Traveling with a portable latte making kit probably seems crazy,
but to those of us for whom quality caffeine consumption equals joy and functionality it’s something to consider.
I live near Seattle and for years suffered quality coffee depravation (QCD) when traveling. Those great espresso shops that manage to survive on every block in the Northwest and the San Francisco Bay area quickly thin to nothing in other parts of the country, and except for bastions of coffee enlightenment like France and Italy may be impossible to find elsewhere in the world. Certainly, other parts of the world have long coffee traditions but their coffee is generally a different drink entirely, and alien to the palette.
The attempt by Starbucks to spread through the known universe has made the situation somewhat easier, introducing decent coffee into many nooks and crannies, but Starbucks is not yet ubiquitous, nor is it generally available in room.
For years my solution was to travel with quality tea. Tea can be quite good. Tea satisfies caffeine cravings. And, quality tea offers a subtle complexity that soothes the soul. However, tea is not coffee, and when I want that coffee intensity, nothing else will do.
Forget those in-room coffee makers that hotels and motels offer. The pre-packaged, weak and bitter brew they produce is nothing more than a caffeine fix. It wakes the body but brings no joy. Fine hotels generally serve quality coffee but the extra cost of the room is a high, high price to pay for a decent cup of coffee. What to do?
Fortunately, with some simple and relatively portable and inexpensive equipment, along with a microwave oven, now common in lodgings, it is possible to create a more than passable imitation of the coffee house classic. Here’s what you’ll need.
DIY Travel Coffee Tools
A portable coffee brewer. For years I used a plastic press pot also called a French press. Glass is nicer but is too fragile to travel with. That’s the simplest solution. Bring your own coffee, unfortunately pre-ground, but you can’t have everything. Zap a cup of water in the microwave and a couple of minutes later you have redemption.
The press pot has been replaced in my kit by a device called an AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker. The AeroPress looks like a hypodermic designed for a dinosaur. Instead of a needle, though, the coffee maker has a perforated flat end that holds a coffee filter. The AeroPress has one real advantage over a traditional press pot. It’s much easier and less messy to clean. And the coffee it makes is more like an espresso shot, tasting quit different from the brew the press pot produces. Both are good. They’re just different.
The AeroPress is the better choice for making coffee for a latte. One possible down side of the AeroPress is that it takes some effort to press the plunger down. Pushing slowly helps but it may be more force than some are capable of using. It is not friendly to arthritic joints or smaller people.
Operation is simple. With filter in place, measure coffee into the tube. Place the maker over a coffee cup. Pour hot water in the tube, stir, wait 20 seconds and insert the plunger. Push it down to extract the coffee. The resulting brew is concentrated, not quite as much so as a shot of espresso but nearly so.
If you simply want a coffee, add hot water to desired strength, sweeten or lighten and enjoy. If you love lattes then you need another piece of equipment, a frother.
The simplest way to make foam is to pour 2/3 of a cup of cold milk into a sealable and microwavable container. A hard plastic travel mug with a tight lid works great, as does a pint or half liter Nalgen bottle. When the milk, make sure that it’s cold, is sealed in, shake the thing for about 30 seconds. Remove the lid and microwave for about 20 seconds to set the foam. Either pour the foamed milk into a cup and add the coffee or pour the coffee directly into the travel mug. Instant, low-tech latte.
Non-fat milk works best but has little flavor. 2% milk is a good compromise between foam and flavor. Whole milk is not friendly to cold frothing. Again, make sure the milk is cold when you start. Warm milk won’t foam.
The shake and bake method makes foam but it isn’t the micro-bubble foam you’d get from an espresso machine. That may be good enough for you. If it’s not, never fear, there are portable frothers that do a better job than many home espresso makers and are light and small enough to pack. The most traveler friendly ones are battery powered mixers. Aerolatte makes a couple of models that come with hard plastic travel cases and run on two AA batteries.
Again, start with cold milk. Insert the frother and mix until you get a good foam. You will need a container with at least twice the volume of the milk you initially pour in. For hot foam, make sure that it is microwavable. No stainless allowed. Once you have whipped your foam into shape, microwave for 10 – 20 seconds, depending on how hot you want your drink. Be careful to not overheat the milk as that will collapse the bubbles. Combine the foamed milk with the coffee. Enjoy.
The motorized frother will actually make stiff enough foam to do a decent cappuccino, while the shake and bake method is only suitable for lattes.
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