Alimentary, my Dear: Part 21

My day hasn't properly begun till I've downed my first cup of coffee. And I make that coffee the old‑fashioned way. By hand. No sputtering grampus of an electric drip pot for me. I use a French press. This fussiness helps to explain why I wasn't entirely happy with my camp coffee until quite recently, when I bought a GSI Personal Java Press. Now my coffee in camp is as good as my coffee at home.

My first cup from the Java Press was a eureka moment of sorts. I figured I'd found the Philosopher's Stone of camp coffee, the sine qua non, the nonpareil, the… Well, you get the point. I was convinced that the Java Press was The Answer to the paddling coffee‑lover's prayers, and I couldn't see why anyone would want (or need) anything else. I was wrong, of course. Serious coffee drinkers are fiercely independent, and they're not shy about setting forth their views — or even laying down the law for others, come to that. (Maybe it's the caffeine!)

In any event, my Java Press column garnered more than the usual amount of mail, each letter outlining the writer's take on the best method for making good coffee in camp. And (with one exception) no two writers agreed. It's like I just said: Coffee drinkers are an independent bunch. I shouldn't have been surprised. But I've still had to rethink the conclusion of my Java Press piece. Perhaps I didn't discover the Philosopher's Stone of camp coffee, after all. In fact, the evidence of my mailbag suggests that there are as many Answers to the question of how to make good coffee in camp as there are coffee‑drinking paddlers.

Which is why I'm writing this. If you, too, find it hard to start your engine in the morning without a jolt of java, but if you haven't yet found a way to make a perfect cup of coffee when you're camped at the water's edge, you'll want to keep reading. There's a whole world of choices out there, and thanks to the generosity of In the Same Boat's readers, that cornucopia of choice is about to be spread before you. Try one reader's suggestion or try them all. See what works for you. My opinions don't matter. It's the taster's choice, pure and simple.

OK. Let's begin with …

Café Filtre

Or drip coffee, to give it a more down‑to‑earth name. It's one of the most straightforward methods of coffee‑making, and it's also one of the best. Place ground coffee in a wire‑mesh basket or paper filter and pour boiling water through it. Simple and good. This used to be my preferred method for making coffee at home, as it happens, but I found carrying a plastic filter cone in my pack to be a perishing nuisance. So I started looking for another method. I may have given up on café filtre too quickly, however, as this letter from north of the border suggests:

I am a relatively new kayaker (summer 2009) but have been an avid hiker, cyclotourist, and backpacker for years. Coffee is one of my passions. At home with my automatic espresso machine and weekly roasted beans, I'm all about fresh and good. While hiking or taking a bike trip, though, we have reverted on occasion to cowboy coffee. A spoonful of ground beans in the cup and boiling water over it, let it stand and drink it, spitting grounds most of the time. It was less than satisfying. But, I am like you in that I savour that first cup in the morning.
I read your article from 2005 on coffee ["Java Jive: The Ch'i of Coffee" – Editor] and taking a French press or espresso machine into the bush seems a little too much bother. However, this summer I came across a great little invention by GSI — a silicon collapsible coffee filter. It is light, packs flat, and takes No. 4 coffee filters. The filter works well and stands on its own on top of your cup. Filters a cup of water very quickly and makes great coffee. The used coffee filters when dry can be completely consumed in a fire and hence there is little impact. If you can't have an outdoor fire for whatever reason, they can be packed out and add very little weight or volume. A few of our friends carried hard plastic coffee cones, but those can get broken during packing and they are bulky.
I know the GSI filters are available in North America for around USD12. They are the best I have found yet and make a great cup of coffee.
Donald J. Rycroft London, Ontario

Needless to say, Donald's letter sparked my interest, so I visited the GSI website, and theirCollapsible Java Drip does indeed look like a winner. It can make as many as 12 cups of coffee at one go, but it takes up little more space in your pack than a hockey puck and weighs less than 5 ounces. It also bears a striking resemblance — in design, though not in function — to a once‑common type of collapsible cup.

If this sounds good to you, just bing or google "GSI Collapsible Java Drip." You'll find plenty of online sellers. I'll bet you'll see it on the shelf at your local outfitter, too.

And the coffee ought to be first‑rate. Filtered drip coffee is the cleanest, clearest brew imaginable. But it's not the only method worth considering. There's also …

Steeped Coffee One reader has carried the doctrine of simple and good to its logical conclusion here. He's combined steeping with filtration, but he's dispensed with the supporting filter cone altogether:

Coffee that's worth getting up for is coffee that someone else makes.However, since that does not happen for me, I invented a simple method for steeped coffee, which is the principle behind the French press. What you need are an insulated mug with a "sippy top," a paper towel, and ground coffee (no, I do not carry a portable grinder). Fold the paper towel into a triangle, then fold it again into a smaller triangle. Open the edge like a funnel and insert this into the mug. Add your measure of ground coffee and then add hot water. Cap the mug to conserve heat. Wait four or five minutes. Pull out the filter and grounds, and you're done. GSI makes great stuff, but this is way simpler.
Bill Kessler

Bill's ingenious technique reminded me of my days in the wet‑chemistry lab, when we folded paper filters in the same way Bill folds his paper towels. And while I wonder about the possibility that paper toweling might sometimes contribute an off‑note to the brew, I can't argue with the method's simplicity and economy. It's certainly worth a try. 

On the other hand, the filter‑in‑the‑cup method doesn't scale up readily, a matter of some import for …

Paddlers Who Like to Live Large

As I was reminded by a letter from a veteran In the Same Boat reader, who enjoys taking large groups on paddling excursions through southern swamps:

Once again, you have crafted an article that is both informative and entertaining. I enjoy French press coffee at home on Saturday mornings, and I can see the advantage of GSI's Personal Java Press for those who travel in kayaks. I, on the other hand, travel in large, behemoth, 17‑foot aluminum canoes which carry about 900 pounds each. This amount of cargo capacity allows me to bring along my three‑burner Coleman and my 30‑cup percolator. Depending on the size of my group, 30 cups is about right.
Art Denney

The smell of perked coffee permeated my childhood home, so Art's solution scores with me on the grounds (sorry!) of nostalgia alone, even if I've now adopted the French press for my own use. And nostalgia isn't all that a big percolator has going for it. If you're camping with a group, Art's 30‑cup percolator has both tradition and efficiency on its side. I'd certainly think twice before attempting to use my little press to jolt a large party into wakefulness on a chilly morning.

Café filtre, steeped, pressed, or perked — you'd think that this would exhaust the range of possibilities, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong, there's a new kid on the block:

The Aerobie AeroPress

A "coffee and espresso maker," the AeroPress is a hybrid of sorts, combining design elements of both the French press and the filter cone. And it has quite a following, as shown by the number of readers who recommended it. (It's worth noting that the AeroPress was the only coffee maker to receive such acclaim.) Clearly, this is a product that inspires loyalty:

Mmmm, coffee! I've found another coffee maker that not only does wonders in camp, but has won over a couple of the coffee drinkers here for office use. From Aerobie, the makers of the Flying Ring, comes theAeroPress. Simple, light and easy to use, this coffee press makes a shot — or four — of espresso in under a minute.
To make coffee, pull the plunger out, twist the black cap off the bottom, and add a filter (the filters are flat and circular, about the diameter of a half‑dollar coin). Add the desired amounts of coffee and hot water, stir, let it brew for about 20‑30 seconds, then replace the plunger and press down slowly. Add more hot water to the concentrated brew for an Americano, or drink it straight. To clean the unit, remove the black cap from the bottom, push the plunger through, and wipe it off. All in all it's fairly painless and makes good espresso.
Granted, in my opinion, espresso does not have that bold, full taste that a good drip coffee has, but it's still good.
George Caudel Moscow, Idaho

That's a glowing review, to be sure, but another reader set the bar even higher:

Just read your coffee press review. The GSI Personal Java Press is only the best because you haven't tried the Aerobie AeroPress yet! Yep, the same company that makes those flying saucer things. They are PURE AWESOME! No coffee grounds in the bottom, and the easiest cleanup you can imagine. Not exactly a nesting doll [see Tamia's Java Press column – Editor], but worth the couple of extra ounces if you like really good coffee. They've multiplied like rabbits in my house. I now have three of them: home, office, and travel. Try it and you'll never go back.
Rick Germain Rochester, New York

What could I possibly add to that? Except to say that I'll have to wait for my Java Press to wear out before I'm ready to plunk down the money for another camp coffee maker. But when that day comes, I'll certainly give the AeroPress careful consideration. Of course, it's easy to get so wrapped up in matters of technique that you lose sight of the big picture. That's not a problem for another reader, though. He's kept his eyes fixed resolutely on the prize:

Coffee in Bed

And in camp, too…

Good coffee can never be sufficiently celebrated, and the French press makes the best. We use a French roast, ground coarse, in ours. One wrinkle might be added, the best camping tip I ever read (I think in a Cliff Jacobson column): make the coffee the night before, pour it into a heated metal thermos (make sure the lid's tight), and take it into the sleeping bag with you (one-half liter is good for one person — at least to get started). Nothing beats a hot cup of coffee before you even leave the tent, especially when that coffee is complemented by a fine view and the first pipe of the day.
Jim Penistan Lyndhurst, Ontario

How's that for gracious living? And it's only right that Jim should have the last word on the subject. After all, it's the setting in which you drink your first cup of the day that matters most — not the brewing method. And that's no jive!

Do you mark the start of each day from your first cup of coffee? If so, you've probably shared my frustration with the options available to paddlers. Then again, I thought I'd found The Answer when I recently acquired my GSI Java Press. But quite a few readers had other ideas. And this week they've had a chance to put their case. Who emerged as the winner? That's easy. We all did. It's the taster's choice!

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