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Camp Coffee Throwdown

Top 5 ways to enjoy a hot cup of java in the wilds
By Jessica Drollette - November 12th, 2012

I feel my husband stirring in the sleeping bag next to me, the sun is just barely peeking low through the trees as it warms up the morning, and I lay still and quiet. I’m pretending to be asleep as I listen to him rattle the cook pot to boil some water for coffee.

Oh boy, COFFEE!

One of the best things about camping is that small, dark, hot and steamy cup of coffee that warms up your hands and makes the scenery twice as gorgeous as it already is.

After just one belly-waking cup I’m ready to hit the trail. It puts that extra spring in my step when we’re hiking, makes me sing along at top volume with Patsy Cline when we’re on a road trip, and makes that breakfast burrito taste that much more delicious when we’re lounging around the campground with friends, detailing out our plans for the day.

At home it’s easy (and at work, it’s free). But what’s the best way to partake in some hot fresh bean juice in the woods?

These are my five current favorite ways to make camp coffee. Two gear-intensive ways for car camping, two lightweight methods for backpacking, and one new favorite that I think is just plain fun and delicious enough to include in this roundup.

 

First up: the Jet Boil French Press

It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s delicious, and it’s a fun little gadget for show and tell in camp.

My first cup of Jetboil brew was pressed by our Jetboil rep Gavin on an overnight ski/snowboard trip to Ball Butte in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness. As soon as I saw how quickly and easily he slammed out café for 6, I knew I had to get one of my own.

The Jetboil Flash is a 1 liter FluxRing® cooking cup with an insulating cozy. You screw it onto a Jetboil fuel canister, fire it up with its push-button igniter, and in 2 minutes, you have 16 ounces of boiling water. Dump in your grounds, give them a stir and let sit for a minute, then plunge the French press attachment and pour. It’s an ultra-fast way to brew up 2 cups of near-perfect French press coffee.

I got the Flash cooking system first and then added the French press to my rig later. It’s great for car camping, road tripping, climbing, bike touring, snow camping… anytime you’re already using the Jetboil as your main cooking system, or when you can bear the extra weight.

My Jetboil French press has a loose seal that won’t completely filter out all the grounds, so you have to pour it slow, grow a mustache for a secondary filtering process or just man up and hit that mud. It makes a rich, dark coffee that will really get things moving.

A couple tricky things I learned not to do after my first round with this rig and much swearing that my hubby loved but surely offended our neighbors are:

  • Don’t get greedy and fill the pot with more than 16 ounces of water. It will spew rapidly boiling water all over your hands as you try to turn it off.
  • Don’t walk away or get involved with making breakfast while you’re waiting for it to boil. This little stove cranks so hard it literally does take only 2 minutes.
  • Turn off the heat BEFORE you add the grounds, or the coffee will foam up and spill over making a huge mess and wasting half your brew.

After noting these little lessons, the Jetboil French press is still the fastest, easiest way to get coffee in my cup, is perfect for 2 people, and is my go-to car-camping coffee system that I bring whenever we head out.

Details:

  • Volume of coffee brewed in one go: 16 ounces
  • Price: $100
  • Weight: 16 oz (pot, stove, small fuel canister, French press)

 

Next up for car camping: The NRS AeroPress

The dirtbag’s espresso machine. Not just for camp, the AeroPress is my new favorite coffee maker for home and work too.

My buddy Juan keeps it on his desk at work and loans it out to anyone in need of a delicious Americano-style coffee. I got a full-on “AeroPress History and Theory 101” lesson the first time I witnessed Juan pressing in the staff kitchen.

This nifty little gadget not only adds a fun ritual to your coffee routine with custom tools for each step, but it won’t break the bank, and brews up a smooth, low-acidity, delicious shot of coffee that rivals any cup you’re already drinking at home. Boil up your water, pour it over a scoop of grounds, stir it with the flat paddle, wait 10 seconds, press the plunger slowly, and you’ve got a shot of “espresso” in your cup that you can then add milk or water to.

Use an espresso grind for best results, and don’t let it steep too long before pressing it.

Cleanup is easy – just pop out the little hockey puck of spent grounds, rinse off the paper filter and you’re ready to press another cup for your friends.

Details:

  • Volume of coffee brewed in one go: I use one scoop of coffee grounds for one 6-ounce shot topped off with water for a 10-ounce cup of coffee
  • Price: $32
  • Weight: 11.3 oz (AeroPress with funnel, stir stick, scoop)

 

Easiest for backpacking: Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

The best little instant coffee you’ll ever taste. Go for the Italian Roast if you like a bold, dark cup.

I was worried I had OD’d on VIA during my thru-hike of the PCT. It was new, I was excited, and I got dozens of VIAs in every care package from friends and family.

No worries, I didn’t. VIA is still awesome in my book.

Camping makes everything taste better, and coffee is no exception. While I would rarely settle for instant coffee in town, a quick, no-fuss cup of high quality instant in the wilderness is a well-earned luxury to look forward to while drifting off to sleep the night before.

This little packet is pretty self-explanatory: you add it to a cup of hot water and drink.

I like mine with sugar and half-and-half. I hate powdered nonfat milk so I go to the trouble of snagging those little creamer pods in town whenever I see them and pack a few along inside my cup where they’re safe from getting smashed. I’ve seen VIA in most grocery stores, and of course in any Starbucks store. These days Starbucks has 17 flavors of VIA, from Veranda Blonde Roast, to Mocha, to Pumpkin Spice. Dang, it might be time to try them all again to make sure Italian is still my favorite!

Details:

  • Volume of coffee brewed in one go: one packet for one 8-ounce cup
  • Price: $10 for 12 servings
  • Weight: 0.14 oz

 

Most hardcore for backpacking: Cowboy Coffee

Simple, old-school, STRONG… If you like a little mud in your cup, just go for it. Once you try it a few times you’ll have your own little superstitious ritual that hopefully does not involve cracking a raw egg into your pot to settle the grounds.

While thru-hiking the PCT in 2010 my hubby and I hooked up with a couple of Israeli dudes in Southern California for a few days. They liked to stop for an afternoon coffee break every day on the trail.

This was our first introduction to a dark, muddy, cardamom-infused Arab coffee called Nakhleh (say “knock-lay”).

It’s a fine Turkish grind with real cardamom spice mixed in. A hold-over tradition from their service in the Israeli Army, they told us, “you are not a real Israeli hiker if you do not drink Nakhleh.”

Their personal ritual was to boil the water, add a few spoonfuls of Nakhleh and a few spoonfuls of sugar, bring it back to a frothy boil, take it off the heat for a couple seconds, then bring it back to another boil, remove it from the flame, let it sit for a minute, bang the pot with a spoon 3 times to settle the grounds, and pour it into as many cups as there were hikers.

Talk about putting a spring in my step -- holy caffeine high -- we did another 15 miles through the desert that afternoon in a blur, hopping over cacti, telling stories, chatting rapidly and solving the world’s problems with our new hiker friends. We saw them on and off for the rest of the 2500 miles, and when we were behind them they sometimes stashed a bag of Nakhleh for us to find along the trail.

While Nakhleh will always be my favorite, the cowboy method works equally well with any other fine ground coffee you have.

The trick is to let it boil and brew for just a few seconds, then let it sit for a minute and pour it slowly so most of the mud stays in the bottom of your pot.

Details:

  • Volume of coffee brewed in one go: one heaping spoonful of grounds per 10 ounces of water, for an 8-ounce serving
  • Price: cost of the coffee; if you want to try Nakhleh it’s hard to find in the US, but I bought it on eBay for $13 per pound
  • Weight: just the coffee and sugar

 

New brew on the block: Grower’s Cup

It’s an all-in-one, just-add-water filter bag with premium beans that are organic and Fairtrade certified.

Okay, if this is just the newest gimmick on the block, I don’t really care, I’m still sold. It’s fun, it’s easy, and the coffee tastes great.

A Danish company that has already found some success in the European market and is trying to break into the gourmet camping world over here, Grower’s Cup currently has five coffee varietals available: Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ethiopia. Each has their own flavor profile and so far I have to say I like Mexico the best with its medium roast that has notes of bright butterscotch and chocolate.

Each bag brews 16 ounces of coffee. You open the top, pour in hot water, seal it up and let it sit for 5 minutes as it filters into the reservoir in the bottom of the bag. Then pour it into your cups and savor. If you buy a set of five bags you’ll sometimes get that nifty hard plastic frame to keep it steady as it brews and while you pour from it.

Lots of trash? Yes, I will admit it, the excessive packaging seems a little wasteful. Great for car camping? Yes, it’s a bit heavy and bulky for backpacking, but I can picture it perfectly in a hip, restored Airstream, or looking adorable on the table in a rental yurt at a state park on the coast.

Even if it’s just a fad, you’ll be the first of your friends to try it and I won’t be surprised to see it in cool indy outdoor stores and in Sunset Magazine soon.

Details:

  • Volume of coffee brewed in one go: 16 ounces
  • Price: $3.50 (1 brew bag)
  • Weight: 3.0 oz
  • Buy Online

These are my current top five coffee rituals, and I’m sure I’ll have a new one next season.

There is no one winner (I know, a real Throwdown would have a champion). Since this is the West, I’m declaring them ALL winners!

I just want to make sure you know you’ve got some options when you’re camping. After all, there’s nothing better than waking up in the woods, brewing up a fresh cup of heaven, and feeling the morning sun on your face as you take that first sip of sweet, delicious of coffee.

 

 


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