January 2014 Issue
Brewing Coffee in the Galley
What’s the best way to brew coffee on board?
On some boats, coffee is considered an affordable luxury. On others, it’s a downright necessity, ensuring the skipper’s sanity. And more often than not, it’s what gets us through long night watches.
For this article, we set out to find the best way to make coffee onboard. We heard from dozens of PS readers, editors, and local sailors as to how they master galley java-making (Inside Practical Sailor blog, July 1, 2013), and we scoured the Web for the best brewing products. One website offered several hundred ways to make coffee. Digesting it all was a bit like having 20 experts in the galley trying to make one cup of coffee.
This report is not a head-to-head comparison of specific products, but instead compares brewing methods and what works best onboard a sailboat.
The ideal brewing method offers the quickest, tastiest cup at a reasonable price and with easy cleanup. The sailors we heard from are willing to float the taste-time-cost-cleanup equation one way or the other, according to personal preferences—compromising cost for ease of brewing, stability for ease of cleanup, adding brew time for taste, etc. Budgets, weather conditions, and time restraints may favor specific brewing methods at different times.
Given the huge spectrum of coffee-brewing methods and products—and the few pages we can devote to coffee making—we had to limit the test field to the most recommended and useful ways and means. If we missed a particular brewing method or a product that you’ve had success with, let us know; you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Testers considered the overall convenience and ease of the brewing methods, and looked at taste, effectiveness for underway use, ease of cleanup, and cost. We used a mass-market, mid-priced coffee for testing, and we did not delve into whether or not taste could be improved with a different brand of coffee (possible), fresh-ground beans (obvious), or espresso-ground beans (highly contentious).
What We Tested
Testers compared four popular coffee-brewing methods across a field of 14 products. Testers focused on products that do not require power, so we did not include any plug-in coffeemakers, electric espresso brewers, or battery-powered brewers. All of the brewing products fell within the $12-$30 range, with two exceptions: a $3 filter cone and a $51 glass French press. The instant coffee prices were considered separately, as the price includes the coffee itself.
The test field included five French presses, three percolators, three cone-style drip coffeemakers, and three types of instant coffee. The French press products were the BonJour French Press; Nissan Thermos French Press; Bodum Glass French Press; Aerobie AeroPress Coffee Maker; and the GSI Personal Java Press. The percolators were the Bialetti Moka Express; Farberware Yosemite Stainless Steel Stovetop Percolator; and the Medelco One All Glass Stovetop Percolator. Drip cones were the Melitta Perfect Brew Plastic Filter Cone; Starbucks Classic Pour-Over Ceramic Brewer; and the Clever Dripper valve release plastic cone. Instant coffees included single-serve instant coffee packets with concentrated roasted coffee (Nescafe Taster’s Choice, Folgers Fresh Breaks, Starbucks VIA Columbia Medium instant coffee, and Diario instant coffee); the teabag-type coffee singles (Maxwell House Original Roast); and loose instant grounds (4-ounce jar of Folgers Instant Coffee).
Reader-recommended test products included the plastic and glass French presses and Starbucks Via instant coffee.
We did not bother with an in-depth test of “cowboy coffee”—add coffee grounds to steaming hot water, brew for a few minutes, remove from heat, let grounds settle, carefully pour the coffee into a mug, drink, round up the cattle—because of its simplicity and the fact that it’s more than well covered by other sources. Believe it or not, there are two books, numerous YouTube videos, a WikiHow page, and 32,000 Google results for cowboy coffee.
Also, because we opted not to include electric coffemakers to limit the test field, we refrained from testing the reader suggested Cuisinart Grind and Brew with an insulated stainless carafe; it requires power via an inverter. This test also excluded vacuum-brewing methods; coffee “toddys” (long immersion, room temperature brewing devices that create a coffee syrup); cold brew concentrates; and coffee pods or K-Cups.
How We Tested
We divided the 14 test products into four brewing groups. Using a medium-roast, medium-ground Maxwell House coffee, we brewed coffee with each product in the French press, percolator, and cone filter drip brew fields according to the directions on the products. The instant coffees were then tested according to their instructions.
Multiple testers noted the ease of brewing and the taste. To weigh the pros and cons of each method, we examined the products’ characteristics (glass containers versus plastic, cone size, small pieces that could get lost, etc.), and the time and effort required for cleanup. Testers also considered each method’s brew time and how it would perform underway.
A French press—also known as a coffee plunger, coffee press, or cafetiere—has earned worldwide popularity for its balanced equation of ease of use, good taste, reasonable price, and consistent results. The only drawback with the French presses we tested was cleanup. Few onboard plumbing systems are ready to accept daily doses of coffee grounds, so the grounds have to be extracted and dumped into the trash, and there is just no easy way to dig the compressed coffee grounds out of the bottom of a French press.
The BonJour French Press is a BPA-free plastic canister with a sturdy plastic frame, metal plunger, and a flat bottom. A plastic cover shields the built-in, mesh filter on both sides, and a plastic vacuum seal surrounds the plunger. The design is simple and efficient, and the carafes are long lasting.
The Bodum Glass French Press is a glass carafe encased in a metal frame, with four small feet on the bottom. Although it produces a fine cup of coffee—some testers preferred the taste of coffee brewed in the glass carafes over the plastic and stainless ones—this model has essentially the same design as the other presses, but it had less stability because of its feet. The Bodum also had the highest price tag ($51). Weighing these factors, along with the glass-on-board risk, testers decided the Bodum was better left ashore.
The Nissan Thermos French Press is unique in that the coffee is brewed in the press, which is enclosed in a stainless-steel thermos. This means brewed coffee does not have to be transferred into a separate thermos, as it does with other presses, percolators, or drip brewers. This can be a real asset during a rough voyage. The stainless thermos kept coffee hot for more than 4.5 hours. But coffee that sits on grounds develops an increasingly bitter taste over time, so connoisseurs will not like that the brewed coffee is left in the same container as the grounds.
The GSI Personal Java Press is a quick and easy way to brew up a few cups of coffee. The plastic container comes with neoprene-like cover, and the setup includes a coffee mug; both have lids. The biggest asset of the GSI, which was designed for backpacking, is the small amount of storage space it requires.
The AeroPress Coffee Maker comprises two copolyester cylinders: one with an airtight rubber plunger that fits inside the other, like a syringe. Ground coffee is placed at the bottom of the large cylinder, on top of a paper microfilter. Add hot water, stir the mixture, steep momentarily, and slowly press down on the plunger. The setup looks a bit like a science project, and rocket-fuel coffee is the result. The removable bottom and paper filter make cleanup easier than the other presses. Testers were concerned about the AeroPress’s stability in rough weather because it’s tall with a narrow center of gravity, but if you like very strong coffee and follow the directions, AeroPress is a suitable choice.
Bottom line: Brewing is convenient and affords top-of-the-line taste. The French press method gets our Best Choice pick for onboard coffeemaking. Transfer to a thermos is a must, unless you’re brewing a quick solo hit or using a thermos/press combo. A glass press is preferred for taste, but the plastic press is best for longevity and stability. If you choose a plastic press, be sure it is BPA free.
The coffee press/thermos combo is ideal for rough seas, and the GSI Personal Java Press is a good fit for those extremely tight on space. AeroPress offers a little help on the cleanup with the paper filter, and it produces very strong coffee. Among the presses, testers’ favorite overall was the Bonjour, but the Aeropress got kudos for brewing the fastest single cup.
Percolators brew coffee by continually circulating hot water through coffee grounds, often through the use of gravity. Percolators have two chambers, with water on the bottom and course-ground coffee placed on the top. A thin tube that leads from the bottom to the top connects the chambers. Percolators operate under the principle that, when heated, water will be forced up the tube, seep through the coffee, and drop back down into the lower chamber, leaving the brewed coffee in the upper chamber. As the liquid approaches boiling point, the pot begins to spurt, or “perk,” at which point, the pot should be removed from heat. (Brewed coffee left on high heat will become bitter, so be sure to keep an eye on the pot when using a percolator.)
Our test percolators worked in this fashion. We liked the wide, flat bottoms of two of the percolators. The interlocking two-piece One All is a glass model with plastic tubing, a plastic upper chamber, a plastic filter, and a lock-tight plastic lid. The plastic handle is sturdy and convenient. There is a breaking risk with the glass, but testers liked the One All’s overall sturdy design. The Farberware’s solid stainles-steel pot, tube, and coffee bowl are a plus, but testers were worried by the setup’s six pieces that could be misplaced, especially the metal spring. If you decide on a Farberware percolator, pre-order extra springs.
The Bialetti Moka Express has been around for 75 years, and Bialetti has manufactured more than 200 million coffeemakers since the early 1950s. We tested an aluminum model that has Bialetti’s distinctive eight-sided shape, a shape that allows increased efficiency in heat diffusion, according to the maker.
The Moka Express does not have the wide, flat bottom of the other two tested percolators, but the coffee grounds are placed lower in the Moka Express, making its center of gravity lower. Once the brewed coffee gathers in the top compartment, the Moka Express can be slightly top heavy, and the narrow base may not fit on some stove burners.
Although testers enjoyed the excellent Italian coffee taste, and noted the ease of brewing and cleanup with the Bialetti, aluminum has never been a great fit for marine service. Bialetti does offer a stainless, wide bottom version that would be a better option for onboard use.
Percolators offer a good options for brewing onboard, but must be closely watched. Once the brew is ready, it should be enjoyed immediately or stored in a thermos. Because the brewed coffee grinds are concentrated in a removable bowl in the set up, cleanup is easier than with a French press. We found that when made according to directions, percolator coffee is excellent tasting, especially when using the Bialetti Moka Express.
Bottom line: One of our favorite methods ashore, percolating is also Recommended for onboard brewing. For the best results, using a percolator requires attention; it is not for those busy with a blow topsides. Despite stability issues and its aluminum construction, the Moka Express is the best bet for sailors who need espresso at sea. It also is Recommended for those who have the time to pay close attention to the brewing, but we’d opt for the wider-base stainless option.
Perhaps the simplest way to brew coffee is the drip method, known also as the cone or pour-over method. Cone brewing involves pouring boiling water into a cone that is lined with a paper filter filled with a few scoops of coffee grounds. The coffee brews as the water seeps through the filter and the cone funnel, into a mug or thermos placed below the cone.
The cone pour-over system was invented by Melitta Bentz in 1908 and is still considered by many coffee aficionados as the best way to make great coffee. We tested a plastic cone, a ceramic cone, and the unique Clever Dripper Valve Release plastic cone.
Some plastic cones have a small window in their frame so you can see if the mug or thermos you are pouring into is full. Coffee drinkers trying to get away from the potential hazards of heated plastic prefer ceramic cones, and others prefer them for the taste.
Although cones require using both hands to make coffee (one to pour water and one to hold the cone), all of our testers agreed that every boat should have one. It’s a $3 investment that can’t go wrong.
The Clever Dripper system holds the coffee and water in the cone, and when placed on top of a mug or thermos, the valve at the cone bottom releases, allowing the coffee to drain out. The “holding tank” time allows for the coffee to steep for a few minutes, and it also allows you to pour, put the kettle down, and then hold the cone atop a mug or thermos. If you plan to drip the coffee directly into a mug, check that the diameter of your mug isn’t too big for your cone. There are several size cones.
Melitta, maker of the Perfect Brew Plastic Filter Cone, markets several pour-over cone designs that snap into a kettle or a thermos, thus stabilizing the whole process. They came to our attention too late in the testing to include in this round, but we look forward to reviewing them in another issue, as the idea incorporates the best characteristics of several methods.
Bottom line: Ease, convenience, cost, speed and easy cleanup are all on your side with the cone method. It is Recommended. Drip brew into a thermos or mug, or steep and release with the Clever Dripper valve. For the price, there is no reason not to have a coffee cone onboard, either as your main brewing method or as a backup.
Instant coffee was patented in New Zealand in 1890. Nescafe introduced a more advanced instant-coffee refining process in 1938. Most instant coffees today are freeze dried or spray dried into powder or granulated forms.
Any preference testers had between the single-serve packets we tested was mostly due to personal taste. They were all easy to make and all of average taste. Note that each brand calls for a particular amount of liquid to be added to the concentrate, and varying this can affect taste. Although pricier than other forms of instant coffee, single-serve packets are good to have around while coastal cruising the states, but they are less common outside the U.S.
Tea-bag-style coffee singles, like the Maxwell House individual packets we tested, received average ratings, and no tester felt the need to stock them in the galley after testing concluded.
Widely available throughout much of the world, loose instant coffee in a jar or can, like the 4-ounce Folgers we tested, should always have a place onboard, in our opinion. If you keep it dry, it has a long shelf life, and it can be a lifesaver during rough weather.
Bottom line: Instant coffee is Recommend. Whether single-serve packets or loose grounds are the better choice depends on personal preference.
The coffee-brewing method used has a direct correlation to the flavor of the coffee that ends up in your cup. Water temperature and brew time are the two key variables as they have the biggest impact on the coffee’s flavor and potency. The optimal temperature for coffee brewing is 195 to 205 degrees.
The French press allows the most control over the process, and that’s one reason coffee enthusiasts choose this method. PS testers agreed that the French Press coffee-brewing method meets our criteria for the ideal process, save for its cleanup issues. It is our Best Choice method. Brewing is easy, prices are reasonable, ground coffee can be found just about anywhere in the world, and the coffee is delicious. We would like to see a French press with a twist-off bottom, similar to the Bialetti percolator, so that we could empty the coffee grounds straight into the trash, or one with an improved version of the French press AeroPress filter.
The aluminum Bialetti percolator we tested makes an excellent cup of espresso, and we plan to try out a stainless-steel model. Inexpensive drip cones and instant coffee are also great fits for the sailing life, and although instant coffee may be a wiser choice in rough seas, both make inexpensive and welcome additions to the galley for backup coffeemaking underway or in a hurry.