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:
* 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
Ready to drink
Killer coffee without having to get out of your pajamas!