The best portable coffee makers for your next deployment
Ewan McGregor as Grimes in 2001's 'Black Hawk Down'. (Sony Pictures) It’s all in the grind. The post The best portable coffee makers for your next deployment appeared first on Task & Purpose.
The one indisputable thing that I believe holds true in this insane, upside-down, merry-go-round-on-fire world is that coffee is life. If we must flick on the boob tube and watch the world burn, it’s important to do so well-caffeinated. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, ubiquitous wildfires, and natural disasters, it’s important to engage in some self-care. For me, it begins with recognizing what I can change in the world and what I cannot, quality sleep, daily exercise, meaningful connections with family and friends, and coffee. And the one thing all of us learned from the movie Black Hawk Down, where everything fell to shit in Somalia, was, in the immortal words of Ewan McGregor’s character Grimes, “It’s all in the grind, Sizemore. Can’t be too fine, can’t be too coarse. This, my friend, is a science.” And it is. Serenity is all about balance and intentionality — and that especially applies to a cup of coffee.
Every morning, after I finish my daily run through the woods, Tabata/HIIT workout, or bike ride, I walk in the kitchen, put my Le Creuset kettle on to boil, reach for my VSSL Java Coffee Grinder, and begin my daily ritual. Depending on what I feel like drinking, I’ll reach for my AeroPress Go for Americanos, my Bodum Caffettiera if I need a lot of coffee in a hurry and I’m feeling lazy, or my Wacaco Picopresso on the days I want an espresso and have the time to go through the 23 steps it takes to make it — and it’s worth it every time.
We know from research that caffeine, the most commonly consumed psychoactive drug in the world, actually makes you smarter. When we consume coffee, caffeine enters our bloodstream and ends up in our brains. Once there, caffeine blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine and unleashes norepinephrine and dopamine (love that stuff) which increases the firing of neurons and improves brain function in terms of mood, energy levels, memory, reaction time, and more. It helps the human body burn fat, contains needed essential nutrients like magnesium and niacin, and might protect us from Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s. And damn, it just feels good. Ok, you didn’t come here to watch me geek out about neuroscience. You’re wondering what portable coffee maker you should buy.
Over the past few months, I’ve braved near-lethal doses of caffeine (yes, too much is bad) to test these products so you don’t have to. For this roundup, I took a look at:
- AeroPress Go
- Wacaco Picopresso
- Stanley Classic Travel Mug French Press
- Cafflano Klassic
- Bodum Chambord French Press
- Delter Coffee Press
- ESPRO P0 Coffee Press, and the
- Bonus: VSSL Java Coffee Grinder
Hands down, the AeroPress Go is my favorite portable coffee maker on the market. It was scientifically designed by Alan Alder, a retired Stanford University engineering instructor, to make a superior cup of coffee, and damn did he succeed. And Alder didn’t stop with his first design. He continuously improved the AeroPress since it hit the market in 2005 and is now in it’s 8th iteration. Out of all the devices I tested, the AeroPress consistently made the best, most properly extracted (not sour, bitter, or acidic) cup of Joe under a wide range of water to coffee ratios, grind sizes and amounts, and brew times. Simply put, it’s hard to fuck it up. Lightweight (145 grams/5 ounces without the carrying case) and durable (made out of polypropylene and silicone), it’s also BPA- and phthalate-free, which means your kids won’t be born with fingers sticking out of their foreheads. Bonus! One drawback is that it has moderate capacity and can only make one to three cups per minute before you have to start again. It’s versatile and brews American and espresso-style coffees. Lastly, the AeroPress Go is compact, portable, suuuuuper easy to clean, and inexpensive. At a cheap $30 price point, you can afford to buy one for yourself and one for a friend. This is my go-to coffee making device for home use and while I’m out backpacking through the woods or climbing mountains. Note: I’m super interested to see if this Prismo AeroPress Attachment (not tested) can achieve a crema atop espresso.
New for 2021, Wacaco took on the challenge to create a portable espresso maker. In fact, it’s so new that you can’t even get one yet because they’re all wait-listed. Until now, nobody has really nailed the portable espresso machine. Sure, you can get a home kitchen machine for between $300 and $1,200, but they’re clunky as hell and weigh a lot. Or, instead of sending the kiddos to college, you could get yourself a proper La Marzocco for about $26,000. I wouldn’t consider you a bad person, but you’d need to hire a Sherpa to haul that thing around. But if you love espresso and are looking for a 1.2-pound (545-gram) machine that brews true espresso at nine to 12 bars of pressure via a hand pumped piston, this is the machine for you, my friend. The Picopresso is smartly designed and finely crafted out of stainless steel and high-quality plastics. Notably, the Picopresso has a 52mm stainless steel portafilter basket that can accommodate 18 grams of ground espresso and a 80mL water reservoir. After completing a 23-step process, you’ll end up with 38 to 40 grams of espresso. And if you grind your beans ultra-fine, you can achieve crema atop your doppio. Is it a lot of work for a double shot? You be the judge. Is it deliciously ostentatious? Hell yeah! That’s Italia, brochacho. Does it produce the best espresso I’ve ever had? No. But it’s not fair to expect a $129 unit to outperform a $26,000 espresso machine, so don’t hate. Is it good espresso that you can make at home or on the go? Absolutely. If you’re a frequent traveler and espresso enthusiast, you should take a serious look at the Picopresso. It’s a buy in my book and I’d happily take it along on vacations, and even car camping. At 1.2 pounds, it’s hefty, so it wouldn’t be my go-to coffee device for long-distance backpacking trips, but it is a quality product at a fair price that delivers tasty espresso.
When I think of Stanley thermoses, I think of the hard-working blue collar men and women who built America. And true to form, this French press in disguise delivers a credible cup of coffee in a well-built thermos that will keep you stoked for hours. The Classic Travel Mug French Press is (fairly) thermally efficient, portable, easy to use, and has sufficient (16 ounce) capacity. After a few trials and tweaks, I was able to produce a solid cup of coffee. It has comforting design aesthetics and good ergonomics as well. It felt good in my hand, had a cool-looking winged bear logo, and brought back some fond childhood memories. The plastic basket plunger was easy to manipulate, although I would like to see a more robust gasket on the plunger filter basket. The stainless steel mesh filter did a better-than-average job of keeping grinds and grit out of the brew when compared to other French presses I’ve used. And the Stanley was a snap to clean up afterwards. It’s a well-designed French press at a nice price. At $35, this is a well-built value purchase. At 1.1 pounds (500 grams), it’s hefty, so I won’t be taking it on my next 60-plus mile multi-day Appalachian Trail trek, but I will be tossing it in my kayak or in my climbing pack for my next trek to the crags. I’d even take it along on day hikes, too.
As much as I abhor it when marketers replace the letter C with the letter K, I’ll forgive Cafflano because they really created a sleek, sophisticated solution to portable coffee brewing in the Cafflano Klassic that’s also very efficient and intuitive at a fair price. At a $70 price point, the Cafflano Klassic is one of the more expensive portable coffee devices we’ve reviewed, but we believe it is a good value considering it is an all-in-one unit that includes a well-made coffee grinder, kettle, and insulated cup. The Cafflano Klassic was designed for travel and camping, and there it succeeds. At just over a pound in weight, it’s too much for backpacking. It’s easy to use and clean, but not fast. From boil to grind to drinkable cup, it takes about eight minutes. As far as capacity, it’s a single-serve device that delivers about 9.5 ounces (270 mL) of coffee. Most importantly, it’s capable of producing a credible cup of coffee — provided you aren’t a cheapskate and buy quality beans. With all that said, I found the kettle-to-cap interface leaky, and I wish the Klassic had metal instead of ceramic burrs in the grinder. Overall, I really liked the Cafflano Klassic. It’s a beautifully designed product that is capable of producing an excellent cup of coffee. In terms of portability, ease of use, capacity, speed, and delivery, it’s an absolute winner in our book. Now stop changing Ks for Cs for fuck’s sake.
The Bodum Chambord 8-cup (1L) French press has been my go-to coffee maker for two decades, until I met the AeroPress Go earlier this year and we broke up. French presses are notoriously jealous lovers and it was a messy divorce with lots of screaming, throwing stuff, expensive attorney fees, and fights over who got to watch the Stanley French press travel mug on weekends — but it all sorted out over time. Looking back on all those happy years together, I realize that, despite the ubiquitous and ever annoying grit at the bottom of my cup, the Bodum reliably met my desires when I needed a full liter of coffee in four minutes (stat) to keep me fired up all morning. To be frank, the Chambord is the original and best French press on the market. It’s a timeless design with superior craftsmanship. As an immersion brewer, the Bodum allows you to fully extract all the flavor out of your coffee beans in a non-stain heat-resistant carafe made from borosilicate glass and a durable frame made from stainless steel with a polypropylene handle. It’s also environmentally friendly in that it requires no paper filters as the stainless steel plunger takes care of everything. The Bodum Chambord is simple to use, inexpensive ($39.99), and makes a very good, but not great, cup of Joe. It weighs a pound and a half, so it’s pretty portable, but, like its feelings, you have to protect it from bumps and drops lest it shatter into a million irreparable pieces.
There was a lot I liked about the ESPRO P0 Ultralight Coffee Press, but I wasn’t blown away by it. Here are the good qualities. It’s ultralight. At 276 grams (10 ounces), it’s easy to carry and is compact. I like the simple, sleek design and utility. The P0 is a snap to disassemble, it’s easy to clean, and it’s also dishwasher-safe. While most French presses are dual-use (coffee or tea), I liked the intentional design of the tea leaf basket in the P0. The double filter seemed to work pretty well at keeping sludge and grinds out of the cup, even though some inevitably slipped by. ESPRO provides six color choices and ensures the product is BPA-, BOS-, and phthalate-free, so you don’t wind up growing tentacles out of your forehead. I also like that you can fit a carabiner through the loop. Most importantly, I was able to produce a solid, good-tasting cup of coffee with it. While I generally liked the P0, the narrow opening could be a bit wider to accommodate coffee scoops, and the filter plunger can be a bit hard to press even with coarse grinds. I was also a bit underwhelmed with the capacity. While the vessel holds 16 ounces, it only makes 12 ounces of coffee due to the space the plunger filter takes. It’s a well-made product that delivers a quality cup of coffee, and at $44.95, it won’t break the bank.
I’ve got to be honest, when I first saw the Delter Coffee Press, I thought it was an Australian knock-off of my beloved AeroPress. That was a bad assumption. Unlike the AeroPress, which is an immersion brewer, the Delter is an injection brewer that passes hot water under pressure through a puck of coffee — resulting in a clean cup of properly extracted coffee.
The first few cups of coffee I made with the Delter using the manufacturer’s recommendations seemed weak to me. With a few tweaks, I was able to craft a cup more to my preferences, which is a credit to the Delter’s flexibility. I also appreciated the aesthetics of the design. The Delter is much more visually pleasing than the AeroPress and equally lightweight and rugged. It also has superior capacity to the AeroPress and can accommodate a double brew without reloading the coffee chamber. The brewing process was relatively quick, and it’s a value purchase at $35. On the downside, there are more parts, so it’s slightly more complex and less intuitive to use out of the box. Because of the design, I found my hands coming into contact with very hot water more frequently than when I use other devices. It’s not as versatile as some other products in that it isn’t capable of cold brewing, and it’s a bit harder to clean than the AeroPress. Disappointingly, when I filled the brew chamber with water and pressed on the unit without the coffee chamber cap in place to observe the jet-seal’s spray pattern, the jet-seal popped out of the unit and fell into my garbage disposal. After enjoying the experience of retrieving it, I was able to replace it properly with a wooden spoon handle after a few tries.
The silicone seals didn’t appear to be super robust, and further testing is needed to determine long-term durability. The bottom line is that the Delter is an interesting design, but it didn’t outperform my top pick, the AeroPress. If you like lighter, cleaner pour-over style brews, you should definitely check out the Delter coffee press.
You do realize that none of these devices work properly without three things: 1) clean water, 2) quality, properly roasted coffee beans, and 3) properly ground coffee beans, and that’s YOUR responsibility. In order to make the perfect cup, you must adjust the grind size to your brewing device, coffee-to-water ratio, and brew time. So you can lug your favorite portable coffee makers from Algeria to Zaire, but without a portable grinder, you’re not going to accomplish much. There are a lot of hand-held grinders out there, but few truly rugged enough to withstand life in a sea bag or rucksack — until now. We searched the internet far and wide for a hand-held coffee grinder that could survive a nuclear war — which might not be that far off at this rate — and we discovered the VSSL Java. The interesting thing is that VSSL doesn’t make coffee devices. They make aluminum containers for survival gear. Built for business in its matte black and copper cladding, the VSSL Java is compact (six inches tall by two inches in diameter) and heavy (395 grams/13 ⅞ ounces). It’s also built like a tank — bombproof. It held my 218 pounds of weight while swinging like Tarzan from my basement rafters, and I dropped it a few times for good measure and it continued to work just fine. With an awesome stainless steel burr setup, it delivers exceptionally consistent grinds at 50 different settings. And it’s efficient. You can grind 20 grams in 40 seconds or less. On the downside, it’s a premium purchase. At $150, it will stretch the wallet of most people. It’s also small — the unit caps out at 20 grams of capacity. For those making larger French press carafes, you’ll have to do two or three rounds of grinding — which will take about two to three minutes. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it is a consideration. With all that said, the VSSL Java hand coffee grinder is a buy in my opinion. While its price is on the very high end of hand coffee grinders, it works smoothly, grinds consistently, is built ruggedly, and looks cool. I recommend it for travelers, car campers, climbers, rafters, and cyclists. If you intend on hauling it long distances in your backpack over many days, you’ll want to take its weight into consideration. This is a high-end, expensive, specialized coffee grinder from a niche company built for caffeine-fueled outdoor enthusiasts.
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The reviewers here at Task & Purpose test the products we review at home and in the field. We have years of experience living and working with the tools we recommend. We don’t get paid by the manufacturers and have editorial independence. Our editor leaves it to us to recommend and prints what we write. All of this enables us to provide you, our valued readers, with our unvarnished, honest opinions on the recommendations we make.
Types of coffee makers
Coffee makers generally come in four types based on the brewing process they use. There are brewers that use pressure, brewers that use steeping, brewers that use filtration or dripping, and brewers that boil.
Pressure brewers: The four most common devices that brew under pressure are countertop espresso machines, countertop automatic coffee machines, the more portable Moka Pot, and AeroPress. These devices use fine- to medium-ground coffee and brew fast — between one and five minutes from start to finish. And new for 2021 is the Wacaco Picopresso which is the first truly portable and compact hand-powered espresso machine.
Steeping brewers: The four most common steeping brewers are the French press, the Siphon (which looks like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory), the coffee bag (yuck!), and the soft brew. These methods use a more chunky medium to medium-fine grind (except the coffee bag which uses ultra-fine), and take a bit longer to extract the flavor from the coffee — about four to eight minutes.
Filtration brewers: The five most common filter brewers are the auto-drip (like Mr. Coffee), the Chemex pour-over, the Vietnamese drip filter, the percolator, and the cold drip (which again looks like some freaky chemistry set). These methods use medium- to coarse-ground coffee and take about four to 10 minutes to brew — or 10 to 24 hours for the cold drip.
Boiling brewers: There are two essential types of boiling brewers, the Ibrik (Turkish pot), and the Cowboy method — which is just throwing grounds in a pot, boiling it, and waiting for the grounds to settle. These are fairly quick methods that use very fine (Turkish) or super chunky (Cowboy) grinds and produce coffee in one to six minutes.
Key features of portable coffee makers
Specific to portable coffee makers, I look for several things:
- Compact design: You don’t want them taking up a lot of room in your travel bag.
- Lightweight: You don’t want to haul around a boat anchor. Every gram adds up.
- Easy to use: I’m often making coffee in the dark before long days on the trail, so it’s important that they’re simple and ergonomic so you don’t spill your brew and have to start all over again.
- Easy to clean: In most places I go, there’s no sink, so I need to be able to clean them with a splash or two of water.
- Rugged: They have to be able to withstand life in a backpack or at the bottom of a sea bag.
- Efficient: I look for coffee makers that are fast.
- Performance: If it doesn’t make a quality cup of Joe, what’s the point?!? Get one that brews the styles of coffee you love.
Portable coffee maker pricing
In my survey of portable coffee makers, I realized they generally come in three categories:
- Value: About $32 or less, like the AeroPress or Delter
- Mid-range: $32 to $70, like the Cafflano Klassic
- Premium: $70 and above, like the $129 Wacaco Picopresso
How we chose our top picks
All of the portable coffee makers recommended in this review were field-tested by me, your trusty Task & Purpose gear reviewer. We take our time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of gear and also check out the reviews of other experts just to make sure we’re not missing anything.
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Joe Plenzler is a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1995 to 2015. He is a backcountry expert, long-distance backpacker, rock climber, kayaker, cyclist, wannabe mountaineer, and the world’s OK-est guitar player. He is currently section-hiking the Appalachian Trail with his partner, Kate Germano. He supports his outdoor addiction by working as a human communication consultant, teaching at the College of Southern Maryland, and helping start-up companies with their public relations and marketing efforts.
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