Travel means different things to different people, and to me, travel generally means going places with good coffee. Sampling the local varieties and getting a morning energy boost before adventuring around town for the day is one of life’s simple pleasures, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But for others, travel often means a boring business trip in the middle of nowhere with nothing but atrociously bitter drip coffee as far as the eye can see that crushes the spirit and saps more energy than it creates.
Luckily for them, brew-it-yourself portable coffee makers are better than they have any right to be. They’re as far from second-rate as you can imagine, with one in particular that weighs practically nothing, and is frequently cited as the world’s best. And not just the best travel-appropriate portable coffee maker, but the best, period. Just to give you an idea of how good your coffee can be, even in the middle of nowhere.
Rejoice, coffee enthusiasts, rejoice! No longer must one deal with the brackish swill of local dive establishments whose putrid excuses for caffeinated beverages border on the gasoline-esque! No longer I say! No longer must one subject oneself to anything but the finest of hand-crafted hipster pretentiousness, no matter one’s place in the world! Rejoice, damn you, rejoice!
Ahem, moving on!
Portable Coffee Makers!
Despite being designed by the same guy who invented the Aerobie (yes, the Frisbee-alternative children’s toy), the Aeropress is no mere plaything. Having converted over millions of obsessive coffee fans (including this one), the Aeropress is frequently described as the best coffee maker on the planet, despite costing a mere $30 and consisting of little more than a series of tubes. Like the internet!
The reason it works so well is that it reduces the amount of time the ground coffee remains in contact with hot water (down to about a minute, instead of the usual three or four), thereby eliminating the acidity and bitterness associated with over-brewed coffee, while compensating for this short brew time with piston-activated air pressure to extract more flavor. It brews a strong, smooth, concentrated shot or two of flavorful coffee, which can be enjoyed on its own, or used as the base for a latte or an Americano.
Once I got this, I could never go back to Starbucks ever again. I’ve used it maybe twice per day for the last three years, and with good beans and proper technique (and a stainless steel mesh filter instead of the included paper filters, to allow more flavor to come through), the coffee it produces is so good that I’ve occasionally stopped in my tracks at the first sip, and I can’t bring myself to consider many alternatives.
The parts aren’t the smallest, but they’re all lightweight plastic, and the scoop and stir stick can be stored in the hollow upper tube during transport, so it’s not so voluminous.
- Price: $30
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee, paper filters (or you can upgrade to a reusable stainless steel filter, which I highly recommend) and a mug
2) Impress Coffee Brewer
The Impress is even more portable than the Aeropress, consisting of only three parts, while also doubling as its own travel mug, thus making it even more portable.
The Impress functions quite a bit like a French press, but has a much finer mesh, thus giving you more flavor by allowing you to grind to a finer consistency, while also blocking tiny particles from escaping into the drinkable section, which is often the downside of standard French presses. The outer chamber is also double-walled, insulating the coffee to keep it warm.
The lid is more of a heat-retaining cover, rather than a leakproof screw-on, so it’s best to think of this as more of a desktop travel coffee maker, rather than one that can be thrown in a bag alongside a fancy laptop.
- Price: $40
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee, and maybe a stirring spoon
3) French Press Travel Mug
Tried and true, and plain and simple. French press brewing usually won’t produce something as strong or clean as some other methods, but it has plenty of fans, and it’s also perfect for a portable design that can function as its own insulated travel mug. Options are also numerous enough that you can find some with minor features you might prefer, like handles or weird sizes.
Pictured is the Bodum stainless steel insulated French press travel coffee mug, a popular model with a sippy spout for drinking coffee on a bumpy bus ride.
Starbucks also makes a nice variation with a screw-top closure, which is likely to be more popular with people who like to throw things into a bag right next to important documents and electronics. It’s also smaller (10 ounces instead of the Bodum’s 15) for those who prefer something slimmer.
- Price: $30
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee, and maybe a stirring spoon
4) Collapsible Coffee Dripper
Easily the most compact and transportable option available here (unless you consider the counter-argument that the travel mugs take up zero extra space if you were planning on taking them anyway), a collapsible coffee dripper is about as tiny as it gets. You’ll need your own mug and coffee filters too, but aside from that, it’ll barely take up any space at all.
The one pictured here is from GSI, and I picked this one because it has a lid, so you won’t have to worry too much about keeping it clean all the time.
- Price: $13
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee, paper filters (or a reusable stainless one) and a mug
Get it here.
Portable Espresso Makers!
Handpresso has been around for a while, and has two major products; a pump-operated version (shown in the photo) and an electric version that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter (seriously, why don’t cars just have regular outlets at this point?). You’ll see plenty of other products listed on the site, but they’re either color variations, or pod-only models instead of pod-or-ground-coffee models. They’ve got quite a few accessories, too.
I’m highlighting the manual version here, because the car version is rather pricey, and requires an additional adapter to plug it into a regular outlet, so I think the manual version is likely to be more versatile. Just a few pumps, coffee, and hot water, and you’ve got espresso, with no additional electricity needed.
Despite being a more complex system than the regular coffee makers shown above, it’s still quite small, and easily portable. They even make a travel case for extra protection.
- Price: Approximately $100 (original prices are in euros, so currency fluctuations can change this)
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee or ESE coffee pods, and a mug
Get it here (and peruse the other pages for the car version as well).
This one might actually win the espresso competition. It’s lighter than the Handpresso, and has what I would say is a simpler pump mechanism, plus an included cup, making it quite a convenient little contraption. Oh, and it’s about half the price, too.
The only potential disadvantage is that it produces coffee under 8 bars of pressure, compared to the Handpresso’s 16; I doubt this will be a deal breaker for anyone out there, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning, especially since “official” espresso typically requires 9 bars, but oh well.
Minipresso currently comes in two versions; one for ground coffee, and one for pods (and there are only two approved pod brands for the pod version), so I expect the ground coffee version would be more versatile, while the pod version would be more convenient.
- Price: $50
- What else you need: Hot water, ground coffee (or pods for the pod version)
Accessories you might like
Seeing as how quite a few of the options above require hot water and ground coffee, you might be thinking about how to manage those requirements during a late-night productivity session after the coffee shops have closed for the day. With that in mind, you’ll want to take a look at these:
- A manual coffee grinder will allow you to grind on demand, wherever you are, and once you give freshly ground beans a try, it’s all but impossible to go back. Manual grinders take quite some time to operate (particularly for a finer grind), but it’ll give you a minor workout, too. You could also bring a small, electric blade grinder, as it’s not going to be that much bigger, and might be justifiable if you’re brewing for several people, or going for a long trip where you’ll make frequent use of it.
- An immersion boiler is a portable water heater that plugs into a standard outlet (car adapter versions also exist), and gives you hot water wherever you have electricity. Some hotels have hot water dispensers, but some don’t, so this is nice to have if you’re staying in a low-budget hotel without many amenities, while also being more efficient than heating up a whole kettle for just one cup.
- A good travel mug is great for keeping coffee or tea hot on a cold day, while also providing the under-appreciated advantage of keeping water cold on a hot day. I don’t have a favorite, but I like this one quite a bit, partly because it has a built-in, removable tea infuser, so it can be used for just about anything.
Well, that should do it. With just a few simple ingredients, you can brew your own coffee, wherever you are. For those venturing through Italy and enjoying the amazing espresso on every street corner, this might not seem like a big deal; but for those attending some business conference in a small town for whom the term “coffee” consists of little more than black tap water, a portable coffee maker can make a wonderful difference.