A continuation of my adventures in new gear. For the background to this series read this:
Part 2: The Kitchen Gadgets
The only thing I really need in order to be happy outside, at least in terms of food and drink, is a hot, strong cup of coffee in the morning. For years (like 15) I have used a camp french press in the style of old plastic travel mugs made by Big Sky Brewing. I have wandered in my affection during that time, sure, trying single-cup drips and small Italian-style espresso pots, but I pretty much always come back to the french press. This year, I went in search of an update for both my brewing system, and my travel mug, which was of the cheap, whatever you find at whatever store you happen to be in variety. Meaning that it leaks, falls apart, and keeps my coffee warm for about two seconds. I like to set a low bar.
I tried all manner of outside coffee makers, including making single serve 'coffee bags' by tying up coffee filters filled with grounds with kitchen string, every portable drip system I could find, and even a plastic french press or two. But I kept going back to my Big Sky Bistro original. Eventually though, the nice people from Planetary Design sent me an alternative.
Planetary Design makes coffee and tea presses and travel mugs in addition to kitchen storage containers. While they make larger presses, they sent me the travel mug double shot version. It was a little smaller than the Big Sky version, but it was made of stainless steel, and a much nicer design, especially in the deep green that I have. The press works well, though I would prefer a larger cup, especially if I need to use it to make coffee for two or three on the trail. But for just myself, it made a pretty good cup of coffee. Better than the press feature though, is the cup itself. It actually comes with a warning label about how hot the contents are kept, and they mean it. There's no heat being lost through that mug. I've never seen anything like it. There is no doubt that you can keep your cup of coffee hot for a long time even while snow camping with their gear. Though for your average summer weather, it does seem like a bit of dangerous overkill. The other odd feature of the press/mug is that the bottom has a hidden compartment that screws off, presumably to hold an extra dose of grounds or packets of creamer and sugar, but given how much of the total volume of the mug it takes up, and hot hot the contents are kept, it seems like an unnecessary feature. Also, it doesn't apply very well to the outdoors,what's the point of having extra grounds at hand if you still have to unpack and set up your stove to boil water? Most of the people I show it to mention that it looks like a great place to keep your stash.
I also received the Commuter French Press/Mug from GSI Outdoors. I actually had to watch this Youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1u7s3cfEJY to understand how to work this product, but once I did, it was pretty easy to use. Instead of the traditional plunger, this mug is nested, with the removable inner cup acting as the press. It's a clever design and a nicely balanced, large travel mug that 's a good cup of coffee. It doesn't lend itself to sharing as it doesn't pour well, but that's not its real intention. What's great about it is that it keeps your coffee ground free, but I found that the pieces can be difficult to separate, especially if you like your coffee strong and use a lot of grounds. The biggest selling point is that it is leak-free, I was able to pack it in a pack and ride my bike with it safely stowed and completely filled.
In the end, I decided that for brewing at camp and with more than one person, Big Sky is still the best bet. But Planetary Designs is making some great mugs, and their features seem to be of more benefit to tea drinkers and GSI is great for single-person use. All o f them make a stronger, hotter cup of camp coffee that other techniques.
In another coffee-related development, the folks over at GSI started offering a camp-kitchen coffee mill last spring, and it's really pretty great. It's small, sturdy, hand powered and a great addition to any car camping kitchen. It's heavy, so I wouldn't recommend in for touring, even it it is super compact and you are a devoted coffee aficionado. Hang onto the instructions when you first unpack it, it's not as self explanatory as it seems, it took me three or four tries before I really remembered how to use it, but it isn't complicated either. What I love best about this product is that it lets me store whole beans in my camp bin and grind them fresh in the morning instead of relying on stale grounds that are prone to absorbing moisture. It is far from a necessity, and really edging towards glamping, but it is the best stocking stuffer idea for outdoors people that I've seen in a long time.