Nothing revives a tired crew like a steaming mug of real coffee, but what’s the best way to make it on passage? Chris Beeson gets a buzz by trying out 10 of the best coffee makers for boats.
Coffee is the world’s break fluid and there can’t be a high street in the land without somewhere that can fix you a ‘tall, skinny, extra-hot, split quad-shot latte with whip’.
But when we’re sailing, hours or days from the nearest port, how many of us put up with grimly functional instant coffee, rather than brewing a pot of the proper stuff?
I certainly do. In my experience, making real coffee while banging upwind is just not possible – the two can never coincide.
Like sipping wine while SCUBA diving – the brain simply wouldn’t be able to handle the dissonance.
However, Kieran Flatt, former food critic and YM editor, claims to know otherwise.
Arguing that there is now a plethora of boat galley accessories on the market, he sent us out to test the best coffee makers for boats.
In short, what is the quickest, simplest and cleanest way to make a decent cup of coffee in a seaway, without undue risk of spillage and burns?
Best disposable coffee makers for boats
[Ed: Our understanding of the impact of single-use plastic on the environment has changed considerably since this test. Please bear that in mind when purchasing these products]
Lyons Italian Gourmet coffee bags
Simply pour on boiling water and leave to brew, like a tea bag. It’s simple, quick, involves zero mess and doesn’t cost much more than instant.
The problem is the taste: it doesn’t have the sharp edge that fresh coffee should have, that coffee punch.
That’s a shame because it’s perfect for use on board. There are three blends but Italian Gourmet is the strongest so there’s not much hope for the others. £2.59 for an 18-bag pack.
[Ed: Lyons has since rebranded its Italian coffee bags as Perkadilly]
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Grower’s Cup coffee pouches
This is coffee in a pouch. Open as instructed, squeeze the pouch to make a jug shape and add half-a-litre of boiling water – a fill-line would make that easier.
Then close the zip lock and wait five minutes for normal coffee, eight minutes for strong. After eight minutes, we squeezed open the spout and poured, dribbling a little, but the coffee wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped.
It doesn’t look very stable and it’s very possible your coffee pouch would fall over in the sink and drain your coffee down the plughole.
It’s also 500ml, so it wouldn’t be much use for one cup. On the plus side, it’s OK value for three cups and if it stays put, there’s no mess or cleaning at all.
Rombouts One Cup coffee filters
These single-use filters transported YM photographer Graham to an early ‘80s restaurant when they were quite sophisticated – but then so was chicken-in-a-basket.
Put the filter on your cup, fill with boiling water, pop the lid on and wait for the water to filter through. It’s a little top heavy for the galley and the taste is fairly ordinary.
There are ten filters in the same foil bag so the tenth might not be the freshest.
These self-heating 200ml cups come in white coffee and hot chocolate flavours, both ‘powered’ by guarana.
There’s a lot of packaging for a disposable product, and this is reflected in the unit price. The instructions say shake, then invert, open the bottom and press the gel bag to begin heating.
After waiting the instructed three minutes, we opened the top and had a slurp. The coffee wasn’t very hot – a bit of a let-down – and the taste was a little strange, possibly due to the guarana.
No washing-up required, and being fully sealed during preparation means it’s super clean but quite pricey. Still, it may be the best option in seriously heavy weather.
[Ed: This product has since been discontinued]
Best reusable coffee makers for boats
Vietnamese Coffee Maker
Best coffee maker for boats: Budget buy
This is a charming gizmo that looks like it was beaten into shape by hand from old cola cans, somewhere down a Saigon side street.
It’s actually stainless steel and it’s the cheapest reusable coffee maker that we tested. Spoon in a cup’s worth of fresh coffee, compress with the filter top, put it on your cup, pour in hot water and wait four to six minutes for it to filter through.
It would fly off in the slightest seaway but this one belongs to Kieran. He wedges his into a plastic mug for more security.
The filter wasn’t fine enough to prevent a small puddle of grounds gathering in the cup, then the mouth, and the device took a bit of cleaning but the taste was really good. Top notch.
Zyliss Smart Cafe Cafetière Mug
This is one of those ‘Eureka!’ items – why use a mug and a cafetière when you can combine them? It’s an insulated plastic mug, so it won’t smash, and you spoon coffee into the cup, pour in the water then ease the filter press into the mug.
Wait for the coffee to brew, then gently push down on the filter press, just like a cafetière. The taste was excellent but the filter press seemed not to be an especially good fit because the first mouthful was thick with grounds.
We tried it again, being more careful with the press, and it was better but still pretty gritty. Cleaning it was a bit messy too, trying to get the grounds into the bin. We ended up on deck swilling it overboard.
Best coffee maker for boats: Second place
From the company that brought you the Aerobie, a type of frisbee, the AeroPress is an ingenious device that claims to make espresso. Unscrew the black base, pop in a Eucharist-style filter and replace the base. Spoon in your coffee, place over your mug, pour in boiling water and stir.
Now, very slowly, push down the plunger and the column of air forces the water through the coffee. The plunging process should take 20 seconds and using coarse-ground coffee, I struggled to make it last five, but the results were delicious.
To clean, take it to the bin, unscrew the base, push the plunger and a little disc of used coffee is ejected. It’s very top heavy and quite bulky but it makes great coffee and is a dream to clean. Extra Aeropress filters are £5.39 for 400.
Bialetti Moka espresso pot
Best coffee maker for boats: Editor’s choice
This Italian design classic is the only stove-top coffee maker on test. Unscrew the two pots, pull the funnel out of the top of the base pot and fill the pot up to the pressure relief valve with cold water.
Replace the funnel, load it with coffee and tamp it down until the funnel is packed full, screw the top on securely and put it on the stove, using a low heat to avoid burning the coffee and securing it with pan clamps.
Around eight minutes later, lift the lid and the top section should be full of coffee. It’s strong, a really punchy espresso, which is very much to my taste but others may prefer adding boiling water for an Americano. To clean, just empty the funnel.
Stainless steel cafetière
A very familiar coffee maker these days and non-glass ones are quite familiar bits of kit on boats. Pull out the plunger, spoon in your ground coffee and add hot water before replacing the plunger and leaving to brew.
Wait five to six minutes then ease the plunger down and voilà, a pot of tasty, fresh coffee. This two-cupper would stow fairly easily but any larger and you’re running out of suitable stowage spaces.
It’s also an ordeal to clean, ultimately requiring a trip on deck to swill it out before finishing the job at the galley sink. All in all, it makes very good coffee. Is it good enough to justify the palaver of cleaning? Probably, just.
Best coffee maker for boats: Premium purchase
Its inventor properly likes coffee. It mimics an espresso machine by forcing water through coffee under pressure.
Pump it up to 16 Bar, about 10 seconds, pour boiling water into the reservoir, pop in a coffee pod, screw the cap on, invert over a cup and press the button.
A couple of seconds’ later 50ml of rich, dense espresso gurgles forth. It comes in a travel case with a flask for hot water and four teeny unbreakable cups, a different filter for stronger coffee still and 18 coffee pods.
It’s very clever, makes excellent espresso and is very well presented, but at that price it’s strictly for the connoisseur. Extra coffee pods cost from £3.95 for 18.
Conclusion: What were best coffee makers for boats?
Our choice as the best coffee maker for boats is the Bialetti Moka espresso pot. It’s easy to use with a low risk of burns, makes sensational coffee, stays still with stove fiddles and it’s fairly easy to clean.
It’s a shame the coffee bags didn’t perform better because they’re perfect for use on board – compact, easy, no mess – but the taste was lacking.
The Aerobio AeroPress made excellent coffee. Were it not for the fact it took a while to prepare, and if your filters get damp you can’t use it, it may have won.
The Handpresso makes a sensational espresso and is easily cleaned – no posh picnic should be without one – but we also loved the taste of the Vietnamese coffee maker, which cost more than 97% less than the Handpresso, so it struggles to deliver real value.
I always thought opting for anything but instant at sea was purest, naked hubris but having throughly tested the best coffee makers for boats I can now arouse and delight my crew with the intense wringings of our favourite bean.
How we tested the best coffee makers for boats
The plan was to test the best coffee makers for boats while sailing upwind. On the day however, the Solent could muster no more than Force 2, so we weren’t going to get the heel we were after.
I can’t say I’m overly disappointed, I was making such a piggy mess anyway that I dread to think how long it would have taken to decaffeinate the bilges had there been a blow.
In short, we made coffee 10 different ways, taste-tested and then compared the whole experience to our control: a mug of Nescafe instant coffee. Finally we cleaned up, very, very briskly.
How does coffee work?
In the brain there is a chemical called adenosine, which binds with adenosine receptors producing an inhibitory effect on the central nervous system. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine you have to bind to receptors, and eventually you fall asleep.
However, caffeine can also bind with adenosine receptors, blocking them, so nerve activity is not inhibited – indeed the lack of adenosine bound to receptors speeds up nerve cell activity, improving reaction times.
The pituitary gland senses this extra activity, assumes there’s something going on and releases adrenalin, so your pupils dilate, you breathe deeper, your heart rate increases and the liver releases glucose, raising energy levels.
Dopamine levels are increased too, creating pleasure in much the same way amphetamine, cocaine and heroin do, but to a lesser extreme. If coffee was invented today, they’d ban it.
First published in the June 2012 issue of Yachting Monthly. Thanks to FlexiSail for loaning us Songbird, a Port Hamble-based Dufour 325, for this test. FlexiSail is the largest UK boat share membership company based on the Solent, and provides fully integrated RYA training and an active social programme.
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