Strip away the fancy home and cafe gadgetry like espresso machines, electric burr grinders, and gooseneck spouts on temperature-controlled electric kettles. Away from home, these luxuries will have to wait as you explore the wilderness.
Would you still bring your Aeropress, hand mill and a pound of your finest whole bean if you had to carry it on your back – along with a stove, fuel bottle, tent, and a set of spare clothes? As an avid backpacker, I find these questions are not so easy to answer. The saying, “ounces mean pounds and pounds mean pain,” resonate with anyone who has tested his or her grit in the backcountry for days or weeks at a time, causing some to even lop off the handle of a toothbrush to drop pack weight.
Boiling snow for a quick on-trail coffee break in Utah.
Backpacker Magazine recently released an article aiming to test different backcountry brew methods to see which appeals most to backcountry baristas. They compared three methods: cowboy coffee, filter, and French press. For those who want to skip their article, their scoring went as follows:
Cowboy coffee: brewing with grounds in the mug, sinking the grinds, then drinking until it gets too gritty
Best for Ultralighters and groups
Convenience: 4 out of 5
Taste: 3 out of 5
Filter: brewing in an unspecified filter
Best for low-fuss caffeine addicts
Convenience: 3 out of 5
Taste: 4 out of 5
Best for weekend-warrior connoiseurs
Convenience: 2 out of 5
Taste: 5 out of 5
Before I begin, I would like to thank Backpacker for running a piece on coffee in the backcountry. I particularly enjoy when two of my passions collide and they put a fair amount of thought into the article, including this gem: ”Proper extraction happens between 195 and 205 F. If you’re brewing at elevations between 3,500 and 9,000 feet, you can pour boiling water straight into your filter or press. Above 9,000 feet? Leave your coffee kit at home and bring a quality instant instead. At that elevation, water’s boiling temp is below 195℉, so it never gets hot enough to extract subtle flavors.”
Bravo! However, I must contend with a few of their claims for each method.
Cowboy coffee (my preferred method) amounts to cupping a coffee, except drinking the whole thing. Given that this is the tasting critique for every respectable coffee establishment in the frontcountry, I give it a 5 out of 5 for taste for a total score of 9 out of 10.
The entire section on the filter method makes no sense, especially given that they did not describe the device they used. They recommend a cylindrical mesh tea-infuser for more even extraction and pleasant body than conical filters, which is entirely erroneous given their additional instruction to use a fine grind and pour-over technique. This section sounds like a recipe for a cup of under-extracted sludge that deserved 1 out of 5 for taste for a total of 4 out of 10.
I would never carry a French press while backpacking, so this sounds silly to me. However, if you’re the type to shoulder the weight for a ground-free cup, then cudos! However, I’m still knocking the score down to 1 out of 5 for convenience for a total score of 6 out of 10.
Opinions aside, two undisputed facts remain:
1. Regardless of method, a good cup always starts with a fresh grind.
2. Nothing in this world tops brewing a warm mug of backcountry coffee while taking in a chilly sunrise amidst the lingering aroma of freshly ground coffee.