Here is my philosophy on great coffee: drink it if you can get it, and don’t be a snob if you can only get something basic. But I have my limits on what I’ll accept, and those limits are well above what’s usually available in the little basket in your typical American hotel room. I am currently sitting in my first hotel room in over a year and figure a few of you might be doing the same soon, so here’s my guide for how to make the best coffee.
The obvious option is to locate the nearest coffee shop where you’re traveling, but that would necessitate leaving your hotel room, and the whole point of coffee is to build up the wherewithal to face the world in the first place. Instead, I prefer to make the coffee myself in the most convenient way given the limitations and options usually available in a hotel room.
The best portable coffee brewer: AeroPress Go
Of all the coffee makers in all the travel bags in all the world, the AeroPress Go is the best for travel. It comes with a bunch of pieces of equipment that you’ll want on hand. There’s the basic system itself, which consists of a tube and plunger, of course. But it also packs itself into its own plastic cup and comes with a little container for filters, a scoop, and a stir stick.
There are a few reasons the AeroPress Go is so great for travel. First, it’s indestructible. Everything is plastic and can be knocked around. It’s also light, self-contained, and easy to clean. Most importantly for me, it’s an incredibly forgiving coffee maker. Conditions in a hotel room are going to vary from your home setup: unless you’re willing to devote space to a proper kettle and scale, you will be using smaller and simpler methods for getting hot water and measuring your ratios. Given that you can’t do everything exactly as you might like, the AeroPress has the best Good Coffee To No Fuss Ratio I’ve found.
It comes with a coffee scoop and stir stick, if you like using those when you brew your coffee. (I don’t bother with either.)
The simplest way to boil water in a hotel room: immersion heater
This little coil is the thing that unlocked my entire travel coffee setup. The thing about making coffee is you need very hot water, and the thing about hotel rooms is your options for making very hot water range from bad to none. An immersion heater neatly solves that problem without taking up too much space.
You may be tempted, as I have, to buy a portable water kettle — the kind that collapses down. I have tried two or three, and they’re all bad: too fussy, hard to clean, and too big. This little coil is really all you need to boil water, provided you have a vessel you can drop it in.
A couple words of warning. 1. I don’t think it’s a great idea to use this in the cup that comes with your AeroPress. I’ve done it in a pinch, but I think you should use something else. I use my own thermos, but you can also get by with whatever mugs are provided to you in the hotel room. 2. This coil is a blunt instrument: it’s a coil of metal literally hooked directly into the outlet. Never leave it unattended when plugged in, and never plug it in without first ensuring it’s submerged in water.
One thing you’ll miss out on is directly controlling the exact temperature of your water with this boiler. That’s fine because you’re already using the AeroPress, which is very forgiving about things like water temperature.
When packing, I stuff this coil and its cord inside my travel mug.
Get good coffee beans or grounds
You’re going to need good coffee to make good coffee, so get some good coffee. How you handle this is entirely up to you. My setup includes a hand coffee grinder (see below), but pre-ground beans are perfectly fine for hotel room coffee if you ask me.
My preferred way of handling the Bean Question is to not bring my own from home. Instead, I do a tiny bit of research before I leave and then buy them from a local shop when I arrive in town. I aim to try coffee that’s local and / or new to me. If you choose not to bring a grinder, the move is to go to the shop and ask them to grind the beans for you — that way, they’ll be just a little fresher than if you buy a pre-ground bag.
The last couple items below are totally optional. An AeroPress Go, a water boiler, and coffee are really all you need.
My favorite travel mug: Zojirushi stainless steel travel mug
I won’t deign to tell you what kind of travel mug you should use, but this one is my favorite. It’s compact, utterly spillproof, and doesn’t slosh coffee into my face when I’m walking and sipping. It’s a lovely coffee mug.
There are two downsides. You have to take some pieces apart to properly clean it; the lid is made up of plastic and gaskets. It’s not difficult to do and easy to put back together, but it is a little bit of work.
The second is a weird one, but here we go: for some people, it’s too good at keeping coffee hot. It sounds strange to complain about a coffee thermos being too good at its job, but sometimes you will use it at a coffee shop where you don’t have complete control over the temperature. For me, I’d rather have something that I know will keep my drink hot for hours.
I also use this as my travel water bottle when the coffee runs out. I recognize the irony of putting all this work into making great coffee only to use the same mug to drink water that will taste vaguely coffee-esque if I can’t clean it properly.
The Zojirushi Stainless Steel Travel Mug keeps coffee hot for a very long time — so make sure it’s the temperature you want before you put the lid on. A flip-top cap makes it easy to take a quick sip and the spout is designed to prevent splashing.
My favorite portable coffee grinder: Timemore Chestnut C2
Okay, this is where I’ve gone off the deep end, I admit it. Hand-grinding your beans, one cup at a time, is obviously and inherently ridiculous when you’re sitting in a hotel room. But I bought this Timemore grinder on a lark a couple years ago, and it’s such a good little machine that I pack it anyway.
There are lots of different hand grinders, but I love this one because it’s relatively small and has a satisfying heft. It has a ton of different grind size options. I’ve used it enough that I can eyeball how much to fill it with beans to get the right amount of coffee ground to use in the AeroPress Go.
It’s over the top, I know. But fresh, burr-ground coffee really does taste better — which is to say you have to work for it with manual labor, and therefore you will convince yourself you can taste the difference.
Spending over $50 on a hand grinder for coffee is objectively silly, but the Timemore feels so well-made that you’ll find ways to justify it. It’s a burr grinder as well, which is the best way to grind coffee beans.
Bonus: A simple AeroPress Go recipe
There are a kajillion AeroPress recipes on the internet. I am here to tell you that the best one is the one you land on yourself after some trial and error. In a hotel room, I do not bother with a scale. (I’m not a maniac, I swear.) Here’s my recipe:
- Put a (dry) filter in the AeroPress, and set it on top of the included cup.
- Grind the coffee as fine as I feel like. (The finer it’s set, the more work it is to hand-grind.)
- Eyeball the amount of coffee I put into the AeroPress. I fill just over the base of the filter cap.
- Fill it up with just-off-the-boil water just over the number 3 on the side.
- Set the plunger on and pull up slightly to make a vacuum.
- After two minutes, swirl the whole thing to agitate, then press for 30 seconds.
- Taste. Add a little water if necessary.
Here’s a slightly more detailed recipe from James Hoffman:
Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge