by Emylene VanderVelden and Ryan Jordan
Ultralight backpacking embodies the values of simplicity and weight savings. Some of that gets thrown out the window when the subject of backcountry coffee comes up (depending on your level of java snobbery). This article provides an overview of coffee-making methods (how to make coffee in the backcountry) while backpacking, with a study of their complexity and weight.
Under no circumstances should you let a non-coffee drinker brew your coffee. Non-coffee drinkers CANNOT be trusted to make acceptable coffee. If some well-meaning tent-mate gets up early and offers to bring you coffee in bed, do NOT let them. You will be sadly disappointed, and the entire day may founder in a miasma of negative drama. – Mike Clelland, The Beautiful Cup: Backcountry Coffee for the Ultralight Backpacker.
What is Still True About How to Make Coffee in the Backcountry
In 2010, Mike made some valid observations, and we wholeheartedly agree with them.
As you may have gathered, I’ve got some opinions about this whole coffee thing. So, before we go any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, here are a few of my prejudices:
- Strong coffee is good coffee.
- Except for a very few companions, I don’t trust anyone to make coffee for me.
- Adding sugar to coffee is criminal.
- Sometimes I add a little milk in my coffee, but black is just fine.
- Adding flavors (like hazelnut and almandine) to an already perfect drink is sinful.
- Picking grounds out of my teeth is a serious buzz kill.
- Coffee equals joy.
How Coffee Brewing is Controlled
The bean source, roasting method, and freshness have an impact on the quality of your coffee.
But you have some brewing control as well. Depending on the method, you can adjust:
- Brewing water temperature;
- Rate of flow (or time of exposure between coffee and water);
- Water pressure (e.g., espresso is drawn at higher-than-ambient pressures).
Changing the temperature, flow rate, and pressure allows you to fine-tune your flavor profile. The ability to control these three variables will be evaluated when we look at coffee-making gear.
A note on temperature that may be relevant for backpackers in mountain environments: boiling temperature changes with altitude. At sea level, the boiling temperature is 212 F (100 C). At 9,000 ft (2743 m), the boiling temperature is about 195 F (90.5 C).
Nine thousand feet (2743 m) is kind of an important inflection point with respect to coffee extraction and altitude.
It’s generally accepted by most coffee aficionados that the ideal extraction temperature is 195 F (90.5 C) to 205 F (96.1 C), so once you climb above 9,000 ft (2743 m), you may want to increase your brew time a bit if you’re after a stronger cup of coffee.
Coffee-Making Methods and Gear for Backpacking
The popularity of coffee-drinking1 is being driven by a rise in boutique coffeehouses, micro-roasting, and consumers’ unquenchable thirst for cool new gear. Thankfully, this market enthusiasm is spilling over into what’s available to us in terms of portable coffee-making supplies, and we are seeing a rise in a variety of lightweight coffee-making gear:
- The French press
- Mini espresso makers
- Pour-over coffee makers
- Instant coffee
- DIY cold brew
The following table summarizes each method in terms of its weight, brew time, nature of flow, pressure, cleanup, and coffee quality.
|weight||prep + brew + cleanup time||passive/active flow||pressure||cleanup||coffee quality potential|
|French press (standalone)||heavy||slow||passive||atmospheric||messy||high|
|French press (integrated)||light||slow||passive||atmospheric||messy||high|
|Mini espresso maker||heavy||slow||active||pressurized||moderate||high|
|Pour-over coffee makers (with disposable filters)||light||moderate||active||atmospheric||easy||high|
|Pour-over coffee makers (integrated filter screens)||light||slow||active||atmospheric||messy||medium|
In addition, we’ll touch on coffee grinders, coffee alternatives, and whiteners towards the end.
The French Press
The French press method of coffee brewing gives the brewer a great deal of control over the resulting coffee flavor, owing mainly to the fact that brew time can be varied. (As with other techniques, you can also control the flavor by altering the brewing water temperature and the coarseness of the grind). French press technique should generally use a coarse ground coffee because all of the extracted oils are retained (and not filtered out) – a finer grind (and/or a longer brew time) will result in more bitterness.
Outdoor product manufacturers offer a wide range of light, sturdy, portable standalone French presses and integrated presses for cooking mugs and pots. They aren’t the lightest option (in fact, self-contained presses are among the heaviest), but French-pressed coffee has the potential to be very strong and flavorful.
We like the integrated cooking mug/pot press idea, except for one minor detail: if you are making coffee, you cannot use the pot for anything else until you wash it out. That means you have to make your meal in sequential cooking batches, and can’t drink your coffee with your food without transferring the coffee to a separate mug, cleaning the pot, etc.
Self-contained French presses:
And don’t miss the new titanium coffee press from Woodknot Gear.
Integrated French presses:
Mini Espresso Makers
Mini espresso makers are unique because they can extract coffee at nine bars (or more) of pressure (i.e., 130 PSI). That’s nine times the ambient atmospheric pressure where other coffee brewing methods operate. This is important because higher pressures can extract coffee oils more aggressively (and require less contact time). A finer grind is required when making espresso, because of the short contact time (about 30 seconds, generally, vs. 2-5 minutes for traditional brew methods). The result is a much richer-tasting coffee without the bitterness of a long water contact time.
The idea of adding a mini espresso maker to our kit seemed revolutionary to us – a real shot of pressure-drawn espresso? That sounded too good to be true.
Mini Espresso Makers:
Pour-Over Coffee Makers
Pour-over coffee allows you to exert some control over the flow rate of the water. The primary difference between a French-pressed coffee and a pour-over coffee is that French press is a batch brewing technique (no water flow, just soaking), and pour-over is a flow-through brewing technique. Because the grounds are not coming into contact with the brewed coffee filtrate (and aren’t exposed for as long of a time), it takes a finer grind and slower, more patient pour to achieve the strength of a French-pressed coffee. One distinct advantage of the pour-over method: no coffee ground grit (some drinkers will enjoy this, however).
Some pour-over cones require the use of an additional filter; others include integrated plastic or metal mesh screens. The latter avoid disposable supplies, but are messier to operate.
Pour-Over Coffee Makers:
In addition to pour-over hardware, disposable options also exist. The Kuju Coffee Pocket is one such option. Ryan Jordan reviewed another one here, where you can see in action how disposable pour-overs work (with video).
Gourmet Instant Coffee
We have a fundamental disagreement with Mike about instant coffee. He writes “Instant coffee isn’t actually coffee, and is therefore outside the scope of this discussion. It is quite simply not an option.”
Some instant coffee manufacturers have realized consumers will not drink flavoured mud water and have improved instant coffee standards accordingly. If we are desperate for coffee and saving weight, Starbucks Via instant coffee will do. Gourmet instant is not as good as French press or espresso, but it is not terrible either.
Instant Coffee Options:
Coffee and Tea Infusers
An infuser is little more than a mesh “basket” containing ground coffee that is inserted into a cup of hot water. The water then passively extracts the coffee – there’s no pouring, pumping, or other types of active (flow) extraction method involved other than your own mixing and swirling.
DIY Cold Brew
Cold brew is an extraction method using cold (or room temperature) water. The cooler extraction temperature means that oils are extracted more slowly, so making a batch of cold brew takes a long time – usually several hours. In addition, the oils that are extracted have a flavor profile that is generally considered to be more “smooth” than “bitter”. Bitter oils are extracted by hotter water, especially near the boiling point (near sea level at least).
Cold brew coffee is a recent invention and can be made in your water bottle. The big drawback is that it takes about 12 hours to make it. If you plan ahead the night before, you can have cold brew ready the next morning.
Cold brew can be enjoyed cold or warmed up, and it has a smoother, sweeter flavor than hot-brewed coffee. We recommend a wide-mouthed bottle, which will be easier to clean and add coffee without a mess.
Soft-sided bottles, of course, are the lightest, but they tend to hold odors more than hard-sided bottles (e.g., Nalgene).
To make cold brew:
- Add 1 cup of coarsely ground coffee beans to 4 cups of water;
- Mix well to ensure wetting of the grind;
- Let it steep for 12 hours;
- Strain the grounds with a coffee filter or a piece of cheesecloth as you pour into your cup for enjoyment.
Lightweight Coffee Grinders
The coffee brewing methods discussed above may give you some control over the brewing temperature, flow rate (brewing time), and water pressure. If you also want control over the freshness and grind, consider a portable coffee mill.
Check out the GSI Outdoors Java Mill (9.3 oz / 269 g), and a variety of 24 g capacity miniature models from Hario. One of the most aesthetically beautiful designs is the Snow Peak Field Barista Coffee Grinder (12 oz / 340 g).
Chocolate-Covered Coffee Beans
We’ve covered most of the obvious caffeination techniques so far. Still, if your only goal is rapid and straightforward caffeine delivery, there are pills for that. Or you can add chocolate-covered coffee beans to your trail mix.
Chocolate-covered coffee beans are multipurpose – they are both a calorie supplement and a caffeinator. They don’t offer a ‘ritualistic’ coffee experience, but they are fast, easy, and lightweight.
Most chocolate-covered coffee beans will melt if they get too warm. I (Emylene) use these workarounds:
- Wrapping packaged beans in aluminum foil and keeping them in my water bladder compartment to keep them cool;
- Tossing the beans into a bag of trail mix and then eat the chocolate, coffee bean, fruit, and nut clusters after they melt and solidify again. (Important: let them harden before opening the bag, or they are disastrously messy).
For a different twist, try the dark chocolate-coffee bean snack from Joe’s Chocolates.
A Word on Whiteners, Milk, and Instant Coffee-“Milk” Blends
In addition to powdered milk, there are now plenty of powdered options for non-dairy and lactose-free creamers.
- Genuine Joe Non-Dairy Creamer (commonly available in big box hardware and grocery stores)
- Nestle Nido Whole Milk Powder
In addition, instant coffees that have been prepackaged with creamer are available (commonly, at Asian and Mexican food markets – check out the Vinacafe brand).
One particularly tasty one, Laird Superfood Coffee/Creamer, can be found at outdoor specialty and running stores. Alpine Start, mentioned earlier, also makes a blend with coconut creamer and a soy-milk-based dirty chai.
Want to froth your own? The battery-operated AeroLatte is portable and light enough (5.1 oz / 146 g) for some of you who may want foam for a latte.
The self-identified “ultralight backpacker” may view some of the options for brewing coffee presented in this article as too complicated, too time-consuming, too messy, or too heavy. Those of you who value Via over vive le coffee will find little satisfaction in packing another 4 oz (or more) of “coffee-making gear”.
But for some hikers, coffee isn’t just a drink; it’s an act of joy. A ritualistic practice as part of a lifestyle. An experience that enhances a sunrise, a mid-day trail break, or a game of cards during a tent-bound rainstorm with a hiking companion.
And for some, there’s the art and science of creating a masterpiece of brewing where you want to exert some control over the freshness of your grind, the coarseness of your grind, the temperature of the water, the grind:water ratio, the flow rate, and the pressure.
The bottom line is this.
Some people like to paint in the backcountry and bring a watercolor kit and a sketch pad. Others like to write, and do so with a nice pen and a fancy, leather-bound journal. Photographers have their own gear needs – tripods, cameras, filters, sliders. People who like to fish for trout bring rods, reels, flies, and tackle. Some of us bring chairs, or Kindles, or cribbage boards.
Others are into brewing coffee.
And thus, the beauty of lightweight backpacking is revealed – not in the weight you save by leaving everything at home, but in the weight you save with lightweight gear and skills that allow you to enjoy some experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t have considered before.
Like sipping an outrageous cup of coffee in a wild place.
1 The definitive industry market research on the topic of coffee is published by the National Coffee Association: 2019 National Coffee Drinking Trends Report (http://www.ncausa.org/Industry-Resources/Market-Research/NCDT/NCDT-Purchase/BKctl/ViewDetails/SKU/NCA19NCDTdig)
Updated October 18, 2019
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