If you can’t be without coffee even in the middle of nowhere, what are your options? We sent Jess Ansell, accompanied by coffee blogger Brian Williams, into the Surrey Hills to see what would and wouldn’t work when brewing in the great outdoors. Photo by Elke Frotscher.
The morning sun warmed our backs pleasantly as we set off into the Surrey Hills, looking forward to a fine day’s hiking as well as some great alfresco coffee. However, I’m a natural over-packer under normal circumstances, and with all the brewing kit we’d brought stowed on our backs (alongside the all-important extra torch batteries and that second change of trousers), the rucksacks started to feel heavy after barely 10 minutes of walking. We found ourselves wondering if it was too soon for a coffee stop. Before long, Brian announced that his energy levels had dipped and we decided it was time. In an attempt to make the break as short as possible, we started with a piece of equipment we knew well, the AeroPress (from £25, aeropress.co.uk).
Assembling an AeroPress in the countryside was more of a faff than expected, particularly when trying to peel off one of the tiny filter papers with the breeze whipping around us. One reason we brought the AeroPress is that it’s light and wouldn’t weigh us down – but as it turns out, it’s so light that if you leave it for a moment a gust of wind can send it bouncing along the path. At least it’s plastic, so it didn’t break.
While Brian unpacked and assembled (and retrieved) the AeroPress, I got out the Trangia 27 (£26, simplyhike.co.uk). This Swedish-designed portable stove is popular with campers and, as it’s aluminium, relatively light at 825g – and you can set it up, light it and boil enough water for two cups in under eight minutes. I’ve used it before and found it easy enough whatever the terrain or weather.
Brian decided this was the perfect opportunity to teach me the inverted AeroPress method – tricky even when done indoors. While trying to find a flat surface to balance the cylinder of boiling water on, Brian regaled me with stories of his AeroPress “accidents”. Of course, one thing I hadn’t packed was a first-aid kit. So with the two of us cack-handedly holding all the parts together in fear it would topple over, we finally poured the freshly boiled water into the AeroPress. The narrow spout of the Trangia kettle makes pouring easy and before long, I was cautiously pushing down the plunger. The resulting coffee was delicious and the taste uncompromised – just as you would have it at home. However, we decided to share the coffee since neither of us could be bothered to go through the whole process again.
We walked on for another 40 minutes or so until, after a particularly energy-sapping hill, we agreed we deserved another break. We wanted to try the Cafflano (£65, lakeland.co.uk), a new product that comes with an all-in-one grinder, filter and insulated cup. To get started, we simply had to unscrew the lid and pop some beans into the grinder. With nowhere to rest the device, I took the manufacturer’s recommendation and went for the “clench it between your legs and grind” technique. Unfortunately this led me to spill half the beans on the ground. Brian had a go but found the handle too fiddly for his hands, so I decided to sit on the grass and take my time. Less haste and more patience gave us an even, effective grind (and no more lost beans).
We poured some water from a Thermos into the lid of the Cafflano, which doubles as a pouring kettle, and we were impressed with its controlled pouring spout. In fact, the whole process was very smooth. One person can easily do everything required to make a cup of coffee while standing and holding all the parts, which is pretty impressive. Once we got the hang of it, it took us around six minutes to make a single pour-over from start to finish, including grinding. The metal pour-over filter didn’t take out as many impurities as a traditional paper one would – slightly more residue was left behind – and we also found it was highly sensitive to the grind size. Get it slightly wrong and it has a tendency to over-extract, leaving a bitter taste.
Another hour and a few more gorgeously green and sun-dappled paths later, we made our final coffee stop to try another new (to us) invention, the Handpresso Pump (from £75, handpresso.co.uk). Its YouTube advert shows an espresso in front of a mountainous panorama, inviting you to imagine a rich espresso as the perfect catalyst for that last uphill push. And although we were in the slightly less impressive environment of the Surrey Hills, the motivational effect was the same.
The Handpresso took a surprising amount of effort. It uses a bicycle pump action to compress the air into a small chamber – a click of a button releases it, forcing the water through the ground coffee. While the average pressure for a standard bike tyre is 6 bar, the Handpresso requires 9 to 16 bar – which equates to a lot of vigorous pumping.
For our first attempt, we over-packed the basket with ground coffee and despite all our pumping, the resulting pressure didn’t push any water through. Undeterred, we tried again, but this time we used the ESE capsule attachment. However, we kept ripping the small tea-bag-like sachets trying to put them into the compartment, rendering them useless. We made one final attempt, and I soon found myself laughing hysterically as Brian pumped for more than ten minutes, determined to have at least one drinkable espresso.
Finally, after all that pumping and grinding, we managed to extract one shot. It had a rich profile and body – not as strong as a regular espresso, but with an intense flavour and great crema. We did have to share it though, as neither of us could muster the energy to make another. (A few days later, when my arms had recovered, I honed my technique and achieved my current personal best: four minutes 33 seconds of pumping from a resting start, not including the time spent manually grinding the beans).
None of the products we tried made poor coffee. However, to guarantee good coffee during your outdoor pursuits, you really only have one shot (excuse the pun) as it’s likely you’ll have a limited water supply. To give yourself the best chance, practise beforehand, know the exact quantities of beans you’ll need and preset your grinder.
So which is best? Well, naturally, that depends on your needs and the equipment you already have. If you don’t own – or don’t want to pack – a grinder, the Cafflano is a practical product at a good price, although the coffee it made, while acceptable, was the worst we drank. If you’re after an espresso (and an arm workout), the Handpresso Pump does a decent job, but you’re limited to making a single shot each time. And after a tiring walk, it’s probably more effort than it’s worth.
If you don’t mind carrying a little more kit, we recommend a portable stove – having access to freshly boiled water for the AeroPress was our biggest success. It’s much easier if you can find a flat, stable surface, so we’d recommend choosing the site of your coffee stop with care. But whichever method you choose, the aroma of freshly brewed speciality coffee in the great outdoors makes any walking trip better.