Folks in my office often hear me say “I’m jonesing for some coffee.”
That addiction exists home and on the open road. When tripping, I meticulously scout area espresso joints, with a particular pension for micro-roasters who make their beans in house.
On our adventures, there is always a pressing search for 1) the perfect espresso, and 2) the perfect cup of coffee.
If you’re serious about your coffee, you know they are not the same thing. Espresso, because of its high-pressure brewing method, tends to be bolder and more concentrated. A good espresso had a bit of a froth on top.
Unless you plan to take a commercial machine on the road with you, a good cup of campfire espresso is hard to come by. Although, if Aeropress or another micropress company wants to send me a portable espresso maker to try on our 3-week summer trip, I’ll be happy to give it the old college try.
Most often, for espresso, I use it as an excuse for a quick reprieve and return back into civilization.
For coffee, the options are much more plentiful. On the road, some methods are also far superior. Let’s look at the options, and I won’t pretend to be unbiased.
I have one feeling about K-cups — growsh. (That’s a gross way of saying gross.) K-cups are like Folgers — freeze-dried, stale, and lacking complexity. If you savor sucking wet cardboard and count staleness as a flavor profile, this one’s for you. K-cups are also a great option for the incredibly lazy.
In my book, K-cups are a “break glass in case of emergency” coffee.
Percolator coffee is how we did coffee when we started tent camping, and it carried into our pop up camping. Percolators are cheap, and you can set it and forget it over the campfire. It will certainly provide a strong cup of coffee if that’s the aim. But, a strong cup does not equal a good cup.
Because the heat of a fire can vary widely, it makes for an inconsistent cup of coffee. Additionally, percolators can be a bit messy. If your stove doesn’t allow extreme fine tuning on temperature, you will likely end up with spent coffee grounds everywhere.
My wife describes coffee grounds as the “ants of camping.” Personally, I describe ants as the ants of camping. But, her point still stands. Sometimes, they get everywhere, and they can be a pain to get rid of.
A lot of people don’t like to fuss with coffee while they’re driving. A stop at 7-Eleven is sufficient to nurse the addiction. Or, they take along an electric drip pot to use with their Folgers. If that’s your jam, so be it. But, for me, that’s not the “best part of waking up.”
When it comes to drip pots on a camping trip, it just seems entirely unnecessary. Why take added electric appliances? The goal should be minimalism. I have close friends who disagree with my minimalist views.
Finally, we get to my preferred method on the road — Pour-over coffee. Pour over coffee is the equivalent of what you get in the Chemex at a nice coffee shop. If you’re not familiar with them, they look like a glass beaker from biology class.
Understandably, most people don’t want to take a glass tube in a tent or camper.
Thankfully, there are a wide range of options. I have a friend who recently purchased a collapsible one for convenience, and uses filters.
I personally prefer the filterless route. This is the one I love to use.
It’s easy to use, easy to clean, stainless steel, compact, and makes great coffee. Plus, most of these options allow you to rest them on top of virtually any coffee cup to do your pour-over.
The most essential elements of a consistently great cup of coffee
Whatever method you choose for making coffee at home or on-the-go, it is important to understand that good coffee comes down to a bit of simple science.
Broadly speaking, there are 3 things that determine the quality of your coffee: the quality and freshness of the bean, the grind and recency of the grind, the temperature of the water.
Quality and freshness of the bean
As coffee sellers will tell you, the best coffee bean is the one you enjoy. If you grew up on Folgers, that may make your decisions simple.
When it comes to quality, whole-bean coffees, most people prefer a full bodied, nutty coffee. Some prefer a more exotic, fruity flavor profile. I would throw myself into that category.
Ultimately, you should pick something you know you like.
But, always buy it fresh. Preferably, check your coffee for a “born on” sticker to know you’re getting fresh beans.
Grind and recency of the grind
Those settings on a grinder aren’t there for grins. They make all the difference in the quality of your cup. Each setting affects the texture of the grind, which is more suitable for varying applications.
For example, campfire percolators will be hot and likely contact the coffee longer during brewing. For that reason, the grind should be coarse.
For espresso, contact will be quick, and you will need a fine grind.
You should choose the best grind for your application.
How quickly you use the coffee after grinding also makes a difference. “Coffee Chemistry” explains in this way.
“The coffee’s delicate aroma and flavor compounds are protected by the bean itself. Some of these compounds are encapsulated inside carbohydrates and proteins, and only released when disturbed. Even as whole beans, coffee loses these aromatic compounds to dissipation and oxidation over the course of several weeks. Once ground, these compounds begin to oxidize immediately, and unfortunately, the most fragrant compounds are also the most susceptible.”
For the best cup of coffee, you should brew within the first 15 minutes after grinding. If you don’t, much of what you will be left with are the most bitter compounds.
For camping, we go with a simple hand coffee grinder that doesn’t require electricity.
Temperature of the water
Water is what draws out the flavor from the coffee grounds through what is referred to as extraction. Water temperature is essential in this process, because if your water is too hot, you risk an over extraction, leaving the coffee tasting bitter. If your water is too cold, you can risk under-extraction, where the coffee is weak.
For our purposes, we use a simple tea kettle.
We heat the tea kettle on our stove and then use it with our stainless filter to make the perfect cup of coffee. We heat the kettle until it whistles (boiling), and then we give it around 5 minutes to rest to keep the water from being too hot.
Then, we moisten the coffee grounds slightly to let them bloom first. Then, we gently pour water through them, exercising a touch of patience, to get a perfectly consistent cup of coffee.
Have your own preferred camping brew methods? Tell me about it in the comments.