Here’s a familiar story. You’re on the road and staying at the Quality Inn or whatever, and you wake up each morning thinking, “Do I really have to drink this?” as you stare with disdain upon your single serve Mr. Coffee and packet of Royal Cup grounds. My friend, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can, in fact, have good coffee on the road, and I’m here to help.
What follows is the world’s greatest guide to hotel coffee making. It’s a carefully researched survival kit that was created specifically to help coffee loving folks like you and me prepare for and conquer the most dire of coffee circumstances. These tips and tools were recently put to the test, as I took to traveling recently to California and Alabama, the latter of which is America’s vast coffee wasteland. Read on, personalize this resource to fit your needs, and never be left without quality coffee away from your home again.
The Problem with Hotel Coffee Makers
Nearly all – and I say nearly not to suggest there’s a glimmer of hope, but because I just haven’t encountered every possibility – hotel coffee makers are terrible devices. As a rule I avoid automatic coffee makers because they take a one shot (and often wrong) approach to coffee brewing. Their temperature is unreliable, the water isn’t dispersed evenly across the coffee bed, the brewing cycle is often way too long, and automatic brewers typically produce rather poor coffee. There’s a reason the Specialty Coffee Association of American only endorses four auto brewers, and chances are the machine in your hotel isn’t on this list.
Consideration of Brewing Device
The brewing device you choose should depend on a few factors, such as what equipment is at your disposal, how much coffee you’ll need to brew at a time and how much stuff you’re willing to carry. What’s not included in this guide is how much ridicule you’re willing to put up with, as your travel mates may laugh at the sight of your setup. I’ve skipped over a few brewing devices here that are deemed excessively impractical, like the siphon brewer. Here are four relatively common devices that can be purchased with minimal investment ($20-40).
The French press (or, press pot) requires no additional filters, and has a built-in carafe, thus reducing overall supplies needed. It can also make a large quantity of coffee, in case you want to share your superior brew with those in your party (at least, those who haven’t made fun of you for bringing your own coffee supplies). On the negative side, French presses can be messy to clean, and coarse grinds can clog up the hotel sink. They are also typically made of glass, though some are plastic.
By this I mean popular devices like the Hario V60, Chemex and those made by Melitta and others. The pour over, like the French press, can be used to brew multiple cups at a time. And since you’ll be using a filter, clean up is a matter of tossing out the spent grounds and filter together. The flip side is the need for special filters, something like a kettle to pour the water and the likelihood that you’ll require a carafe (unless using a Chemex). While some pour over devices are plastic, they are often breakable glass or ceramic.
The AeroPress is a nifty, self-contained brewing vessel that’s entirely constructed of sturdy plastic and rubber and can fit in nearly anyone’s luggage. This device works by pressing a non-filtering (no holes) plunger through the brewing vessel, and cleaning is a matter of removing the lid and pressing all the way through. The AeroPress also doesn’t require a special pouring kettle, and the filters are small and easy to carry. The real drawback here is that you’ll be brewing a cup at a time.
The Clever, like the French press, is a full-immersion brewing device (which essentially means coffee steeping in water), only it contains a filter and at the end of brewing you can set it on a cup to release the brewed coffee – no plunging required. It’s constructed from plastic, doesn’t take up much space and won’t require a special kettle for pouring. The downside is that its basically a one-cup brewer, and does require special filters.
Recognizing that everyone’s needs are different, I’ve created a radar graph to plot out the relative qualities of each of these devices. Adjust these qualities to suit your needs and the realities of your travel. For some, brewing a single, large quantity may be the biggest factor. For others, space-savings and easy clean up may be a priority. The graph below illustrates Clean up, Equipment Needed, Space Required and Volume produced, and assumes a “5″ to be the most positive expression of each attribute.
How to Dose and Grind Coffee Away from Home
Again, the realities of your travel and the equipment you already have will determine the method of dosing and grinding that’s right for you. But as a rule, pre-ground coffee is bad. When coffee is ground, it rapidly deteriorates with increased exposure to oxygen. For that reason, this guide assumes you’ll be using whole bean coffee. But if you must – and by that I mean absolutely must – use pre-ground coffee, grind as close to your departure as possible, and store in an airtight container.
Dosing is really the easy part. If you like, you can bring along a scale and weigh out coffee for each brew. But that’s not practical for everyone. Save time by planning ahead and dosing out coffee for your trip. You can do this by using small plastic containers. Another trick, if you’re bringing cone filters, is to place the proper dose for one brew inside the filter, which can then rest snuggly inside a sealable plastic bag.
I’m a burr grinder advocate, though they tend to be big and expensive. Blade grinders are – sigh – somewhat useful for out-of-home brewing since they’re relatively small. A tip is to grind in short bursts, shaking the grinder every few times to ensure the most uniform grind possible. As an alternative, you may consider purchasing a manual-powered burr grinder. These are usually every bit as good as their electric counterparts, with the added bonus of portability. They just require a little elbow grease.
Sourcing and Heating Water in a Hotel
Are you still with me? Because selecting your brewing device and figuring out how you’ll store and dose coffee was the easy part. The real trick to good coffee in a hotel is finding and heating water for the brew. In this guide I’ll cover a couple not-so-good ways to get hot water in a hotel, as well as two acceptable alternatives.
Hot Water Tower – bad
It may be tempting to think, “Oh, I’ll just use the hotel hot water dispenser from the water cooler – genius!” This is a trap. Generally, water coolers are really good at one thing, and that’s dispensing cool or cold water, and acceptably warm or hot water for a cup of ramen. For coffee brewing you need to reach a temperature of 195-205 degrees for proper extraction, and these water towers max out around 170-180 degrees. Complicating things further, it isn’t likely you have one sitting in your hotel room, so the trip from down the hall back to your brewing station will cool the water further.
Hotel Coffee Maker – bad
Similar to using the hot water tower, using the hotel’s pre-existing coffee maker for hot water is problematic, yet tempting. I know, you’re thinking, “I’ll just ‘brew’ without coffee, then use the water in my coffee – perfect!” This is also flawed logic. First, let’s just consider that you don’t know where that thing has been. Hotel coffee makers could have been in contact with literally any disgusting substance before your arrival. It’s also possible that, even if it was just used as intended, you’re water could pickup residual flavors from the machine or carafe. And then there’s the temperature issue. Recall that automatic brewers are notoriously bad at temperature control. Even if the water began at the ideal 195-205 degrees, you’ll be using the water post-brew, which may have settled to something less than ideal.
Microwave - good
Many hotels are equipped with in-room microwaves. You can typically find out if your hotel has a microwave by visiting its website or calling to inquire. If it does, then simply pack a glass container for heating water, along with your coffee brewing tools. But microwaving water for coffee isn’t without its problems. For instance, how do you know when you’ve reached a sufficient temperature? To account for this, pack a pocket thermometer. These are cheap and small, usually no larger than a pen. Use it to test the water before brewing to ensure it’s been heated between 195-205 degrees. Though time required will vary from microwave-to-microwave, I found that four minutes was sufficient to reach my desired temperature.
The other issue with microwaves is something called superheating. I urge you, do not skip over this paragraph, as it can be quite dangerous to microwave water without taking the proper precautions. Superheating occurs when water reaches a boiling temperature, but doesn’t boil. This can happen in a microwave when your water container lacks nucleation sites, which are tiny areas where bubbles can form in the water. So, while the water may appear fine after being superheated, a slight agitation could cause the water to boil and spew. That sounds terrifying, but there’s an easy fix. Stick a wooden stir stick, chopstick or similar item into the container before heating. The tiny spaces in the wood serve as nucleation sites and keep the water from superheating.
Electric Kettle – ideal
An electric kettle is the ideal solution for heating water safely and precisely away from home. Many popular electric kettles have temperature settings that will heat your water within the 195-205 degree range. Even if it only boils (212 degrees), most kettles will drop to around 200 degrees within 30 seconds to a minute. Again, a pocket thermometer is a handy tool. The downside, obviously, is the space required to lug around your kettle, as it’s likely this will be your bulkiest piece of coffee equipment. That said, the accuracy and convenience of an electric kettle (once you arrive at your destination) in my opinion is well worth the hassle of packing and carrying it.
Just remember, we don’t drink great coffee because it’s easy, we do so because it’s rewarding. Creating a reliable hotel coffee setup can be quite troublesome, but in my experience it’s certainly worth the effort.