In search of the best backcountry espresso machines
You might think you can close the checkbook and savor the open road once you’ve purchased an Airstream like Artemis, but the truth is the initial investment simply opens up a long list of equipment needs: solar power, anti-sway hitch, generator. The list goes on.
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Before all of that, though, Jen and I turned to the real necessity: coffee.
As a caffeine-dependent travel writer who is on the road in places where cafés aren’t always an option, I already have an awesome, super compact daily setup that includes a Porlex Mini burr grinder, a Soto Helix cone, and, when necessary, a Bodum Bistro kettle. The whole kit tucks into a ditty sack smaller than my wash bag, makes crisp clean brews, and has incalculable entertainment value for travel companions. I’ve endured plenty of camp-side ridicule, most of which is deserved, during my fiddly, fastidious 10-ish minute coffee-prep ritual. But I’ve never found anyone who turned down—or didn’t love—the coffee the procedure produces.
That kit was probably the first thing we loaded into Artemis, minus the kettle, as the propane stove takes care of hot water. But if you’re like me, after a few days or a week on drip coffee, you start to crave the brace of an espresso. Of course there’s the classic moka pot, but I wondered: Is there a simple, compact, easy-to-use machine for the woods that generates a proper espresso? Surprisingly, there are quite a few.
First up was the AeroPress ($30), which advertises itself as able to make both “American style” and “espresso style” coffees. That equivocation made me nervous, but I decided to check it out anyway. For a gadget that is “ideal for use when camping, backpacking, boating, or just traveling,” the AeroPress is surprisingly convoluted, with eight separate pieces, and a carrying pouch nearly as big as a regulation-style football. It’s a fairly simple process: insert a filter and fresh grounds into the chamber, then insert and depress the plunger, which makes a vacuum-like rubber seal in the shaft, to force the water through for a fast extraction. It works well, kind of like a rapid-fire, extra-strong French press, without the bitterness or the grit in your joe. You can vary the strength by the amount of water and the coarseness of the grind, and though the device makes a smooth, intense, short cup, it’s no espresso.
Next I turned to a pair of relative newcomers: the MiniPresso GR ($59) and the Staresso SP-200 ($116). It’s not only the slightly hokey names that unite the two, but their clean designs and similar inner workings. Both use internal reservoirs that you fill with hot water and pop-up hand pumps to generate high pressure that forces the water through the coffee in the sealed internal portafilters. Both produced excellent, smooth espresso with a thick, golden crema. I leaned toward the MiniPresso, partly because the pill-like design is so sleek and self-contained, with the whole thing, including a the cup, screwing together into a compact unit. The Staresso has three separate parts and a carrying pouch. The MiniPresso also costs half as much.
Unfortunately, both units quickly developed a problem. Because neither has a gauge to meter pressure, it’s difficult to know how much force the pumps can take. While pumping espresso one morning on both units, I pumped through stiff resistance and heard popping noises before water came seeping out of the sides of the devices. The seals inside the chambers had broken. Both companies said they were surprised that the machines had broken so quickly, and each posited that I had used too fine of grounds, which had clogged the machines. Both companies said the problems were covered under warranty and promised to get out replacement parts.
While waiting for the spares, I got my morning fix from the Handpresso ($100). Reminiscent of a mountain-bike shock pump, this device has a pop-out handle that you use to fill the built-in air chamber before you brew. A gauge on the head of the unit monitors pressure, with a green dash denoting the desired 16 bar mark. The main body of the unit is solid metal, giving it the highest quality feel of all the devices we tried. Once the Handpresso is pumped up, you fill the circular reservoir with boiling water, insert the grounds-filled portafilter, and screw on the cap. Then, after stationing the unit over an espresso demitasse (not included), you push the trigger and the pressure releases to create a 30-second espresso pour. Like most countertop machines, the results varied from strong and sweet with a beautiful crema to thin and weak, depending on the grind. With all of these units, you’ll need a hand mill like the Porlex for consistent results, and once I got the grind dialed in, this machine seemed the most reliable.
AeroPress: The most versatile device of the bunch, but it produces strong coffee rather than true espresso. It would make a good replacement for a pour-over or French Press setup.
Staresso: Produces excellent results, and the pretty, compact design is appealing. The lack of pressure gauge means you have to get the grind perfect or risk damage from using too much force. On the plus side, customer service was excellent and responsive, with a new pump mechanism arriving less than a week after I broke the first one.
MiniPresso: The Apple-quality design is the sleekest of all the devices, and the resulting espresso was thick and smooth. Durability was an issue, but, like the Staresso, replacement parts came quickly and without question.
Handpresso: The rugged metal build and pressure gauge make this the most durable of the bunch, and it made a great espresso when you got the grind and tamping right. Probably the best all-around device for its combination of reliability, good looks, and tasty drink.
Carrying not only one, but two coffee devices while camping might seem ridiculous—and it is. When headed into the backcountry, I obviously have to choose between espresso or pour-over. But in an Airstream, you can afford such luxuries.
And even though friends mock us more than ever for our coffee pickiness, I know they also secretly covet our setup. Last week, on an overnight float and fishing trip down the Rio Grande outside of Creede, Colorado, the group jeered me when I pulled out the Handpresso. But as soon as I started slinging espresso, everyone lined up for a shot or two. One good friend was even genuinely disappointed that I hadn’t packed along the milk frother for cappuccino.