Travelling to a new place – whether for business or pleasure – is a wonderful opportunity to discover a new local cafe or coffee roaster. But if you anticipate being on the road for a while, or you know that your Airbnb host only has a can of instant on the shelf, it pays to come prepared. Both Blue Bottle and Stumptown offer beautiful travel coffee kits, but each clocks in at close to $200! A tad expensive for you? You can hack together your own for less than half of that, and use the savings, on, well, more coffee. With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of essentials for the nomadic coffee lover, taking into account limited bag space and inconsistent access to electricity or water. But if you’ve got your passport, your camera, and your coffee kit, you’re ready to hit the road.
As is always the case, it’s advisable to bring whole, rather than pre-ground beans, since coffee beans oxidize more quickly and start to lose their flavor once they’ve been ground. Almost every large and micro-roaster in the US will ship individual bags of coffee – rather than just subscriptions – so be sure to hold onto the vacuum seal pouch that comes with your beans. You can also use a Ziploc bag, if need be.
Nothing beats freshly-ground beans. Since carrying an actual electric grinder is out of the question – especially for those traveling internationally – a hand grinder is an excellent option for those on the road, or even at home. The Hario Coffee Mill Slim Grinder ($24) is a tried-and-true hand grinder that’s large enough to produce two cups of coffee, but small enough to fit into a coffee kit bag. It also allows the user to adjust the grind size, depending on the brewing method you choose. Expect 2-3 minutes of manual grinding per cup of coffee, depending on coffee type and grind size. The Slim has a little brother, the Skerton ($28), that’s also great for travel.
The third wave of coffee brewing rightfully prizes non-electric methods of coffee making. For road warriors, glass or ceramic brewers like a Chemex, French Press, or Bee House may be a bit too fragile for serious travel. Consider two hardier options: the much-heralded Aeropress ($30), by Aerobie, is an all-plastic brewer that uses air pressure to produce coffee that can be as strong as espresso. Baristas swear by the Aeropress, and there are even competitions to see who can best “hack the Aeropress.” Another great option for caffeinated travelers is the dependable pourover cone. Kalita makes the well-regarded Wave ($23), which comes in both metal and glass, and Melitta offers a simple plastic cone that retails for just $5, and comes in both one and three-hole options. Using a one-hole pourover cone means that the coffee drips more slowly, yielding a more intense cup. A three-hole cone will obviously brew a cup of coffee more quickly, but the flavor and acidity will be a bit more mild, since the water has less time to soak in the grinds. Both the AeroPress and Kalita Wave use proprietary filters which will be hard to find while traveling, so be sure to come prepared. Melitta pourover cones use standard #2 cone filters, which are available at most supermarkets.
When you’re on the road, you’ll want a mug that’s as resilient as you are. I recommend a balance between something large enough to hold a real amount of your liquid caffeine gold, but still small enough to fit in a kit bag. Starbucks’s Double Wall Ceramic Traveler ($13) has been my go-to for a year. It’s well-insulated so it will will keep your java warm for a while, and has a convenient top that keeps the coffee in the mug, and off of fellow passengers. If you plan on sipping coffee while stationary and don’t need a top, Stumptown offers a trendy fir-tree enamel mug ($16) that will easily withstand airplane turbulence or bumpy highways.
For those on the road, getting boiling water with which to make coffee is a definite challenge. Travelers staying in a hotel or Airbnb may have access to an electric kettle, though they tend to be a bit less popular in the United States than they are in Europe. One can also use a hotel room coffee maker to boil water, but it’s it’s advisable to run a cycle before using it on your own grinds, since the water can often come out tasting like old coffee the first time around. For those truly on the road, a small electric kettle is a good solution. Bonavita – which makes a gooseneck kettle for home use – also makes a small half-liter travel kettle, the Bonavita Bon Voyage ($30) that can be plugged in at rest stops off the highway. If this seems a little extreme, just know that Blue Bottle founder and coffee evangelist James Freeman is known to have taken a portable kettle on the road, and begged water (and, presumably, an outlet) from roadside hamburger joints.
Bagging it All Up
With the exception of the portable electric kettle, everything you need for coffee on the road can fit into many small travel kits or dopp kit bags. The travel kits from Blue Bottle and Stumptown each come with a fancy customized bag from either Timbuk2 or Wood & Faulk, but you can use virtually any bag, so long as it keeps all your coffee essentials together. Pete Hodgson, a consultant and coffee lover, recommends the Eagle Creek Half-Tube Cube ($11), which comes well-recommended on Amazon. Small toiletry bags, like this LL Bean Personal Organizer ($25), have worked well for me in the past.
Cafflano, a Kickstarter-backed coffee maker company, offers an inventive all-in-one grinder, dripper, and thermal mug solution, called the Klassic ($95). Online reviews generally seem positive, though it is a bit spendy.
But what if you’re in the car on the way to the airport, and you realize you’ve forgotten your carefully-assembled coffee travel kit! Short of losing your passport, this just might be the worst thing that can happen to a caffeine-dependant traveler. Thankfully, most airport Starbucks locations carry Via packets, which are one-serving tubes of instant – what Starbucks calls “microground” – coffee. The powder is much more finely ground than other instant coffee, and the taste is far, far superior. I often keep one or two of these in my weekend bag or laptop sleeve, just in case I end up somewhere without access to the real stuff.
With the above six essentials, you’re ready hit to the road. Whether you brew pourover in the backseat, pull a shot of AeroPress espresso at a hotel room desk, or play barista at 40,000 feet, jet lag doesn’t stand a chance against your java!