Traveling involves leaving your personal room, bed, couch, desk, your comfort zone, daily routine, all these things you are used to behind, and also your espresso machine and other fancy coffee gears. You won’t be able to bring all these things with you, and you may have to resort to a hotel-provided Keurig machine or local Starbucks if there’s any. However, is there still a way to have decent quality coffee when traveling? I think so. I had a recent trip to Champaign, Illinois and experimented with this idea.
Traveling with an Aeropress
I have mentioned the Aeropress a few times before but never given it a comprehensive review. It is a cylinder-shaped plastic coffee brewer. Designed similar to a French press, you steep coffee grounds inside the Aeropress, then use the plunger to press the liquid through a filter into a mug. A more detailed brewing guide can be found on my Coffee Brewing Methods post. Because of its straightforward design and the use of light plastic materials, it is simple to use, clean, and carry around.
Nonetheless, I was never sold on the “traveling with an Aeropress” idea. There is nothing wrong with the Aeropress itself, but the fact that there are so many other pieces of equipment that I need to carry to brew that cup of coffee. I brought the Aeropress back home during the winter break along with a bag of coffee beans, a measuring scale, and a hand grinder. That wasn’t difficult because I have access to hot water, mugs, towels, and enough space to lay them out. But traveling to a foreign place with the Aeropress? I am uncertain about that.
But as an adventurous person (sarcasm intended), I experimented with it on this trip to Illinois. The packing list was similar, with the addition of a towel for wiping and drying, a pitcher for pouring and holding the liquid, and a bag of tissue paper for general cleaning. Some questions remain: where to get off-the-boil water, and where to brew and clean them.
Well, the result exceeded my expectations. I was able to get hot water from the dining hall, with some paper cups so I would not need to drink directly from a hot stainless steel jug. I used the 2016 Aeropress World Championship recipe, which requires an extra step of dilution, but that can also be completed without much trouble. Pour 300 ml of water into the pitcher, use 150 ml to brew, increase the extraction time from 60 to 80 seconds before pressing to compensate the lower than ideal temperature water, press directly on the pitcher with the remaining 150 ml of water to dilute, serve into paper cups, and voila, a delectable cup of coffee.
I still wouldn’t consider traveling with an Aeropress to brew coffee effortless to do, but it is workable. You can simplify the steps even further by eye-measuring the quantity and using pre-ground coffee, but then you may be sacrificing the quality of the coffee. The main problem is still the need for hot water, which can be troublesome to find.
Finding Local Coffee Shops
What if you are not able or not willing to carry a travel-friendly coffee brewer? Is it still possible to get high standard coffee? Yes. Coffee culture has become so prevalent now that you can find specialty coffee shops in any city, not just the “coffee cities” like Seattle and San Francisco. How to find good coffee shops? Google maps and Yelp are both helpful sites for checking out reviews and menus. I use Reddit r/coffee as my main source of recommendation to find the hidden gems that have fewer reviews than other popular shops.
630 S 5th St, Champaign, IL 61820
Situated at the east side of the UIUC campus, Brew Lab is easily accessible from buildings around the Main Quad such as the Altgeld Hall or the Illini Union. They offer classic espresso drinks, cold brew, a few selections of single-origin pour-overs, and an extensive list of loose leaf tea.
After asking for recommendations (as always), I settled on the Kigoma from Huye, Rwanda, a washed processed light-medium roasted beans from Counter Culture. The pour-over is made on a copper V-60. I adore the metal-color finish of this particular type, which gives the brewer a vintage feel. If I ever upgrade from my current plastic V-60, I will consider this one a top choice.
Another side note. The barista used a medium-fine grind for the pour-over, which from my experience seems to be a more common choice in coffee shops. I have been using the 4-6 method with a rather coarse grind, which seems to have gained popularity on online forums but, I suppose, remain unconventional.
Because of the medium roasting and the finer grind, this is a sweeter and more intense cup than what I usually drink. The sweet and slightly bitter flavor gives a predominant toffee note, a hint of vanilla, and a mild citrus fruit acidity.
While I would usually avoid human interaction at all costs, I find myself (attempting to) converse with baristas frequently. I have many pleasant experiences asking for their recommendations, discussing brewing gears and methods, and learning from their tips and techniques. Here at BrewLab, the baristas patiently answered my question regarding the issue of hard water in Illinois.
Let me briefly explain how water hardness can affect coffee brewing. Water has dissolved mineral contents in them, such as calcium and magnesium. Water hardness is a measurement of the amount of dissolved mineral content in the water. Since water makes up 98% of a cup of coffee, the hardness of water has a huge impact on coffee brewing and extraction. While a low level of mineral content can help extract desirable flavors, hard water will give a dull taste to the coffee and cause scale buildup in kettles and espresso machines.
The water supply for Illinois comes from surface water like Lake Michigan and groundwater, in the case of Champaign, the Mahomet Aquifer. Accordingly, most regions of Illinois have very hard water. How does BrewLab deal with this problem? One barista explained to me how they installed their own water system, which can filter out the unwanted minerals and soften the water.
I came back the next day for my daily dose of caffeine. Ordered an oat milk latte. The size of this drink is… Enormous. It seems to be a 12 oz (or maybe even 15 oz?) cup, one of the largest latte cups I have seen. It is a well-made latte, so I suppose the traditional ratio does not matter much. I enjoyed the rich flavor and the creaminess of the oat milk and am excited to see brands like Oatly becoming more available in stores and coffee shops.
Finally, I had to get Cascara tea. Cascara is another fascinating thing that I have known for a while but never got the chance to try it. Cascara, meaning “skin” in Spanish, is the dried fruit of a depulped coffee cherry. What originally viewed as the byproduct of a coffee bean, cascara turned out to be amazing brewed as a cup of tea. Is it tea? Strictly speaking, tea is the product of steeping the leaves of Camellia sinensis, but cascara can be categorized as herbal tea. Is it coffee? It comes from the same plant Coffea, but cascara tastes so different from coffee. Light, refreshing, fruity, with notes of raisins and Chinese dates. It is a unique drink that deserves its own category.
Now going back to the topic. How to find a good coffee shop? I can’t give you any instructions or guidelines. It is an adventure that you just have to take on yourself. What do you look for in a coffee shop? A certain type of coffee drink? In-house roasted beans? A friendly atmosphere? Start from there.
These are two simple ways of getting decent coffee on the road, and certainly not the only two. I hope through this post you can realize that it is not a difficult task. I tried out both on this trip to Champaign, and both yield positive results. Traveling with the Aeropress is fun to make coffee yourself and enjoy it alone or with friends; finding local coffee shops is a more convenient option and an opportunity to explore the local coffee culture. I cannot decide which one is superior, as each one has its benefits and fitting circumstances. So, why not give both a try?