Making Great Coffee on the Road
If you've visited a city with great cafe culture like Melbourne or Fremantle, which have been privileged with a hundred years of Italian influence in their culinary and coffee habits, then you've had the opportunity to drink great coffee.
If you're driving around outback Australia, touring and visiting the iconic desert and beach hotspots, then you're going to miss out on great coffee unless you make it yourself.
Roadhouse coffee is designed so tourists can take a break from driving and to keep goggle-eyed, long distance truckies from running off the road.
We are yet to find good coffee north of Broome or Cairns including Darwin - the capital city of the Northern Territory.
Even vending style machine's, that automatically grind beans and froth the milk, create a mediocre brew at best. The espresso and milk are usually over heated to minimise bacteria and the beans are generally stale.
Cafes and small towns may proudly boast a gleaming Italian badged espresso machine sitting in pride of place next to the till, but hiring properly trained barista staff in the bush is nearly impossible and a lack of local competition kills any desire to improve standards.
A cafe in Melbourne that serves poor coffee shuts it's doors after a month. In the bush you simply serve up another cup of rubbish to the next passing tourist.
It's All About The Beans
Fresh, quality beans are everything. Without freshness coffee is always going to be bitter and washed out, lacking taste and crema (the dark foam that rises to the top of the pour)
Procuring quality, fresh beans becomes a problem the further north you travel. In large cities and towns there are any number of bean roasters, happily turning out an assortment of roasts from every corner of the globe. Supermarket shelves stock a variety of blends and with large populations and high turnover the chance of getting fresh beans are pretty good.
It's even possible to find local growers along the highway, people who are involved in the complete coffee process - picking and roasting fresh beans from their own plants and selling them direct from the plantation.
In a bush town with a population of a hundred the local supermarket may only offer one brand of beans. That bag of beans could have been there for a year. Look for packaging with a roasting date and try and buy your beans within a month of that roast date.
The easiest way to get fresh beans is to buy them online and have them posted to you. A kilogram of beans takes around a week to get anywhere in Australia and costs about ten dollars to ship. A quality roasted bean can cost as little as $20 a kilo. Freshly roasted beans need about a week to de-gas after the roasting process. We buy coffee from businesses that 'roast and post'. A week on the road de-gassing is about perfect timing. With a little planning you can time your latest bean acquisition to arrive, care of the local post office, at the same time you arrive into town.
A Bit of a Grind
If you buy whole beans then you're going to need to grind them. There are a variety of options from small hand grinders to elaborate commercial jobs.
Whatever grinder you choose try and get a device specifically dedicated to grinding coffee - preferably a burr grinder which rotates and crushes the beans between two metal faces. Blade grinders look like mini blenders and deliver an inconsistent grind that overheats the coffee resulting in loss of flavour and bitterness.
It's often said that a $1000 grinder can make great coffee in a $5 coffee maker but a $5 grinder will never make decent coffee, even in a $5000 machine. Don't underestimate the importance of the grinder. Fantastic results can be achieved from a decent grinder and a simple 'pour over' filter.
The Coffee Making Method
There are a myriad of methods to draw great flavour from the humble coffee bean. Someone who develops a taste for good coffee often develops a mild obsession. Whatever method you choose requires paying attention to detail to get the best result.
The Espresso Machine. True Italian espresso is delivered by passing the correct amount of water (heated to 94°C) through a puck of precisely ground coffee, tamped at 30lbs for a duration of 25 seconds. It is a science that requires precision and practise to perfect but it produces the small shot of espresso that is the basis for classic cafe drinks such as cappuccino and latte. Espresso machines tend to be cumbersome and heavy and most require around 30 minutes to properly warm up.
It is possible to lug a boiler equipped espresso maker around if you have the room, electricity and the desire. We've witnessed people who are helping fund their tour of the country by selling coffee from the back of their vehicles.
Some domestic and semi commercial espresso machines are more suited than others to a life on the road and we'll be having a look at a few in upcoming reviews.
The Moka Pot. Another method is the simple 'Moka' Pot - a stovetop boiling chamber that passes steam driven water through ground coffee. While Moka pots can deliver a brew quality that exceeds that of instant coffee the inherent design treats the ground coffee harshly and the resulting cup is usually overheated, thin and bitter. There are exceptions.
Pour Overs. The pour over technique is basically filtered coffee but with a little care and the right equipment a pour over is capable of delivering great results.
Drip Filter Coffee. Drip filters are widely used throughout Europe and are a convenient way of supplying large volumes of coffee to party crowds and offices. Marginally better than instant coffee, drip filters lacks the finesse of the similar pour over method and leave a lot of flavour and subtlety behind in the filter.
Turkish Coffee. Turkish coffee is an ancient ritual that is made in an 'ibrik' or 'cezve'. In essence it is a small copper pot, not unlike a milk frothing jug, with a long handle designed for holding over a fire. We've had some sensational coffee from the ibrik and we've had some atrocious brews as well. Making good coffee in an ibrik requires good technique and practise.
Syphon's and Vacuum Pots. These intricate glass vessels can be works of art and share some similarities in the way they deliver your coffee. The syphon transfers boiling water from one glass jar to another jar containing the coffee. Once full the syphon pivots and empties the brew into the original water jar. The vacuum pot works by boiling water in a bottom jar and transferring it upwards into another, passing through the coffee as rises. Once removed from the heat the natural vacuum in the lower jar draws the brewed coffee back into the lower jar, leaving the grounds behind. Both methods are intriguing ways of obtaining a fresh cup but not the last word as far as flavour goes. The delicate glass vessels are probably not ideal for carting around the countryside in a 4x4.
Percolators. Percolators hark back to a time when fondues, apricot chicken and bouffant hair ruled the world. An interesting and once popular method but in our opinion percolators deliver a result much like moka pots - harsh, hot and bitter.
Pods and Capsules. Pod and Capsule coffee delivers your pre-ground dose in a convenient little package that saves having to do your own grinding. It's clean and it's easy. Nestle, ever the innovators, have developed an ingenious system providing aluminium capsules that create a reasonable shot of espresso at the touch of a button. The machines are compact and the process is fuss free. For some people it may be all they ever desire. The capsules aren't cheap and if you drink plenty of strong (double shot) coffee then the hip pocket will feel it. Choice of coffee blends is limited and while the result is remarkably pleasant a genuine espresso machine still delivers the ultimate cup of coffee.
The Plunger. The plunger or French press makes coffee by infusing ground beans in hot water and then straining the brew by pushing downwards on a filter. Better than instant coffee, plunger coffee, like the drip filter, doesn't manage to extract maximum flavour from the bean.
The Mad Scientists. Coffee can bring out the obsessive in the best of us and in the last few years a dozen or more coffee making contraptions have sprung from the inventive minds of true devotees. Contraptions like the Presso, Aeropress, Mypressi and Portaspresso all use ingenious methods of extracting a shot of pure espresso in devices that need no electricity and are truly portable.
Any of the methods mentioned above will deliver better coffee than conventional instant powder.
Grinding your own fresh beans will elevate any coffee making system to a new level - vastly improved over pre-ground.
The quality of your beans and grinder are the most important factor in making great coffee - a ten thousand dollar espresso machine can't turn stale, poorly ground beans into gold.
Not all grinders are created equal and not all can grind fine enough to make espresso in an espresso machine.
Reviews of coffee making equipment and other articles can be found in the 'Cooking' section. We took a second look at the 'Presso' - a unique device that works particularly well at ► The Presso Espresso Maker Revisited.
◄ The Complete
Guide To 4WD
The 4WD ►
To Outback Touring