Alimentary, My Dear
At Last! Camp Coffee That's Worth Getting Up For
By Tamia Nelson
December 21, 2010
I began drinking coffee back in the day when every small town had an A&P, and every A&P sold one‑pound bags of whole, roasted beans. You made your selection, then took the bag to the girl at the register. This girl (she was always a "girl," even if she'd never see 55 again) also operated the formidable Grindmaster machine. You told her what grind you wanted—the choices were "VAC," "DRIP," "PERC," or "POT"—and she moved a lever to adjust the machine accordingly. Then she dumped the beans into the hopper and fitted the now‑empty bag around a chute. The machine whirred and groaned for a few seconds before all was again still. A pungent bouquet of freshly ground coffee filled the air as the girl removed the bag from the chute, twirling it round to close off the top and securing the contents with a couple of handy metal tabs. It was a wonderful moment, almost sacramental in its intensity. Truth to tell, I found the aroma of ground coffee intoxicating. In fact, I often opened the bag as I walked home, just to get another lungful.
And what was the reward for my efforts on my return to the family home? A few teaspoons of milky coffee in a glass. It wasn't much, but it was all my parents would allow me. Coffee, I was repeatedly told, was a pleasure reserved for adults.
That was then. Now the A&P is gone from Main Street, and most supermarket coffee comes ready‑ground in plastic tubs. But at least I can get a full mug. Or two. And no day really begins for me until I have the first mug in my hands. But the coffee in that mug has to be good coffee. Which is why camp coffee so often disappoints. My Grandad boiled up something he called "cowboy coffee," a thick sludge that bore an uncanny resemblance to the aftermath of a drilling‑rig blowout. It was better than nothing, but not by very much. I tried coffee bags and instant next. These, too, fell short, and over the years I've continued to ring the changes, searching for something better. Yet nothing really satisfied. Until now, that is. Now I've found…
For decades, every breakfast at home began with a mug of drip coffee, made in a porcelain pot topped with a filter cone. This made a rich, clear, flavorful brew, but the paper filter sometimes clogged before the pot was even half full. Moreover, the drip was so slow that the first cup was often lukewarm, and subsequent cups verged on cold. Nevertheless, I tried bringing drip coffee with me into the backcountry. I bought a plastic cone, and I filtered the coffee into an aluminum billycan. It worked, after a fashion. The filters still clogged (sometimes) and the coffee was still cold (often), but on the rare mornings when all the stars aligned, my day got off to a really good start. This didn't happen often enough, however. So I kept looking.
As luck would have it, I found what I wanted not long after the US decided to rebrand French fries as American fries. It was la cafetière à piston, aka the "French press." The irony wasn't lost on me. But while I certainly didn't wish to be thought unpatriotic, coffee came first on my sector of the home front. This was where things stood when I last wrote about camp coffee. I had my eye on an insulated, stainless steel French press. I lost no time in getting it, too, and I've never had cause to regret the decision. My Nissan French press makes excellent coffee. And it keeps the coffee hot—for an hour or more, though it's a rare day when a pot lasts that long. Better yet, there are no paper filters to buy (or dispose of).
But the Nissan French press has two drawbacks. It's a heavy beast. And it's not exactly compact. I didn't fancy lugging it into the backcountry, even on a weekend getaway, and it's definitely too big for amphibious excursions, when space is at a double premium. The upshot? My camp coffee continued to disappoint. But no longer. I've found The Answer in a tidy little gadget marketed by GSI Outdoors under a dead‑on moniker—the Personal Java Press. Here it is, posing on a rocky shore, with my river knife alongside for scale:
The Personal Java Press makes 20 ounces of coffee, which is just enough to get my engine firing on all cylinders. And because clean‑up is as simple as emptying the old grounds and rinsing the carafe, it's easy to brew up a second pot if Farwell wants some. This doesn't happen often—his devotion to coffee is less absolute than mine—but if it became a problem we could always move up to GSI's 30‑ounce Java Press. For now, though, the Personal Press does the biz for us both. It makes a tidy package, too, as this photo demonstrates:
Note that an insulated mug is hidden inside the Press, and that the Press itself is also insulated. Moreover, the plastics used are said to be BPA‑free. The whole assembly is a little like a matryoshka doll. Now let's unpack the doll…
…to reveal the mug concealed within. (The assembly resting on the mug is the stainless steel screen that forms part of the plunger.) Clearances are tight, by the way. Getting the snug‑fitting mug out of the press takes a little work:
Can you see the black lines in the right‑hand shot? I made them with a laundry marker on the outside of the carafe, after sliding the insulating sleeve down. They mark the fill‑level.
Let's continue opening the matryoshka:
The plunger's shaft fits inside the mug. (The middle shot shows the plunger partly assembled.) I slip a short length of aquarium tubing over the threaded shaft to prevent damage (see large photo below). I also store a plastic coffee measure and a small sack of ground coffee in the mug.
OK. In the right‑hand shot everything is ready to go. The plunger is assembled, with the shaft protruding through the hole in the lid of the Press. Be warned: Both carafe and cup get very hot when filled. The insulating sleeves aren't decorations. Don't be tempted to remove them to save weight.
Now it's time to…
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
I have to confess that I ignore the recipe outlined in GSI's instructions. Instead, I use the same proportion of coffee to water that I use at home. This works out to two slightly rounded measures of ground coffee per 20‑ounce pot. Simple, eh? But not easy. You used to get a plastic measure in every can of coffee. No longer. If you can't buy one at your local HyperMart, though, just substitute ¼ cup (or 5 tablespoons) of ground coffee for the two measures. Why five tablespoons and not four, as strict equivalence would require? The fifth tablespoon accounts for the rounding in the original measures. Got it? Good. The rest of the job is easy.
Bring water to a boil in a billy or kettle. These days I mostly use the handy kettle that came with my new Trangia cooker. While waiting for the water to heat, I put the ground coffee into the Press. Then, when the water reaches a rolling boil, I fill the Press to the marks I've inked on the outside of the carafe and snap the lid in place, making sure that the plunger is pulled out as far as it will go. (Unless you like grounds in your coffee, do this before fitting the lid to the Press.)
Now set the Press aside for exactly five minutes. Use your watch. Failing a watch, mutter the old gunner's chant beginning "If I wasn't a gunner, I wouldn't be here…Fire one." Continue on in that vein till you've fired sixty guns in all. (Check this at home. The interval between guns should be exactly five seconds, but you may chant faster than I do.) That's a hell of a salute, to be sure—only the King‑Emperor of what was once known as British India was entitled to more—but I think a good cup of coffee deserves no less. Once the brew has steeped for five minutes, steady the carafe with one hand while slowly depressing the plunger with the other. When the plunger reaches bottom, the coffee is ready to pour. It's at this critical juncture that the GSI Press falls short. If the molded notch in the lid isn't aligned exactly with the spout in the carafe, precious coffee dribbles away, wetting the insulating sleeve. Waste not, want not, I say. Take time to get the alignment exactly right. Or else…
Of course, accidents will happen. Luckily, it's not hard to slip the foam sleeve off and rinse it clean. But I've adopted a belt‑and‑suspenders approach, anyway. Not only do I align spout and notch with surgical precision, but I also wrap a folded bandanna around the carafe just below the spout, in order to catch any wayward dribbles. A nuisance, to be sure. But a very small nuisance. And the diminutive spout has an upside, as well. It makes it easy to stow the Personal Press, which tucks neatly into a rucksack pocket or one corner of your kitchen pack. The Press even slips into the tight confines of a bicycle pannier.
That's all well and good, I can hear you saying, but why am I wittering on about spouts and sleeves and gunners? Does the Press make good coffee? That's the most important question, isn't it? It is, indeed. And the answer? Yes! It does. Each and every time. Better yet, while the insulating sleeves on both Press and mug are no match for a thermos flask, they do keep hot coffee from cooling off before you can drink it, and the mug's sippy‑cup lid also holds the heat in. Make no mistake: Under most circumstances, I'm no fan of sippy cups. But I'll concede their value whenever a chill wind blows through camp. The Press does a good job of keeping stray grounds out of your coffee, too. When you use an all‑purpose grind, only a drift of dust makes it through the mesh:
Clean‑up? It couldn't be easier. Lift the plunger assembly out of the Press, swish it around in water to release any clinging grounds—do this in a pot, of course, and not in the river or lake—then rinse out both carafe and cup. Dry. Now disassemble the plunger and put the matryoshka back together. (Be sure to invert the screen before packing it away. If you don't, the lid won't close completely.)
The bottom line: Do you want coffee to go? And is only good coffee good enough for you? Then you're in luck. GSI's Java Press makes it easy. At last.
I know that coffee isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I'm a confirmed java junkie. My day hasn't properly begun until I've downed a couple of mugs of this rich, aromatic elixir. Which frequently leads to disappointment in camp, where cold, muddy brews are all too often the norm. Now, however, I've found a way to make good coffee anywhere: the GSI Java Press. It makes camp coffee that's worth getting up for, each and every time. And that's no jive.
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