiling water, brewing tea or coffee, or cooking soup, if only for the pour spout. I recommend a perc pot for this function, but not necessarily coffee. It depends:
If you haven’t used a percolator, the beans go into that metal basket thing and it sits on the post towards the top of the vessel. As the water boils, it goes up into the grounds via the post tube. When all of the water in the pot has reached a boiling point, the pot stops making noise, and the coffee is “done.” Thus, the water is at a much higher temperature than home drip brews with directly boiling water constantly passing through the beans until it’s finished. This means you want to consider the possibility that already brewed coffee may be recirculating through the beans, causing over-extraction and bitter flavor. Try using a coarse grind to help prevent this.
But that’s also why perc coffee can suck very easily. It requires a fine touch, and is hard if you’re afraid of spoiling your brew. If you feel confident, or are not taking out fancy grounds, or want a multi-purpose tool out of it, then consider a perc pot.
I’ve also seem some people take out French presses, which are much more gentle than percolators, but they can be a little bulky and weighty, depending on your press. If you really dig the brew, though, a French press is really quite easy to use. The most awesome way to get one, however, is to get just the press part as an attachment. I briefly recommended the Jetboil stove system, and one of the extra perks is this nifty peripheral:
A French press pressing tool! It’s fitted to the Jetboil pots. Since it boils water super quick, the grinds are in boiling brew for a far shorter time, or you could put the grinds in after boiling water. That’s potentially messy, like adding hot cocoa mix to the cup with water instead of pouring the water into a cup with cocoa mix, but it works just fine. Give it a stir, pop in the press, et voila! Café! I do not know if other similar stove systems come with such attachments, but the Jetboil does and it works well.
I have not talked about the most similar to home method, a little drip cup that holds the grounds in a filter you put on the top, the force behind the single cup brew. You know, one of these things:
You can pretend you’re waiting in Blue Bottle (or other) as you watch the brew drip into your cup, one cup at a time. The downside is, if you’re in a group, you have to wait one by one for a cup of joe, and you have to pack out whatever filters you use as trash. The grounds can be buried in many locations with food or human waste, but the filters, even biodegradable ones, count as trash, which you must pack out. Like toilet paper. And they rip so easily.
My particular favorite method for brewing however actually harkens back to that far side cartoon: making espresso.
That beauty on the stove is a miniature, one shot version of a stovetop espresso machine. There is a larger one designed for camping, however, as well as ones by other makers. This little beauty produces a nice fine espresso on nice fine grounds. The crema is not perfect, but it hit’s the tastiness on the head. Plus, once you have the espresso, it opens your menu up to the variety of espresso drinks. Got hot chocolate mix? You can make a mocha! Got powdered milk? Holy cow, you can make a latte for Jed!
Now, Snow Peak makes a real latte set with a little milk steamer, but you can get creative and rig something up. I haven’t tried it – I usually take my espresso straight up when backpacking (though I enjoy cappuccino at home) and my fiance doesn’t get milk anywhere near his sweet brew. Anyways, I digress. back to the machine.
While this GSI mini is, well, mini, and it isn’t perfect, it is highly durable, decent in weight, and really easy to use. The machine packs well into a little box that it comes in, with the pot sitting on the cup tray under the spout. Have a thick bandana, rag, towel, or a cloth napkin from home on hand to handle it with if you are making multiple shots. The entire thing, except the little black insulated part, will be hot.
The pot has a little washer valve for air, and you fill it up to that line, then there’s a little basket for your fine grounds to go in. Don’t pack it, but make sure it’s full. I put a measuring teaspoon in my grounds bag to help with this.
Baggie, grounds, and teaspoon:
Grounds in the basket (this is actually post-production, hence the protective napkin):
The top portion has a rubber O-ring to help keep the pressure, and a filter. A little water and it cleans out just fine. It does come apart to give it a good cleaning. The whole mechanism screws on top of the pot, and it has the nice little shelf for an espresso cup.
The espresso machine on the stove at home, with delicious espresso coming out:
The cup I use I actually got at IKEA, including little saucers for them. I once saw similar espresso cups in REI, but they seem not to carry them anymore. The IKEA ones have been at least durable, inexpensive, and hold warmth decently. The handle can get hot waiting for the espresso to brew, but a gloved or bandana’d hand can pick it up off the stove. Let it cool briefly before handling and til it reaches your ideal drinking temperature. So here it is, the ens result of the backpacking espresso process:
Again, be careful when taking it apart if you’re making multiple shots. I use a cutting board (a little plastic one when backpacking) to turn over the pot portion. It will leave the basket upside down. The basket cools off quickly, and with a little protection, you can lift it up, leaving a pile of grounds that you can knock into their appropriate grave:
So there we are, with a summary of many coffee methods, and some special attention to the espresso machine. We’ve taken it out on week-long trips and last year we made some nearby packers jealous in Echo Valley as we sat and watched the sun rise drinking espresso from little IKEA espresso cups. With the saucers, of course. If you like your beans, consider one of these methods when you go into the great outdoors.