Adventures in Onboard Coffee-making

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 11:13AM - Comments: (30)

My wife, Theresa, savors a cuppa in Thailand . . . many years ago.

A few years ago, a gourmet coffee maker contacted us about a new blend it had developed especially for sailors. As I recall, the medium roast was formulated to create a full-bodied taste and aroma when savored outside in the salt air. Sadly, my own sense of taste can’t detect such nuanced flavors (nor could any of my friends who sampled the blend), but I do like a good cup of coffee on board. And this is a problem.

As far as I can tell, no one yet has designed the ideal way to make cup of coffee underway aboard a sailboat. With the hopes of sparing other coffee-lovers years of frustration, or possible injury, I’m sharing my experience with the several methods we’ve tried.

  • Instant coffee: We spent a couple weeks recaulking our ketch, Tosca, in Cartegena, Colombia

    French press
    and were chagrined to discover that Nescafe was served at all the restaurants in this coffee-producing country, prompting us to give it a try. Perhaps the South American version was different from the one we knew? Nope. No matter what water-to-coffee ratio I used, mine always seemed to have the consistency of motor oil. I’m told that Starbuck’s Via blends, sold in in planet-polluting, single-serve pouches, tastes better than most. On the good side, this is probably the easiest coffee to make on a moving boat. Bottom line: For the truly desperate only. Tolerable with lots of cream and sugar.
  • Cowboy coffee: We were introduced to this method by a couple of Canadian conspiracy theorists in Fiji, who refused to buy anything made in an industrialized nation that they did not absolutely need. As I recall, all their meals — like their coffee — were made in one large pot. To make the concoction, they would simply stir course grounds into a hot pot of water and curse the CIA (in hushed tones) while they watched it simmer. They would then pour the oily liquid into a cup, trying in vain to leave all the grounds in the pot, which they later read like tea leaves. Bottom line: A very big mess waiting to happen. And gritty. Recommended for cowboys and anarchists only.
  • Stovetop percolator: We picked up one of these at a hardware store in Venezuela. It worked tolerably well at anchor, when the tall pot remained upright, but if you need your morning coffee fast, waiting intently for the telltale gurgle and drip (it seemed to take forever) is a sadistic form of torture. At sea,

    Stovetop espresso maker
    after repeatedly cleaning the filter basket after each pot and mopping up the mess when the pot tipped over, we soon found ourselves scouring the cabinets for traces of Nescafe. Bottom line: Tolerable at anchor; a marriage-wrecker at sea.
  • French press: I only recently learned that I have been using this wrong all these years, which might be why I never really fully appreciated the taste. The correct approach involves freshly ground beans of a uniform coarseness (apparently only achievable with a special kind of grinder), and a carefully timed steeping. Here’s a link to one of several sites that describe the process in detail. There are so many ways this process can go wrong that I don’t know where to start, but two words sum it up quite well “burr grinder.” In Fiji, we hosted some stateside guests who were coffee aficionados, and they brought one of these aboard. It was an AC version, but it drew so little current that we could run it off our small inverter — something I regretfully revealed during an unguarded moment. The grinder soon developed a short circuit, however, and I was unable to fix this with my 24-ounce framing hammer. Bottom line: If you decide upon this method, I suggest you keep the grinder well-hidden, and use it only when you are on board alone.
  • Stovetop espresso maker: We bought this at the same time we picked up the percolator. (Venezuelans have more kinds of coffee than we have breakfast cereals.)

    Manual-drip coffee cone
    We were giddy with the excitement of making espresso (real espresso!) onboard, until we realized that this contraption, in the process of brewing, transfers all of the water from the bottom of the container to the top. This is akin to moving the lead in your keel to the top of your mast. Bottom line: We heard of a former tightrope walker who was able to make coffee using this device — but only at anchor.

  • Manual drip cone: In the end, we settled for this method. It uses a funnel-type basket that  accepts the same type of filters you use in drip coffeemakers. On long passages, we’d make one thermos full in the evening — in the sink, in case of spills — and this was usually accomplished without injury. You can also make one cup at a time. Like the Venezuelan espresso-maker, this is a top-heavy approach, requiring you to perch the funnel atop the thermos (or cup) and pour hot water into it. Ideally, the thermos and funnel would latch together, but I don’t think anyone yet makes a device that does this.


    Bottom line: It works, but not without risk. A good teapot that pours without spilling helps prevent disasters. My wife, Theresa, who cannot stand the plastic taste in modern electric-drip, Mr. Coffee-style coffee makers, still makes her coffee this way.

We are currently investigating other methods of making coffee onboard, including the Aeropress, which works something like a French press to make espresso. Interestingly, it’s made by the same company that developed the far-flying Aerobie flying disc. How someone made the connection between something you fling great distances and a contraption that makes coffee, I’m curious to learn. (I suspect it involves an incident with a burr-grinder.) Anyway, if you have found a way of making coffee onboard that won’t drive me further over the brink, I would be delighted to hear it. I’m sure there are other sailors who would appreciate your wisdom, as well.

Comments (27)

We use two methods. The first is a double wall stainless press from IKEA, which with coarse ground coffee makes enough to fill the preheated thermos. We also have a restaurant style coffee pot (you press the top to pump the liquid out through the spout) which we fill with hot water, and then use the Starbucks Via instant for "cups on demand".

Posted by: WM | November 19, 2013 11:20 AM    Report this comment

I have found a storable size auto drip coffee maker. I brew it and then immediately put it into a stainless steel double walled thermos. It stays hot for hours.

Posted by: Unknown | July 30, 2013 3:31 PM    Report this comment

About ten years ago while in Germany, I found the perfect solution to making filter coffee in a thermos. it was a normal looking filter cone but the base was shaped like a tube that fit into the thermos; thus providing much more stability. I have looked for one in that states and was never able to find it again. After reading this report, I checked out the name on the cone ---Alfi, and searched the web. The company is Alfi Carafe, a division of the upscale WMF company.
I found the cones in the accessories section but they are available here only in porcelain at the steep price of $45. a solution, but not the ultimate given the fragility of the material and the price

Posted by: Bob R | July 13, 2013 7:34 AM    Report this comment

I'm with John C. Good old traditional SS percolator locks to the stove, pours easy and makes a good cuppa joe. Good enough to satisfy all the coffee snobs in the family.

Posted by: Win S | July 10, 2013 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Hucklberry mocka is called for in the mornings on our boat. My wife and
I purchased a Breville pump espresso machine that works flawless while sailing. We grind our beans and the inverter works only for a few minutes while heating the water and making the espresso.
The beauty of this is with a different syrup you can make other flavors, but not all stores carry syrup. We have had to carry a few extra bottles of syrup on board when sailing to other places.

Posted by: GARY M | July 8, 2013 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for sharing your experiance and starting this thread. Good, hot coffee while underway is essential. We prefer drip to perk and use an all metal pot I inherited from my grandparents, couldn't say were to purchase one today.

Posted by: zeph | July 7, 2013 9:21 PM    Report this comment

We bought a Nespresso machine and it makes real expresso. You have to use the inverter and it draws less than 10 amps from the batteries, since it takes only two minutes for two espressos. Plus you get the choice of many different coffees at around 70 cents a cup.

Posted by: Rusty | July 4, 2013 8:19 PM    Report this comment

We use a manual drip method into a thermos. We purchased this 10+ years ago. It fits on top of our stainless steel thermos. The funnel is plastic so it will not break like the glass ones might. We have to watch it while pouring the hot water from the teapot since it is top heavy, but the coffee is as good as at home. We cannot find this funnel anymore, unfortunately.

Posted by: Robert K | July 3, 2013 8:11 PM    Report this comment

We bought the best Espresso machine ever, Nespresso.
It draws a few amps from the inverter but not for long (less than 2 minutes for 2 coffees) and it make real espresso, plus you can have various choices of coffee .
Store easily and cost between 60 and 80 cents a cup.
For real coffee lovers.

Posted by: Rusty | July 3, 2013 8:04 PM    Report this comment

My wife and I sailed for 5 years on our Beneteau 393 Oceanus Clipper. We spent 4 years + in the Med then crossed the Atlantic and spent 7 months in the Carib on the way home to Vancouver Canada. I really enjoy a cup of GOOD coffee in the morning and on an overnight sail I like a cup (or 3) for my shift (01:00 - 07:00)press. We found that the best coffee we could make was with a French Press, using boiling water, which we poured into the press resting in the sink. After we broke the second press, we bought one with a soft plastic cover.It still serves us well here in Nanoose Bay, BC. We also found that our Spectra reverse osmosis water made the best coffee.

Posted by: MICHAEL SWANGARD | July 3, 2013 3:45 PM    Report this comment

My wife and I have been using a Coleman Camping Coffee maker for several years with great results, it's a little slower than a home maker but the coffee comes out the same. We have a 2 burner gimbaled stove, we remove the burner grate and lock the unit in with potholders and it has never moved under sail. We do put a small bungee around the carafe while underway.

Posted by: MIKE G | July 3, 2013 3:40 PM    Report this comment

I'm partial to a french press at home. When I'm cruising having the grounds neatly encased in a paper filter for easy disposal wins the day for the Melitta filter setup, which works fine with a little care on a gimballed stove.

There's a little burr grinder called Hario (model MSS-1B) that's hand-cranked. You'd hate it if you were making coffee for a crowd but it's great for one or two cups, takes a minute or so of cranking but does a great job, takes up very little space, seems like it might last forever, doesn't require electricity. I got mine on Amazon.

Posted by: JAMES N | July 3, 2013 3:06 PM    Report this comment

When we were outfitting our new Shannon 28 in 1980 for what would become a nearly three year honeymoon cruise, my wife and I decided that if we couldn't find an easy, safe way to make fresh coffee aboard, we might have to seriously question the wisdom of our plans. Neither one of us can even think about functioning in the morning without a good cup of fresh coffee.

One day as I walked through a K-Mart in hopes of finding something suitable, I spotted a Melitta drip coffee maker. With a 10 cup glass decanter, plastic cone filter holder and paper filters, it sure seemed like a simple solution to our problem. Since it only cost about ten bucks, I figured that I could afford to take one home to test it out without taking a hit in the wallet if it didn't work out.

Well, to our great surprise and joy, the darn thing made a better cup of coffee than the restaurant grade Bunn that we had at home. The key was the fact that the water would reach boiling before it was poured over the grounds. Most coffee makers have plastic parts which won't allow them to get the water hot enough for full extraction. The Melitta, in its simplicity, completely solved that problem.

We used our Melitta aboard Mary Flower for fifteen years. We had a stainless steel teapot for boiling the water and pot holders on our gimballed propane stove to keep everything in place. The system was secure enough that we could make a pot of steaming hot coffee after coming off watch even on a stormy night when the boat was pounding in rough seas.

To this day, we use a Melitta in our home and everyone who has a cup of coffee made with this little wonder always says it's the best coffee they're ever had.

And it can still be had for only about ten bucks. Amazing!

Posted by: Mary Flower | July 3, 2013 2:58 PM    Report this comment

I've found the french press makes the best coffee with the least amount of hassle. There are stainless steel insulated french presses that keep your coffee hot, are unbreakable and easy to clean. Depending on the model, Bodum also has a plastic strainer now which makes the grind less critical. We freeze whole beans and grind them as needed with a burr grinder, but store ground works fine. Look for them at Amazon. The great thing with these is you can heat your water whichever way is best for your situation. I put non-skid feet on mine so it stays put .

Posted by: Bradley C | July 3, 2013 2:20 PM    Report this comment

We love the Aeropress! A finely ground coffee works best. We make espresso and add hot water to make 2 cups of Americano style coffee in the morning.

Posted by: Moondance38 | July 3, 2013 11:42 AM    Report this comment

Alessi makes a stovetop espresso maker in several sizes that is well suited to boats. Has a broad base that makes the unit more stable underway. Not cheap but high quality.

Posted by: BRIAN L | July 3, 2013 11:18 AM    Report this comment

I've never used one (I drink Tea) but Folger's (I think) had a brew in the cup coffee in a bag, much like you brew tea. If you wanted more than a cup or two, you could brew several bags in a pot of hot water. (We used to do that to make a gallon or so of tea at once when we wanted Iced Tea.)

Happy Sailing

Posted by: Chris W | July 3, 2013 10:57 AM    Report this comment

We use ground coffee in a french press. We've tried all kinds of options and this is probably the easiest (and safest). We love fresh ground and love fresh roasted and ground even more. But sailing about involves some compromises.

Posted by: SAM C | July 3, 2013 10:52 AM    Report this comment

I still use an 8 cup ss stove top perculator, let it boil 8 mins. and always get a GOOD as well as HOT cup of coffee. Never had a pot spill on my gimballed stove with pot grippers

Posted by: JOHN C | July 3, 2013 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Keurig all the way! Easy to store coffee stays fresh, fast brewing, no need to heat water on the stove. The newer small Keurig K10 model fits into our lockers better--we've switched to that one.

Posted by: James S | July 3, 2013 10:42 AM    Report this comment

I found that Folger's coffee bags do a tolerable job, store rather easily, and are really easy to clean up.

Posted by: SID W | July 3, 2013 10:29 AM    Report this comment

don't laugh! we use a Coleman stove top automatic drip maker! a bit large and has a glass carafe, but makes awesome coffee

Posted by: Phantomracer | July 2, 2013 8:59 PM    Report this comment

I love my AeroPress. We have a few of them and never travel anywhere without one. Since it only makes one cup at a time, I also have a large French Press from REI. I'd suggest avoiding French Presses that have the metal around the perimeter. We have a Capresso hot water pot that we use to heat water to 180 degrees. You can't use the same grind in the AeroPress as you do in the French Press. Our standard coffee is Cafe LaLlave that we buy at Safeway for 5.99 (4.99) when it's on sale and it comes in 12oz cans. Sometimes I'll buy something else and use a burr grinder but the Cafe LaLlave is ground perfectly for the AeroPress and reasonably priced for a good espresso coffee.

Posted by: DAVID B | July 2, 2013 3:52 PM    Report this comment

We use a funnel that has a smaller disc than picure. It fits inside the opening of our thermos. We found that helps keep it upright. Also, only pour in enough water to wet the coffee and fill the funnel 1/3 or 1/2 full first. Let that drip down and then fill to top. Has worked out well for years. The funnel is a 6 cup model.

Posted by: BARRY S | July 2, 2013 2:30 PM    Report this comment

We have used an Aeropress underway successfully. It requires you to be careful, but it makes great coffee. We use something like Pete ground French Roast. I wouldn't call it espresso, but if is very good strong coffee.

Posted by: ROBERT H | July 2, 2013 1:57 PM    Report this comment

I could a 'Keurig' style cup at time maker being useful on board. Maybe one you pour hot water into instead of keeping the water at temp. The little canisters, although a little pricier, would be easy to store and keep fresh.

Posted by: tuckersaylor | July 2, 2013 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Best coffee I have ever made was using an Aeropress. I unfortunately have found out that not only is the water temperature important but your beans are critical. Something changed with my Organic Rain Forest beans and a cup of coffee changed from awesome to less than mediocre after using these beans for years. I've always ground my beans for a Turkish brew and only made one cup at a time.

Posted by: KENNETH T | July 1, 2013 11:53 PM    Report this comment

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