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How to brew a great cup of coffee while traveling light is a subject that has vexed many manual brewing enthusiasts over the years. Is it possible to make a great cup of coffee in a hotel room (bedroom, hostel, train station) without bringing your entire manual brewing arsenal in your suitcase?
Below are a few travel coffee musings as well as my on-the-road coffee packing list. My travel coffee kit is self-contained and will hold up in nearly every scenario (save the loss of electricity). It is compact, fairly inexpensive and durable. From the curious traveler who has just sworn to never drink another hotel K-cup to the seasoned road brewer, there is a little something for everyone.
Travel Coffee Musings- Everything Boils Down to Hot Water
I’ve been thinking a lot about making coffee away from home (whether coffee outside or traveling) lately and I’ve concluded that the most limiting factor for making a good cup of coffee on the road is hot water. Without a source of clean water and a way to heat it, your options are cold brew, café or settling (or some combination of the three).
Don’t overlook your water source: Do not assume the water at your hotel will taste good or be good for making coffee. Hedge your bets and pick up a bottle or two of spring water (What is the best water for coffee?).
The task of heating water seems inconsequential when you are brewing coffee at home. On the road, the ability to produce hot water is what is standing in between you and a cup of handmade craft coffee. For sourcing hot water, there seems to be two standard options:
- Buying a small travel kettle- This seems to be the most logical and likely to produce an environment similar to your home brew bar. There are several attractive options, the most popular being the Bonavita Bona Voyage .5 Liter travel kettle but the T-fal BF6138 seems to have great reviews as well. The only problem with a travel kettle is it takes up some extra space. If you are looking to keep your coffee gear to a minimum and travel light, this is a less than ideal option.
- Using the in-room equipment to rig a passable brew- The old “use the Keurig to produce hot water and then use this water to brew a cup of coffee manually” (usually Aeropress since it brews well with lower temperatures) trick. This option sounds like a great idea in theory but I have never really had great success with it. You can’t be certain of how hot (or clean) the water will be coming out of the machine. To be sure, this method will make a better cup of coffee than just using the room supplied pods but I’ve always thought there should be a better option.
You can certainly use either of these methods to make a cup of coffee on the road. Buying a travel kettle is a great option if you can give up the extra suitcase space (about 435 cubic inches) and I’m sure with practice you will be able to hone your skills for good, fairly reliable results with the autodrip/Aeropress method. Plenty of great content has been written on the two above methods for creating travel coffee and there is not much more I can add.
For me, adding another kettle was not appealing to me and I would strongly prefer to avoid using a communal hotel brewer of questionable cleanliness and consistency. That is why I was excited when I learned of another option.
The Immersion Heater- A Water Heater that Fits in Your Pocket
From my days of being an avid home brewer of beer, I remember people taking electric water heating elements and building things called heat sticks. These heat sticks were meant to be placed into a pot of wort (unfermented beer) to assist with boiling the liquid. Some brewers would forego the stovetop altogether and simply boil their wort with one or two heat sticks. This kind of heater is called an immersion heater and I was delighted to find they make really small ones.
Creating a mini-travel kettle
While heating your brewing water with a small immersion heater is certainly a little less convenient than using a travel kettle, it can afford you the same outcome (hot water) and it uses less space. Here are some of the particulars:
The immersion heater I bought is tiny. It takes up very little space and can be stuffed into just about any available crevice when you are packing. I combined the immersion heater with a small 12 ounce stainless steel pitcher and together they consume less than 180 cubic inches.
It brings room temperature water to brewing temperature in about six minutes. This immersion “kettle” takes about six minutes to bring 300mL of water up to brewing temperatures. That is around the same amount of time I wait for my electric kettle to come up to temperature at home. It helps to gently stir the heating water periodically to circulate the water. While you are waiting you can also grind your coffee and get everything set up.
You can brew Aeropress into it. Pretty much worse case scenario when you are traveling with an Aeropress is arriving at a destination that only has Styrofoam or paper cups. You cannot press onto them to make your coffee because you will crush the cup and create a mess. In a pinch, you can press your coffee into the pitcher (and even drink out of it) once you have filled the Aeropress with the heated water.
Caution: Read this before using your immersion heater
Successfully using an immersion heater takes a basic understanding of how it works and a little attention to details. If you are absent-minded you may want to either bite the bullet and buy a small travel kettle or purchase an extra heater and resign yourself to the fact that you will probably be breaking them on occasion.
The electric element of an immersion heater uses electricity flowing through a copper core to produce heat. The heat is then dispersed to the water the element is submerged in. If the element is not fully submerged in water or plugged in at any time while not submerged in water, the immersion heater will be ruined (called dry firing). These instructions are an adapted summary from a very helpful review (you can find the original here).
In short, to keep your immersion heater working properly:
- Make sure the entire heating element (not the base or cord, just the heating element) is submerged in water before you plug it in.
- Wait 15-20 seconds or so after unplugging the heater before removing it from the water.
- Do not ever lift the element out of the water (even for a split second) while it is plugged in.
Don’t worry it isn’t as daunting as it may sound. Using the immersion heater is quite easy and once you figure out an away-from-home brewing routine, using the heater will become mindless and second nature.
The Virtues of the Aeropress as a Travel Companion
I have discussed the Aeropress before and lauded on some of its virtues and strengths. Below I would like to highlight a few of its characteristics that make it (and the accompanying kit) the perfect minimalistic travel companion.
- No Gooseneck, no problem- While you don’t need a gooseneck kettle to brew a great cup of coffee manually, there are some methods where a gooseneck is helpful. The Aeropress brews a great cup of coffee without a gooseneck kettle and really doesn’t receive an advantage from the use of one.
- Easy to brew by volume- If you don’t want to bring a digital gram scale on your travels, an Aeropress is a fairly easy brewing to brew by volume on. Using the markings on the side, you can typically get a pretty consistent cup with a little practice.
- Durable- The Aeropress does not break easily (or at all pretty much).
- Easy Clean Up- To clean up, all you have to do is pop out the coffee “puck” and give it a little rinse. If you are not near an abundant water source, a quick wipe down will do in a pinch.
- Cheap and compact filters- The filters are cheap and it is easy to bring an abundant supply of them along.
- Many of the add-on accessories serve a purpose when traveling- I have found the carrying case (bag), the funnel and the stirring stick that are included with the kit to be very useful while traveling. The stirring stick is not only helpful for stirring your coffee slurry in the Aeropress; it is also good for circulating your water as its heating. You can leave the scoop and filter stand at home as they don’t really add much.
The Manual Brewing Minimalistic Travel Brewing Kit
My goal when researching equipment and methods for this post was to create a travel brewing kit that will fit inside the smallest space possible. I am quite pleased that I am able to fit everything listed below inside of the nylon carrying case that comes with your Aeropress. With this travel coffee kit, all you need to brew coffee is an outlet, 300mL of water and ten minutes.
A note on the handmill: You can replace the Hario Slim Mill with the Porlex Mini Mill and the entire handmill should fit inside your case. If you have a Hario Slim Mill and would still like everything to fit inside the case, you will have to leave the base of the unit behind and grind straight into the Aeropress (which is a viable option that is not too difficult).
Minimalist Travel Coffee Kit:
- Aeropress with included accessories (bag, funnel and stirrer)
- Aeropress filters
- Fresh roasted whole bean coffee (or pre-ground if you are not bringing a handmill)
- Hario Slim Mill (or comparable small handmill like the Porlex Mini Mill)
- 12 ounce stainless steel pitcher
- Small immersion water heater
- Your favorite Aeropress recipe (you can find mine here)
Not an Aeropress fan?-If you aren’t a big Aeropress fan or don’t have one. You can easily adapt your packing list to include your favorite pour-over device (and filters) or even a small stainless steel French Press like the Highwin 350mL model.
The travel coffee process:
The brewing process should be fairly simple.
- Fill your stainless steel pitcher with 300mL or so of water.
- Fully submerge your immersion water heater in the water and clip it on the side.
- Plug in the water heater.
- While you wait for the water to heat, grind your coffee and set up your Aeropress.
- Gently circulate the water in the pitcher with the Aeropress stirring stick every minute or so.
- When the water is boiling, unplug the heater and wait 15 seconds before removing it from the pitcher (you will likely want the water to cool a bit before brewing anyways).
- Brew your favorite Aeropress recipe by volume. If you only have the pitcher as a vessel, I recommend using the inverted method and then press the coffee into the pitcher utilizing the funnel.
- Enjoy! This method can be replicated anywhere there is an outlet (110 volt for this heater). Over the next couple months, I will try to get some pictures and videos to prove it.
Do you have any travel coffee hacks, routines or recommendations? If you take my recommendations and take a minimalist travel kit somewhere, I would love to hear about it. Share your experiences and questions below or send me comments and questions via Twitter or Instagram (show me your travel brew setup).