HOWTO attain radical hotel-room coffee independence

I travel a lot -- book tours, sf conventions, paid lectures, activist visits -- and I am no stranger to jet-lag (I even wrote a novel about it). My favored tonic when I find myself restless and awake in the middle of the night (or worse, gummy and semi-zombified after the alarm goes off) is coffee. Very, very good coffee. There's something really wonderful about having a great cup of coffee in your hotel room, especially when you're on a brutal 6AM-10PM tour schedule that has you bouncing around like a hyperactive ping-pong ball.

Last year, I got wise to the Aeropress, a great, cheap way of making hot (delicious!) coffee concentrate. It requires hot water, though, and that's not always easy to get at odd hours in a hotel room. Many European hotels offer an electric tea-kettle (not Italy, randomly, where the things are allegedly banned as a fire-hazard, though I keep finding myself in Italian hotels that offer convenient bedside ashtrays for people who want indulge in a little in-bed ciggie) (fire safety, you're doing it wrong), and US hotels often have a Mr Coffee or similar. In a pinch, you can always pick up a water-immersion heater on eBay, usually imported from Asia or Eastern Europe, where they are still barely legal (an immersion heater is basically the heating coil from inside an electric kettle with a wire and a plug. When they're not horribly burning their owners or setting things on fire, they're overheating and exploding, showering their environs with red-hot shrapnel. Use with care!).

But there's Another Way to do hotel-room coffee: cold-brew. I fucking love cold-brew coffee. Sorry, but strong sentiments demand strong language. Cold-brew coffee is extracted at room temperature or below, and is substantially less acidic than even the best hot coffee. The low-temperature extraction preserves the very volatile aromatic acids, and cold-brew coffee has a lot of chocolatey, caramel notes that are scrummy. Cold-brew tastes very strong, but without any bitterness, and is ferociously caffeinated. A couple glasses of cold-brew turn me into an ALL-CAPS TWEETING HYPERACTIVE SUPERHERO.

There's lots of ways to do cold-brew. My wife surprised me on my fortieth birthday with a Yama Cold Brew Coffee Dripper (sometimes called a Kyoto coffee dripper) that is not only beautiful, but also makes wonderful coffee. It's also the least portable coffee apparatus imaginable, and is permanently installed in my office. There's also the cheap and cheerful Toddy machine, which is more portable, but not easy to slip in the suitcase.

But you don't need a tower of lab-glass to cold-brew. You can make it New Orleans style, in which coarse-ground coffee and water are refrigerated in an airtight jar overnight, strained and served. I tried this out at Burning Man last summer, and attained coffee nirvana as a result.

My Burning Man experiments got me thinking about how I could cold-brew in hotels. A mason jar wasn't ideal, obviously. But in the UK, we've got these clever Pour and Store ziploc bags that stand up on their own. I figured I could fill one with one-third coffee, two-thirds water, slide it into the minibar fridge (where available) or even leave it on the window-sill, strain, and drink. (If you know of a US equivalent to these, please leave a link in the comments -- I'd love to be able to resupply in America). Breast-milk bags look like a good alternative (Thanks, Tara!)

My first attempt was a bit of a mess, as I tried to lay the bag on its side, and the seal gave way, filling the minibar with mucky grounds. After that false start, I attained a higher degree of success, experimenting with several methods for straining -- paper filters, cheese-cloth, etc.

But my real breakthrough was when I realized that my Aeropress was a perfect cold-brew filter. I fit the press with a mesh tea-strainer (from a cheap ceramic teapot) to catch most of the grounds, pour the cold-brew into the press, strain, and serve. It is astounding. It is also incredibly neat: 95% of the grounds stay in the baggie, which I zip shut and toss out.

I travel with a very handy adjustable ceramic hand-grinder. I can't find the manufacturer's mark on it; I could swear it was a Hario, but I can't seem to locate the model online anywhere.. It's a Porlex (thanks, Johannes!). The grinder is great (if tiring) for hot Aeropress grinding, but it's even better for doing coarse grinding for cold-brew, since the looser setting demands a lot less work. I used the grinder at Burning Man to hand-grind a kilo every day, a process that took less than 20 minutes. When I grind for myself in a hotel, before bed so I can put up a cold-brew baggie for the morning, it only takes a minute or two.

Here, then, is my hotel-room coffee-independence inventory:

* Aeropress
* Mesh filter from a teapot
* Porlex hand-grinder
* Beans (usually Red Brick roast from the incredible Square Mile coffee in London
* Pour and Store baggies (you might try breast milk bags as an alternative)
* Immersion heater
* Aerolatte (for frothing hot milk for lattes)
* Denture-cleaning tablets (for cleaning scorched milk off of immersion heater coil)

It's a fairly compact rig, and it gives me an awful lot of pleasure.

Cold-brew in the baggie, fresh out of the minibar

Fitting the filter to the Aeropress

Pouring the coffee

Spent grounds

Easy disposal

Ready to drink

Killer coffee without having to get out of your pajamas!


  1. I can’t drink coffee – it makes me go a bit peculiar – so I don’t know why I read this.  But your tempting words linger in my mind – “pick up a water-immersion heater on eBay…setting things on fire…overheating and exploding…red-hot shrapnel.”

    1. I have to be very careful with caffeine myself, but have found that cold-brew coffee alleviates all of the downside of coffee for me: no jitters, no coffee breath, no caffeine withdrawal (if drunk in moderation).

  2. I’ve a 34 oz Nissan-Thermos press that does a fine cold brew on nights before work with added benefit of keeping a bag of grounds safe while traveling. I take it into work on the weekends but unless TSA has restrictions should function for transcontinental commuting..

  3. Immersion Heaters are called Stingers. They’re not as dangerous as you make out. You just have to treat them with respect. They are basically built on the same technology as the heating elements in the older models of stoves, ceramic kilns, brick ovens, electric space heaters, etc… You can also use them to cook food, canned goods and what not using boiled water.

  4. Coffee + milk + sugar = heaven. Don’t heat it, and keep the water for your pastis later (not sure if pastis is known in your countries).

  5. “It’s a fairly compact rig, and it gives me an awful lot of pleasure.”

    There’s a “but what about your wife?” joke to be made here, but I’m not caffeinated enough to make it yet.

  6. Do I understand this right? You’re doing cold brew because hot water is not available, but then you stick an immersion heater in at the end and heat it up?

    Why not just use the heater to get hot water and then make normal aeropress hot coffee? Then you could leave the ziploc bags and the tea strainer at home.

    Also, please post a shot of the immersion heater in action. I have all the rest of the equipment but I never got one of those because it seemed too dangerous.

    1. No, I drink the cold brew cold. But I also make hot Aeropresses when the urge takes me. I’ll post a shot of the immersion heater when I get my new one delivered — I blew up my old one (red-hot shrapnel and all!) in Berlin last week.

      1. Y’know, I was looking at pictures of the immersion heaters.   I can see why/how they’d explode – I’m kinda surprised they don’t crack the cups and glasses they rest in…

        There should be a little ring (ceramic or high-temp silicone)  at the the part of the heater that rests on the bottom of the cup/glass so that there would be a layer of liquid between the heater and the bottom of the cup/glass. 

        Alternately, you could put a grid/mesh disk, with little feet at the bottom of the container and the heater could rest on it.  Y’know, like putting a mesh screen between a bunsen burner and a test tube.

        With a little tinkering, I could make one with a little clamp/handle, which could double as a pop filter for when you’re recording the podcasts.   Hmmm….

  7. Couldn’t you simplify the whole process by just using one of those French press travel mugs from Starbucks? Throw your coffee and water in, let sit overnight, then press for coffee in the morning. Not sure I understand the need for all the MacGyvering.

  8. Although this sounds fascinating and I’m glad it works for you, am I the only one who can only drink hot coffee in the morning? Even though it obviously has the same caffeine content, I am never satisfied with an iced-coffee in the morning. It needs to be hot, even in the summer. I think morning coffee is only partly about the caffeine, it’s also the ritual aspect that I need (I don’t mean that to sound pretentious, although I know it sounds that way).

    1. Those look great, but Tara’s suggestion, below, of using breast milk bags, looks more promising as they’re very widely available!

  9. As far as your ziploc bag storage question- most breastmilk storage bags function along these lines, are sold in the US and Ziploc even makes one variant. It would depend entirely on the size you are looking for, but check out amazon and search “breastmilk storage bags” to see your options.

  10. That grinder is a porlex mill. Distributed in the US by sweetmarias coffee. They are japanese made and they are the best kept secret of the coffee world, way cooler and sexier than similar grinders from hario and kyocera.

  11. Hm, coffee independence or coffee slavery? Sometimes they look the same from the point of view of a non-coffee person. :-) I’m glad you’ve got a system that works for you, and I know a lot of people who are going to be eager to try it out!

  12. Great omnibus article on making coffee.

    Coupla footnotes on the cold brew method:
    The acid in coffee isn’t much to begin with and Toddy Cafe’s lab report reflects this — a change of pH 5.4 to 5.8 is minor compared to your stomach acid, which at 0.25% HCl, averages pH 2.25 

    The BIG change is in tannins, almost a factor of 6 lower than your regular Starbucks brew — your cold brew coffee isn’t trying to turn your stomach into leather.

  13. Funny, it all reminds me of when I used to make drugs via clandestine kitchen chemistry as a teenager-it’s the same thing really, albeit caffeine is a legal chemical that some don’t even considered a “drug” for some odd reason…

    Example: you can do the same thing here with ground poppy pods or a good portion of plain poppy seeds instead to obtain a strong makeshift opium tea ;D

  14. Friend sent me this with the “ultra-caffeinated super hero” and “cold brew”.  Wow.  I use the Toddy Coffee “machine” myself – make a pound a month, and the quart of concentrate lasts me a month (1-2 shots in a mug of hot water).  I assume you have to do it that way because the TSA (or whomever) won’t let you carry a quart of brown liquid on the plane?

    True story though: the best way to drink concentrate is a 1:1:1 mix, coffee/sugar/milk.  Needed a pick-me-up so took it to work.  My boss called my wife (we worked at the same company) and told her I’d become Cornholio, and to Never Let Me Do That Again.  

    So, Cory – I hope that brew is weaker than my 48-hour cold concentrate.

    1. Ahem… something tells me a night at a hotel and a transatlantic flight to promote a book render that detail thoroughly irrelevant from an environmental point of view ;-).

  15. I’ve experimented with cold-brew a couple times lately on business trips. While I still prefer mine hot and fresh right out of the bong, cold-brew certainly does what it says on the tin.

    The last time I went that route I was perfectly lazy about it: put a suitable amount of grounds into a clean gallon milk jug, filled it with water, shook it up, and put it in my cooler. I never even tried to strain it, just poured carefully every morning. That gave me a very good effort:result ratio and I was the only one on that trip adequately caffeinated every day.

  16. Cool! I’m working nights and need buzz, but I don’t need the acid. So I spent the weekend googling cold press coffee and here you are Monday morning with a terrific review of nearly everything out there. Thanks!

  17. I love my Aeropress. Maybe I’m missing the obvious, but why strain using both the tea strainer and the   Aeropress. Wouldn’t one or the other be effective alone?

  18. I have been using the Aeropress for years on the road. I am mostly in the states so they generally have a Mr. Coffee to heat the water. I have brought it into the breakfast area where the staff sometimes give me a look like I am main-lining heroin rather than just making a good cup of coffee.

    Tip: most hotel mugs will not fit the Aeropress when you use it normally so I always bring a mug with me.

    Cory-> have you tried aeropress upside down method? It give a stronger brew. I heat my milk in the microwave while the coffee brews.

  19. I have an Aeropress and I love it. I will have to try the cold brew idea. I would probably just take a supply of good pre-ground coffee with me, but then again, I mostly just shuttle between France and Berlin these days.

  20. judging by the passion, typos and all caps, can we all agree that Corey’s had about 6 cups of coffee at this point and he’s holed up in a hotel somewhere writing this at 3am… great article though, need more hotel hacks…

  21. Two ideas to further streamline. I haven’t tried yet, so this is hypothesis only

    (1) it’s unclear what volume of water you are dealing with, but if you don’t have a bag that can stand up, what about any bag, inserted as a liner in the aeropress, so the aeropress holds it up?
    (2) bagless? use the paper filter on the aeropress, put the grounds in, pour the water in to within an inch of the top, quickly insert the plunger, then flip the whole affair upside down. Would the plunger be water tight enough to sit this whole apparatus in the fridge overnight without leakage? not sure. If so though, next morning take it out, flip it over onto mug, depress plunger.

  22. Those immersion things are hopeless, but there are dozens of decent travel-kettles available in the tea-loving UK. They weigh a few ounces and boil a half litre of water safely and quickly. If someone is this serious about always having access to good coffee (and tea), I would have thought it would make sense to make one part of their ‘rig’.

  23. I think I’m third on the list advocating the use of a French press and calling it “good enough”, especially when it comes to traveling.

  24. Your coffee obsession is frightening. But I’ve got a tangential question about that last photo: Where did you get the EFF “I do not consent…” sticker for your phone? That seems like a good thing to have on one’s phone nowadays. I looked on the EFF website for it, and they do have a sticker collection, but that doesn’t seem to be in there.

  25. Consider a JetBoil. The pot holds the stove, a canister of fuel and the french press attachment. No electricity required and frankly much safer than immersion heaters.

    1. I may be wrong but I believe “travel” more or less equates to “airplanes,” a.k.a. as the place where highly flammable substances under pressure are less than desirable and indeed banned.

    2. “a canister of fuel ” I think that puts you straight to the from of the line for the TSA probulator no matter the colour of your skin.

  26. That cold-brew dripper is indeed beautiful, and I’m going to give New Orleans- style coldbrewing a spin… but *WHAT* is the deal with that Sleestak-faced shovel on the wall???

    1. I’m not certain, but I think that may be the impression left from clubbing a Teletubbie with a shovel.

  27. The manic, obsessed tone of your article makes me think that maybe you oughtta lay off the coffee for a bit ;)

  28. Crickey Cory, what a thrutch! Can I suggest you need this:

    RS07 travel set has every last thing you need for a decent HOT coffee, just add water and an electrical socket and you’re good to go – literally – total independence. For cold stick in the minibar fridge. Does four espressoes, (two cups supplied) or one large cup of breakfast (you need to supply the cup). What’s not to like? Got mine on eBay NOS £70. Stop messing with ziplok bags!

    1. While I can’t find the specs on the Alessi site, I suspect that the Alessi coffee maker is 220V.  No good in the ‘States, or Canada.

      1. Just checked – you’re right, it’s 220v only on the UK model, but I’d be surprised if the Alessi outlet in the States doesn’t do 110v.

  29. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who obsesses about how to get early morning coffee in hotel rooms without calling room service. I didn’t know cold coffee was so popular. It seems like an oxymoron to me.I carry my own one-cup coffeemaker with a bag of ground coffee and some good chocolate powder. My biggest hurdle is getting the hotel to loan me a little frig so I can keep some milk in it. My husband thinks I’m nuts – he sent me this article.
    LOVE those pajamas!

  30. @boingboing-c4ca4238a0b923820dcc509a6f75849b:disqus I found this french press when planning to walk the Camino de Santiago.  It looks like it could cut out a piece of your gear and travel well. I didn’t pick it up so I can’t endorse it. I discovered cafe con leche is made all along the camino, just stop walking and order. That would be a nice solution; great coffee sold everywhere anytime.

  31. Cory, do you get singled out for further searching because one of our beloved TSA agents thinks all that paraphernalia looks suspicious? 

  32. I have not tried this hotel-room method, but I can confirm that in general, cold-brewed coffee is amazing. It’ll be the best cup of coffee you ever had. The cold-brewing method even makes cheap coffee drinkable — so if you have nothing but the packet of pre-ground Maxwell House provided in the hotel room, you’ll still survive. (Obviously, better coffee is still better. But sometimes you have to improvise.)

    Actually, if you’re staying in U.S. chain hotels, you’re practically guaranteed to get at least one packet of ground coffee pre-sealed in a filter-paper sachet — the idea being you chuck the whole sachet into the basket of the automatic coffeemaker, so you never have to deal with loose grounds. It never occurred to me before, but you could just as easily chuck the sachet into a glass of water when you check in, and just pull it out the next morning — no filtering required. It won’t be the best in the world, but it’ll be at least one level above the quality of what you’d have gotten from the automatic coffeemaker with those same grounds.

    Now, an immersion heater story:

    One of my good friends used an immersion heater (a ceramic coil) to make himself and his new wife some tea, the morning after their wedding night, which they spent in a nice hotel. Distracted (as one might be on that particular morning), he set the heater down on the edge of the hotel sink, not noticing that it had landed on the sleeve of one of the hotel bathrobes.

    They put out the bathrobe before any fire alarms went off.

  33. Quite fiddly set up wouldn’t you say? Plastic in contact with your beverage? Bags being thrown away? – For simple, easy, INEXPENSIVE portable single cup coffee brewing just look up videos on “Vietnamese coffee filters”. $3-5. (They are sold in many Asian markets & online. They are  dishwasher safe & made of stainless steel usually.) Makes a strong coffee extract that you drink straight or make into an “Americano” or iced coffee drink.  The metal filter is also small and easy to pack when traveling.

  34. I would really like to try cold brewing but also would like my coffee hot or at least warm. Can anyone recommend the best method of heating cold brewed coffee? Microwave oven? Hot water over concentrated cold brew? Or does heating somehow deteriorate the coffee?

    1. Cold brew is made condensed, so you can just add a little hot water as needed.  Which also means you can start drinking it right away.

  35. Tea is a great substitute for coffee, and in fact often tastes better than hotel-room made coffee. “Take Tea and See.”

  36. Cory’s right about the superiority of cold-brewed:  better distribution of essential oils and scrummy indeed.  And the taste is very clean — not burned as sometimes happens.

    I’ve been cold-brewing mine for about four months now, pouring a slurry of grounds and water (steeped overnight) from my Mr. Coffee pot into a big bottle with a filter-lined funnel.  Add a little milk and sweetener, cork it, and stick it in the fridge, and I’m good to go for a few days.

    I’ll be asking for a French press for the holidays to get at more of the oils (hand-tweezing the filter doesn’t quite do it), which means further refinement of my method.

    @hyljelyhje:  You can heat cold brewed, but since the ratio of grounds to water is often higher (I do 1/3 cup grounds to every 2 cups water), you’ll want to add more water before heating — maybe to total 3 cups water per 1/3 cup grounds.

  37. I love the taste of cold black coffee, but I’m a bit worried to try something that makes it have more caffeine since I’ve grown sensitive to caffeine (I love cafe su da… Vietnamese coffee but if I don’t take it slow my heart goes on overdrive) so does this cold press method really increase the caffeine and if so by how much? I actually cold brew tea at work all the time. Have you ever noticed how cool some cold brew teas look as the tea color blends into the water? 

  38. I use a similar coffee setup when traveling, but it involves liquid nitrogen, a tanuki skin filter, an implosion orb I bought used from NASA, and it requires split-second timing to avoid killing everyone in a ten-block radius.  Sometimes, when I feel really dangerous, I also leave my hotel room and go downstairs and order a cup of coffee…

  39. Can someone help me out here?  I’m reading on-line on other forums and blogs that the cold press method leads to a LESS caffeinated product?  So is it more or less with cold press?  Has anyone actually tested it under laboratory conditions?  Todd’s website claims less?  

    I’m really looking for MORE but with a better taste – that’s the golden goose, man!

    No way I’m going to try this if it gives me less pep than standard bar pump espresso – what if you step it for even longer?

  40. As for filters: paper paint filters come to mind.  Some of the paper could be cut off the top to make them more cup friendly.  As for heating the water:  there might be an induction cup heater on the market that would be safe but I am not sure .  Will google.  If not, it is a natural invention.       

  41. This has been one of the most captivating, instantly understood scenarios and all round character-filled Boing Boing post I’ve read . The PJ’s were a nice touch to fill in between the lines. I went astro traveling down i 95 – glimpses of casinoesque carpets lining the corridors of Comfort Inn’s and the occasional Hampton. The powdered eggs, the gristle filled, tasteless round sausage paddies wedged between heated stale wonder-loaf … the pastel prints and yellow walls … and all I want is a decent cup of coffee. If it is what you say it is, I’ll take mine cold too.

  42. Nice! I work in the airline business and I usually have to wait to get a decent cup of joe when I either head to a nearby coffee place or  one of the few billion SBX in airports…  

  43. One of my friends has pretty nice travel mug for tea – two layers of glass with air in between, thus insulating it, and a filter at the top so you don’t drink the leaves. Seems to me that you could use that kind of cup and cut out most of the kit. I might try that.

    Cold-brewed tea is pretty good too. Doesn’t take very long either, at least not if you use tea that has previously been hot-brewed.

  44. Before I got my Toddy system I used a For Life tea strainer and a glass pitcher.  I think a For Life Tea Strainer/Cup/Lid combo would be a perfect hotel cold brew system.  Just put the filter in the cup, add grounds, add water and put the lid on.  When you get up in the morning lift out the filter and your cold-brewed is ready to go.

  45. Chalk me up as another “Get a portable french press already”. But I also think that Aero is a bunch of marketing flim flam – gold stereo wire of the coffee world :)

  46. I have the Collapsible Cuissential SlickDrip for pour overs.
    It packs easily with a ziplock full of filters, ziplocks for pre-weighed portions of beans and the Porlex and you can make great camping coffee!

    Got a digital food scale for exact bean ratios! ($15)
    A pen-sized cooking thermometer makes sure I’m not above 94 degrees C/ 195 F ($8)

    Have had the Porlex since last winter and I love it! 
    I hand grind with it daily for fresh ground coffee at work with an electric kettle.
    Sometimes I’ll use a French Press. 

    Never made my own cold brew but now I’m gonna have to try it!
    I asked for the aeropress for my birthday (which is next week)!!

    Last year I got a Chemex and I use it on the weekends or for show & tell. 

    Gotta goto bed so I can wake up and DRINK MOAR COFFEE.

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