Portable Espresso: A Guide
As my espresso skill and coffee roasting has improved, my tolerance for bad espresso has dropped. The result has been an effort to have coffee the way I want it regardless of location. I present the story and the resulting guide (skip to the end if you don’t care for the history or methods that didn’t work well enough).
When I moved to California, my espresso was on an upward trajectory of quality. I could see the change every time I went back to Pittsburgh, Disneyland, or Italy. In Pittsburgh, I started with buying beans, but I didn’t have a grinder with me. I would drink espresso drinks at my in-laws, but it wasn’t too enjoyable.
I bought a Hario grinder before I moved to California, and I decided to bring it with me. I borrowed a stovetop Moka from family, and I was good to go for a time. The only issue with the Moka is that I had trouble getting good consistency. It wasn’t until I started to bring a scale to weigh everything that my Moka shots got better. I also bought a single shot Moka so I wouldn’t have to make so much each time. I started being my own coffee supply every time I went so I wouldn’t have to hunt out good coffee beans.
While in Italy, I drank whatever was there. I’m not sure what barista do over there, but even a bitter espresso taste good. I’ve only had one terrible shot in Italy in a train station in Salerno. Between cafes and family Moka coffee, I was doing alright.
Now Disneyland was a different issue. Before they changed to Starbucks, I could get something I could pour over ice that was acceptable. Then Starbucks took over, and I could only tolerate it with lots of milk and sugar. Doesn’t go well when trying not to eat sugar. My workaround was bringing a bottle of Cosmic Cold Brew Coffee (the best I’ve found).
Little did I know, my travel life was about to change. On Christmas 2017, my brother-in-law got me a Wacaco mini-Espresso machine. It wasn’t something I thought of buying on my own, but I was interested and committed to giving it a good try. I had to mess around with the grind and weight of coffee grounds. It was hard to dial in the grind and dosage.
Within a day, I had to open it up. I figured I may be able to make it better. Wacaco uses a pressurized portafilter, and I don’t like those because it limits how fine of grounds you can use. So I removed the spring and marble, and that change improved the shot a little, but it was still a bit weak. I had to be careful of blowing out the O-ring, which I did a few times. It has a pressure max limit.
At home, this machine was some times okay, but I made up my mind: I wanted an espresso kit I could travel with. So I took it on a plane and immediately ran into issues. I tried it a few times just to be sure it wasn’t me. It requires pre-heating which extends the time to brew. Pre-heating, I have come to learn is key, and the first few seconds of the water being boiling matter a lot, so doing a pre-heat cycle helped but never enough unless sitting next to a kettle. On an airplane, this was impossible. Clean up also involved too many pieces. If I put it away without cleaning, it would leak. Cleaning meant 4 parts to manage.
By the summer, I felt compelled to take action and buy a better machine. Enter the Kompresso by Cafflano. Cafflano is a Korean company who has been coming out with a new portable coffee gadget every year. The designs are simple, and they made sense. Wacaco seemed to be designed by trying to miniaturize an espresso machine. Kompresso seemed to be designed as a portable machine with the principles of an espresso machine.
As a thin cylinder, it uses Pascal’s principle to provide enough pressure for good espresso. It’s also light weight and easier to clean. Kompresso also can be used to make cold brew espresso, which is helpful in a pinch.
This new setup came to good use shortly after buying it. We went to Disneyland, and I ground up a bunch of beans before we left. It provided an easy machine to have my espresso, my way wherever I wanted to in the parks. All I had to do was ask for a half cup of boiling water; a seemingly awkward request. It made a major difference in my Disney experience.
The next big test was two weeks in Pittsburgh at Christmas. I decided I would get to know la Pavoni that I had there, and I figured it was a good time to try to refine my Kompresso shot. I found the main deficiency with both machines was not their fault. The grind wasn’t fine enough or consistent enough. While I appreciated the Hario grinder for its size and weight, it wasn’t doing the trick.
In a casual search for a new portable grinder, I found Lume. I was hopeful one day, an automatic grinder would be made portable, so I was surprised Lume was portable, automatic, and produced a similar grind as my Rok grinder. I got it as a present, but I didn’t receive it until after I came back from holiday. I tinkered with Lume for a few days, and it turned into my home grinder.
The next travel test was quick to appear: another trip to Disneyland. Lume came with a nice bag that could fit the grinder and Kompresso. Sure enough, the setup works beautifully to have espresso on the road, in the hotel room, or at the Disneyland park.
One last thing: I bring a toothpick as it has been the best distribution tool, and it is very portable. Distributing with a toothpick makes a big difference.
Summary chart of my travel espresso tools:
- Cafflano Kompresso Espresso Machine
- Lume Grinder
- Portable Scale
- Toothpick for distribution
Further readings of mine: