I think what this blog needs is a frank discussion on what is most important in life. I think you know what I’m talking about.
Nailed it, right? Popular scientific opinion will tell you that it’s opposable thumbs that separate us from the animals, but I respectfully disagree. I think it’s a good cup of coffee.
After fifteen years of moving airplanes at ungodly hours of the day and night, I was finally forced to acknowledge the fact that airport and local coffee vendors simply can not be relied upon for the most important component to safely transporting crew, customers and aircraft to the intended destination without incident. They’re never open when you need them, or worse they are and their excuse for coffee is at best criminal, and at worst utterly inhuman. The stakes are just far too high to take the chance. Now, if you’ve read any of this blog you would be correct in surmising that I am a systems guy. Every good idea needs a better system, right? So when it finally became apparent that it was time to solve the dilemma of how to have consistently good coffee while traveling, it turned out to be a task worthy of my OCD research and analysis.
Before we even talk about the tools, I’ll briefly touch on actual coffee. Choosing the right coffee bean is a lot like choosing a pair of running shoes. It’s incredibly personal, and what works for one person, may not work for someone else. Whole bean only, and the darker the better. If I can see daylight through my coffee, I’ve obviously made a horrible mistake. Trader Joes Italian, French or Sumatran are my usual go to beans, but some of the best coffee I’ve had comes from the smaller roasters that you can’t find on a shelf in a brick and mortar store. In either case, stay away from pre ground coffee at all costs. It’s important to note that you can have the best coffee on the planet and still kill it with a substandard brewing system.
Let’s start with the grinder. Go out and get yourself a burr grinder. Like, right now. I’ll wait… (Just kidding, maybe finish reading this first…) They can range from obscenely expensive to sort of reasonable, but I believe for the money you are buying a higher level of grind capability. The difference is noticeable in the quality of the final outcome. I use a Cuisinart, which allows you to adjust your grind from extremely fine to extra course. I’ve found an extra fine grind produces a stronger brew while a mid coarse grind turns out something a bit more balanced. Since the grinder is prohibitively large and heavy, traveling with it is not an option. My solution to that is to pre grind as much as I need for the length of trip I’m heading out on, and seal the grinds in small ziplock bags.
Never, and I mean never, use the coffee machine in your hotel room. I know it looks like it will make coffee, but I promise you no good can from from it. I’ve experimented with the French press for a while, which I’m sure we call all agree is a significant improvement over your standard drip machine. However, if my priority is making coffee on the road, I have to admit that it’s a little too bulky, not to mention fragile for a portable operation. I was at a drive in campsite with some friends a couple years ago when I was introduced to the Aeropress coffee press. To be honest, I’m not sure why the coffee that comes out of this odd looking little coffee press is so spectacular. I can only assume it uses what in aviation we refer to as PFM Technology. Either way, I could see the Aeropress would be a man-portable way of bringing good coffee to the most remote of locations, like this hotel room in upstate New York.
What about water? When I’m on the road, I use bottled water, which fortunately I have in abundant supply. Local water conditions may effect the taste of your coffee, so if you can, bottled is the way to go. As I’ve mentioned, your standard hotel room coffee machine, while being a coffee machine in name only, is an equally unreliable method of producing water at the right temperature for your perfect cup of coffee. I settled upon the Bodum 17 oz. travel kettle. Smaller than your average electric kettle the Bodum gives you the opportunity to get your water to exactly the right temperature. I shoot for about 175 degrees, and yes, I have a thermometer.
Most fanatics (read: addicts) will tell you that brewing the perfect cup of coffee is as much art as it is science. After some trial and error I identified a recipe that turns out a cup coffee so amazing you’d think it was brewed by unicorns:
– 2 generous Aeropress scoops of beans, mid coarse grind
– Water heated to 175 degrees – I push as much water as I can through the grinds without diluting it.
– Just a splash of half/half – This isn’t really necessary, as black coffee from the Aeropress is just as good.
I spend a fair amount of time in a confined space around expensive electronics that don’t react all that well to coffee spills, so in looking for a water tight container I discovered the Contigo insulated mug. It advertises keeping hot liquids hot for five hours, which I would say is a little optimistic, and has a lockable spout. This is especially important because when I inevitably knock my coffee over while performing those “preflight checks” you’ve heard so much about, I won’t cause significant delays and expensive maintenance procedures. You’re welcome, traveling public.
Forget for a moment the operational need, whether you travel for business or leisure, sometimes the impact of starting the day with a good cup coffee can make all the difference in the world. Being away from home is hard enough without having to suffer unnecessarily.
Please brew responsibly.