I woke at dawn, and it took a minute to remember where I was: Crappy airport hotel. Everything’s loaded on the truck. Just catch the flight. My daughter and husband had already headed toward our new home on the East coast, and my last morning in California wasn’t exactly a poetic goodbye. The coffee dispenser in the empty hotel breakfast room was broken. My head was pounding. Just catch the flight.
After a closed-road delay (because the crappy airport hotel wasn't even that close to the airport), I raced to the gate, collapsing sweatily into my airplane seat and trying to shake off the mounting pressure between my temples. It was then that I remembered: I’d bought myself a parting gift at Sightglass, the coffee roaster down the street from our old house. Six packets of their fancy new instant coffee. As the beverage cart (with its urns of acidic roastwater) passed by, I tore one open and mixed the powder with the contents of my water bottle and a cup of ice. I took a sip. I may have said aloud: I’m a genius.
My name is Maggie, and I’m a coffee snob.
The elixir had the punch of espresso and a robust cocoa flavor. I’d been skeptical of the new generation of instant coffees (and other travel-friendly options from high-end roasters around the country) that I’d been hearing about. Who needs instant coffee that costs as much as a cafe cup? But with each lifesaving sip on that cross-country flight, I let go of doubt and vowed to explore all the options.
And now, after spending this fall tasting cup after cup, I know I can bring the good stuff with me wherever I go.
If you’re traveling on planes, trains, or automobiles this winter, you need the coffee situation to be easy, and that’s where dissolving granules of much-better-than-old-school instant coffee come in. Most of these instant coffees are made through a partnership: Your favorite roaster sends their beans to a producer like Swift Cup in Lancaster, PA. Though the precise details are proprietary, they basically grind the coffee and brew it into an intense concentrate, which is then freeze-dried so that you can easily carry around a single-serving pouch. All you need is water to bring the coffee back to life. Swift Cup produces their own instant coffees as well as making the stuff for more than 50 different roasters, including Sightglass and Joe.
As grateful as I was for those granules of coffee on the plane, there are some downsides. The dehydrated coffees I’ve tried reconstitute into a rich, bold cup, with an intensity that I like best on ice. Matt Scottoline of ReAnimator Coffee Roasters in Philadelphia says they’ve noticed that the instant coffees have “lowered acidity and a higher concentration of sugary flavors,” though he notes he’s happy with their clean, sweet character. In a post on their blog, the Counter Culture team explains that they found a molasses note that sometimes veered toward oxidation in some of the dehydrated coffees they sampled from various producers, which is why they chose to go a different way.
That different way is essentially coffee in a tea bag, and it’s not just Counter Culture that went there: the company Steeped produces the bags for 75 different roasters including Victrola and Alabaster Coffee. The bags feel a bit weird to use, but it’s an easy process: You pour hot water over the bag into your cup, lift it up and down for a few seconds, and then let the bag steep for five minutes. What you’re left with has the brightness of pourover and some of the richness of French press. The Steeped tea bag model captures more of the coffee’s high notes: the tart cherry, the lemon rind. I’m into it, and I’ll be taking a few to drink at my inlaws’ house this Thanksgiving. (Love you guys! But hate your coffee!)
True coffee nerds can even take real-ish pourover on the road, and several of the companies making them say they're working toward launching a 100% biodegradable product soon. I felt a little funny jiggering the flimsy cardboard wings of a single-use filter setup over my cup—and several of my office mates stopped to stare—but the Kuju Ethiopian is pretty good. Of these portable pourovers, I liked the setup of DripKit’s offerings best: The sturdy cardboard contraption’s notches slide onto the rim of your cup to make it more stable, and their single origin coffee from Verve is delightfully bright and juicy. Though I’m not sure I’d want to risk knocking it over on a plane. For that, I’ll keep my Sightglass granules handy.
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Originally Appeared on Epicurious