Our guest blogger, Tim Messenger is an outdoor coffee brewing enthusiast with a serious case of wanderlust. Adventurous and curious, Tim takes us through his journey in the Australian wilderness - all the way up to the tallest peaks - to serve up a serious cup of Joe!
Easter is not normally a time I like to plan to get outdoors. In Melbourne, it’s the last long weekend where there’s still a chance of good weather before summer disappears so every man and his dog heads bush. Campsites become wall-to-wall tents and anywhere remotely accessible with a two-wheel drive is insanely over-crowded.
I’m not one for crowds and go to these places for solitude so for me, this totally defeats the purpose of getting out. I tried my chances on Easter Monday and headed up to the Cathedral Ranges to hike up Sugarloaf Peak and brew a coffee at the summit.
Cathedral Ranges is about an hour and a half north of Melbourne and is popular with hikers and rock climbers. It’s a very impressive sandstone ridge that appears to pop up out of nowhere in the fields between two mountain ranges. There are plenty of trail options to work your way to the top, but my favourite is always the Wells Cave Track which takes you almost straight up, finishing with a short, near-vertical climb towards the end. The ridgeline of Sugarloaf is incredibly sharp and steep, only a couple metres wide at points. It made for a very interesting camping experience a couple months ago; spending the night in a hiking hammock between the only two trees on the peak right on the edge of the drop.
My theory this Easter weekend was that on Monday the crowds would be packing up and heading home. No such luck.
I couldn’t even get a park at Sugarloaf Saddle and it was a constant stream of people heading off up the trail. I took the more difficult route up to avoid the bulk of the crowds, and while being distracted watching a couple of rock climbers, somehow ended up wandering off the main track and bush-bashing for a couple minutes before realising I wasn’t on the trail anymore. Turned out to be a great mistake....no more people!
I know this area pretty well and wasn’t worried about being off the track. As steep and intimidating as the cliff face is, I knew if I climbed straight up I’d get to the peak eventually without needing trails. The silence was beautiful and the clouds were putting on a show as they broke over the top of the peak like waves rolling down the cliff.
The climb was pretty straightforward but hard work. I might be reasonably fit, but I’m anything but a rock climber. There are about 230 reasons why holding onto the side of a cliff with my fingers probably isn’t a good idea (substitute “reasons” with “pounds”). It didn’t help having my outdoor brewing backpack on. It’s certainly not heavy, but it’s bulky and made for some tight squeezes when climbing up between slabs of fallen rock.
About 30 metres from the top, I found a ledge big enough to comfortably brew on and settled in for a while. My brewing backpack is an SLR camera case that stays permanently packed for times like this when you just want to grab it and go. The compartments are all customisable so it can be modified to fit any number of brewing devices, keeping them safely padded.
Today’s brew was a honey processed Colombian Catimor from Barrel One Coffee Roasters. My brew method of choice for locations like this is normally the Aeropress. It’s practically indestructible and very easy clean when your resources are limited.
The other beauty of the Aeropress for hiking is that it’s an incredibly forgiving method that doesn’t require the use of goosenecks or scales to get a great brew. Being full immersion, if your grind is too fine or coarse you can adjust your steep time accordingly and still get a nice balanced cup in the end.
Having the backpack this trip meant I had my scales and hand grinder anyway. It allowed for a more measured brew with the usual habits and rituals of home that aren’t normally accessible on the trails.
The resulting cup was delicious and well deserved. There’s little as satisfying as enjoying an amazing coffee in such a beautiful location. The peace and quiet, incredible views, and the smell of fresh ground coffee make for a great experience every time.
“My brewing backpack is an SLR camera case that stays permanently packed for times like this when you just want to grab it and go."
Manually brewing specialty coffee drew me in with its rituals, devices, and the science behind it. Being a gear junkie and loving to geek out on stats and data, I love that brewing can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be.
Brewing outdoors on the trails is no different. If you have space and can take the scales, grinder, and gooseneck then go for it! If you’re hiking for 3 days with limited resources, you can still enjoy great coffee using pre-ground, pre-weighed beans and cut the gear you need to take in half.
I’m an avid outdoorsman. If I’m mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing or kayaking; then I’m in my element. It made sense to combine my passion for specialty coffee with our wilderness adventures. There’s something very grounding in taking the time to properly craft a good brew, and to do it out in nature makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
What started out as a project to test the practicality (or sometimes absurdity) of different brewing devices on the trails has now become a staple on almost every adventure we have. Coffee comes with me everywhere and I love the community and conversation it generates out in the wild. On a recent alpine hike, brewing a round of V60’s for the group in the middle of a freezing morning of packing up wet gear put smiles on everyone’s faces and took their minds off aching joints. Whether it’s drinking great coffee in an unlikely place or watching in wonder (or amusement) at the brewing process, coffee brings people together and it’s so easy to take it anywhere with you.
I have some insanely convoluted and indestructible kits that allow me to travel with everything right up to a Chemex or even a Syphon. But being that most of my treks require full use of both hands and preferably travel light, practicality dictates that my gear should fit nicely in a backpack and be strong enough to withstand trips and falls on the trail or the odd flight over the handlebars on the bike.
“Coffee comes with me everywhere and I love the community and conversation it generates out in the wild.”
When I started brewing outdoors, the biggest challenge I found was not what to take, but what to leave at home. And it’s not even so much about the gear, but more the habits and rituals. After honing in skills and techniques in the kitchen, it’s sometimes hard to be ok with not weighing your water input or timing your brew down to the second.
At the end of the day though, all you really need to do is boil water, grind coffee, and filter it into a cup.
WHAT YOU NEED TO BREW IN THE WILDERNESS
- 15g of coffee ground medium-fine (I think a setting of 12 clicks on the Hario Mini-mill)
- Aeropress non-inverted using a metal Able Disk filter (more on these later)
- 30-second bloom with 30g of water
- Stir gently with a eucalyptus stick that I found on the ground
- Top up to 240g for a 1:16 ratio and press slowly at about 1min 10sec
For me, the hardest hurdle to overcome was being ok with pre-grinding coffee the night before. I had stuck in my head that you HAD to grind fresh to get the best flavours in your cup; the science is pretty solid on that. I’ve since changed my tune and it has now saved me carrying scales and a grinder. Maybe it’s my unrefined palette, but I reckon I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between freshly ground coffee and coffee ground the night before after a hike gaining 3600 feet in elevation through the mud and snow.
For our weekly mountain biking Brew Rides, I’ve started pre-grinding and dosing 15g of coffee into these great little vials. When I’m brewing up to 7 Aeropresses back to back for a group, it completely removes the time wasted on dosing and grinding on the trail. Time and space saving.
For boiling water, I can’t go past the Jetboil Zip. The whole system of the vessel, burner head, gas canister, stabiliser, cup (and even a French Press attachment) all packs down into itself making it incredibly portable. It boils water faster than I’ve seen any other device do and the Neoprene insulation keeps the water hot for a long time.
As for portable brewing devices, my go-to are usually the Aeropress or the V60. Each have their pros and cons for outdoor brewing.
It’s lightweight, unbreakable, and foolproof. Put an Able Travel Cap on the top and you can even pre-grind your coffee straight into the plunger!
Paper vs Metal filter? The jury is still out as far as which is more practical for hiking. I originally bought the metal disk thinking it would mean never carrying multiple paper filters and needing to dispose of them. The downside is that it requires a good rinsing between uses which consumes water that is sometimes a precious commodity on the trails. If water is readily available, I opt for metal. If not, I will use paper and carry them out with me in a zip-lock bag. I assumed the paper ones were fine to toss as they would biodegrade. After trying this one time on the MTB trails and finding them still there weeks later, it didn’t sit right with me to discard them trailside so I now carry them out.
Another convenience of the Aeropress is its lower water temp requirements (~82 degrees C). If you’re just out for a day hike and don’t have a boiler; water in a good quality Thermos will stay hot enough most of the day to brew a great Aeropress. Regularly brewing in cold weather? Cutting the bottom off a Neoprene bottle holder (Stubby Holders here in AUS) works perfectly to insulate the Aeropress.
While not as forgiving as an Aeropress, a V60 is just as portable. A plastic 01 can clip onto the outside of a backpack with a carabiner. Filters pack flat and take up no space.
The Jetboil lid allows for a semi-controlled pour, adequate enough to not totally destroy the brew bed in a V60 but nowhere near as subtle as a gooseneck. I found a great little powder coated gooseneck kettle on eBay out of China that is small enough to not take up too much room and allows for a much more satisfying pour over. For $12, you can’t go wrong.
This biggest drawback to brewing a pour over outdoors is the loss of temp. There is no real way to insulate the V60 and in cold conditions, the brew bed will lose heat rapidly. While the result is still palatable, I think you get a much less balance cup that is more on the sour side when the V60 cools as it’s drawing down.
Stressing too much about brew times, weights, and volumes suck all the fun out of brewing on the trails. Brewing should add to the outdoor experience, not detract from it. Don’t be afraid to wing it and use the skills you learned in the kitchen to make educated guesses. Chances are that if you’ve worked hard to get to a beautiful location, you’re going to enjoy the coffee regardless.
About the Author
Tim Messenger is an outdoor brewing coffee enthusiast with a serious case of wanderlust. Tim is a blogger who focuses on adventure, community, and experimentation with different brewing devices in the Australian wilderness.
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