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Coffee on the Road

Love coffee? Like to travel?

Then the following situation probably sounds familiar: you’re a few hours into a road trip, and the bottom of your travel mug has just dried up. Your first cup was the product of a well-practiced ritual, the beans freshly roasted and the grind dialed to perfection. It got you out of town before dawn, and ensured that your adventure was off to a good start. But that cup is gone, and it’s time for a refill. You pull into the next town, and either:

  1. Spend the next half hour trying to find the best coffee around, only to be disappointed when the “espresso” hut slings dirty water.
  2. Stop at the first gas station you find, hoping that by some stroke of luck, you won’t be greeted by the re-brewed and watered-down dregs they have left over from the night before.
  3. Pull into a chain coffee shop that serves up something caffeinated, but tastes like whoever was roasting the beans forgot to set the timer.

The correct answer? None of the above. It’s worth it to go the distance for dry trail, a week of non-stop powder, or your old climbing partner’s wedding—and it’s worth it to ensure the journey isn’t thrown off track by a bad cup of joe.

Option 1: Be prepared

Take a kit with you. Sometimes the best way to ensure a good cup of coffee is to make it yourself. A good kit will include: fresh beans, a grinder, a means of making coffee, and, if required, plenty of filters. You can usually find anything else you need on the go. Even if you don’t end up brewing your own cup while on the road, taking a kit while you travel means you’ll have a good cup at the ready wherever you stay the night. Hotel coffee is almost as bad as truck-stop coffee. There are plenty of camp coffee-making systems that lend themselves to road-tripping, such as the GSI Outdoors Commuter Java Press, the GSI Outdoors Java Drip, and the Handpresso Wild Hybrid (below, left to right). The latter is especially impressive, creating a perfect cup of espresso with the help of a hand pump. Coffee makers Though you might get a strange look from the gas station clerk when you ask for an outlet for your grinder, don’t be shy. Or, you can go with a hand grinder like the GSI Outdoors Java Mill. Worse come to worse, you can grind at home and bring along in a small, airtight container. Next, you’ll need hot water; gas stations typically have hot water on tap, and though the filtration might be questionable. After you run enough hot water to rinse your mug, taste contamination should be minimized.

Option 2: Put your copilot to work (search skills required)

Busting out a grinder at the gas station sound like a little much? Try this: since your phone is locked away while you drive (it is, right?), have whoever’s next to you go to Google on a smartphone, and search “best coffee in [insert town you’re visiting here].” If the town is small, chances are you’ll have few options, and probably only on a map. Some of these options will have creative names that contain the words “java.” Be cautious. Combine your amount of free time with your tolerance for disappointment, and weigh that combination against what you know will be an okay cup from the chain coffee shop that’s right off the freeway. There’s always a small chance you’ll find a hidden gem, but the likelihood is relatively low.

If you’re heading to a bigger city, you’re probably in luck. Using the search technique listed above, you’ll probably find a list of reviewed local coffee shops. Better yet, you might find some local roasters. Since most of these search results have photos associated with them, you’ll have more data to use. Look for things like hand-stamped paper coffee bags, modern-yet-rustic architectural cues (such as reclaimed wood juxtaposed with steel), and beards. Especially beards above flannel. If you see any of these, two things are probably true: you’ll pay too much, and the coffee will be delicious and locally roasted.

Option 3: Wait

For the true coffee fiend, no coffee is better than bad coffee. When there are no good options around, your best bet is to wait. Cravings only get worse with disappointment. Look ahead to the next major destination on your trip, and plan your stop accordingly. The anticipation will only make the next cup more enjoyable. If your reason for the stop is sleepiness, find your caffeine elsewhere. Better yet, take a quick nap at a rest stop. Driving drowsy isn’t worth it, nor is compromising your self-respect for some “turbo-charged-hi-rev-double-amped” concoction at a truck stop.

With a little work and high standards, good coffee on the road is always just right around the corner.

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