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 stunted sense of taste can’t detect such nuanced flavors, 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.
We spent a couple weeks recaulking our ketch, Tosca, in Cartegena, Colombia 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 Starbucks 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.
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.
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, 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.
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 are instructions on making “perfect” French press coffee, 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 early-rising stateside guests, and they brought one of these noisemakers aboard, along with an elaborate coffee-making routine that involved much clanking and banging. 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 tool of last resort—a 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.) 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 juggler 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. When it’s just me in the morning, I still make my coffee this way.
For those who crave espresso-style coffee, we’ve had good success with the Aeropress, which works something like a French press to make espresso. The “press” component is a plunger forces the hot water at a high pressure through a disposable filter that fits at the bottom of the chamber. It is an efficient way to make coffee quickly. You can make up to four cups, but we’ve found it works best with two cups. When you’re finished you can press the coffee and filter into the trash. There are also reusable filters, which we have not tried.
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 long-suffering under-caffeinated sailors who would appreciate your wisdom, as well. We’re especially interested on cold brew blends and techniques. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on designing, stocking, and outfitting a cruising galley that is as functional at sea as it is at anchor, as well as tips on cooking at sea and provisioning for long voyages, check out our three-part ebook series Galley and Onboard Cooking.