“If it was me, I would pre-grind it.”
I looked at the counter of food that we were trying to fit into a bear canister and the hand coffee grinder that my husband was holding. A grinder that for the record, is great at grinding, but does weigh perhaps a little more than what the average person wants to take on a five-day backpacking trip. I was claiming my unpopular opinion of pre-grinding coffee for the sake of lightening the load a bit.
“But I really enjoy the process of hand grinding it, I’ll carry it!” responded my husband, and into the bag with coffee brewing equipment it went.
Some people might list “hiking,” “reading,” or “gardening” as hobbies and favorite activities. My list happens to include “coffee outside.” If I’m not bringing a thermos or a brewing device, something is definitely wrong. I’ve brewed coffee above the Arctic Circle, on a train in the middle of the Australian outback, and out on my deck in the middle of an abnormally cold PNW winter spell when there was a power outage.
I’m not the only one. Gone are the days of cowboy camp coffee being a coffee-drinking-outdoor-enthusiast’s only option. If you’re tempted by brewing coffee outdoors (or pretty much anywhere other than your kitchen), there are plenty of accoutrements to choose from: mini espresso makers, lightweight and foldable pour-over devices, French presses that fit into lightweight backpacking pots, entire field barista sets, said hand grinder, and even AeroPress does a specific travel version in case the original was too bulky.
It’s all geared towards an outdoor-loving demographic who takes their coffee seriously. Or perhaps a coffee-loving demographic who takes their outdoor experiences seriously. What was once a brew method of necessity, is now an activity in an unto itself.
Trying to track down the roots of this outdoor and coffee culture crossover is a bit like trying to figure out the origins of a coffee break itself; as long as there have been ways to take or make coffee outside, you can be sure that someone has been doing. But it appears we have tipped from cherished pastime into Thing, capital T.
If we use the phrase “coffee outside,” a popular hashtag in the cycling community that has also seeped into other outdoor pursuits, then we have Rob Perks to thank. Founder of Ocean Air Cycles in Ventura, California (tagline: “Bicycles and Gear for Going Places Near and Far Self Propelled With Comfort and Speed”), Perks is excited about getting people outside and on their bikes. A decade ago, he was curious as to why more people weren’t bike touring, or even just heading out for a one-night bike campout. When he asked around, he found there was one particular block: “One of the things they said is, ‘I understand I can cook breakfast, like, eat oatmeal… but how do I make good coffee in the morning?’”
While surprised at the response, Perks figured he could help offer up a solution. “I’m going to show how easy this is. So easy, I can do it on my way to work,” says Perks. He would head to the beach in the morning with his gear. At first he was brewing coffee solo, then a friend joined in. “I was in 0 dark 30 in the morning, dusk, and we’d make coffee take 15 or 20 minutes, hit pause in life and get on our way to work.” He started shooting some photos of his ritual, posted them on his Flickr account and the #coffeeoutside movement was born.
From the perspective of an engineer, a designer, and project manager, Perks has always embraced the ethos of “remove the barriers and people will succeed.” As the phrase commonly goes, “build it and they’ll come.” That was the philosophy for a lot of the things that Perks has designed with Ocean Air Cycles, but it also proved to be a driving force behind growing an entire community movement centered around coffee and bicycles.
“When Rob started the hashtag and floating the idea out, everything just kind of congealed,” says Russ Roca of Path Less Pedaled. “It helped kind facilitate it being a thing.” What was initially a couple of friends brewing coffee on the beach in California before work has now grown into an expansive network of community groups that use coffee and bicycles to bring people together.
Roca maintains a digital map of Coffee Outside groups and gathering around the world, everywhere from Vancouver to Jakarta. “By having a standing event you can just get out there and facilitate interaction in a very non-threatening way,” says Roca. “There are group rides, but I feel like some people are intimidated or it’s not accessible to everyone. It’s kind of like a low stakes way for all cyclists of different abilities to gather.” It’s even a way to encourage more advocacy and ridership; it’s easier to tempt people to bike commute when there’s coffee involves. Take Coava Coffee in Portland for example, who serves up free coffee to cyclists on Wednesday mornings, which happens to align with the city’s official Ride Every Wednesday program.
That bicycles and coffee would go hand-in-hand is perhaps no surprise, given cycling’s European roots. Coffee brands have been sponsoring professional cycling teams since the time of Eddy Merckx, and in places where cafe culture, like Italy, has always reigned supreme it’s no surprise that a bike ride might start and end with an espresso.
That connection has influenced the outdoor community at large. “I think that the independent bike shops were ahead of any of the other flavors of sport for embracing coffee,” says Stephen Casimiro, founder of Adventure Journal. “Way back in the day, independent outdoor retail was a kind of a community. It was a place for people to gather… Coffee wasn’t really a part of that until the bike shops embraced it.”
While the cycling community may have been at the forefront of coffee culture, “it took a while for good coffee to come to the outdoor experience,” says Casimiro. “Back in those days, if there was coffee in camp, it was generally cowboy coffee, or percolators.” For a community often worried about the weight of food and gear, Casimiro highlights a shift connected to the improvement of freeze dried coffee. “I think that you have to give Starbucks credit for the ubiquity of coffee anywhere you go, and I also think that you have to give some credit to VIA,” says Casimiro. “Freeze dried instant was a game changer for a lot of backpackers.”
Many specialty coffee companies, including Tandem Coffee Roasters, Sightglass, and Coava (just to name a few), have also entered into the instant coffee market. But for the outdoor coffee-loving purists there’s something particular about the entire process of brewing outside.
“I really, really enjoy not only just drinking coffee outside, but making coffee outside,” says Brian Papé, founder of Miir. “Anytime you go outside your senses are heightened. So when you’re making coffee, you’re more alert to the smell, to the taste.”
Miir has been one of the brands, that has helped to encourage people to take their coffee habits outside, first with their popular camp cups (inspired by old school enamel coffee cups), later with the foldable Pourigami coffee dripper, and most recently with their new carafe, essentially an insulated and indestructible Chemex-style brew device that you can throw in and out of your car for camping trips.
For Papé, pour-over is a “beloved tradition,” and he acknowledges that he has broken many a Chemex while brewing outside. As a kid, he would watch his mom make a pour-over every morning and afternoon. She was so much at the root of his own relationship to coffee that he invited her to come and make individual pour-overs at Miir’s first trade show. The brand quickly expanded into the coffee industry thanks to their custom camp cups, which these days are a cornerstone of many cafe merch offerings, and coffee brewing equipment has been a natural evolution.
They’re not the only ones. “Campers and outdoor lovers have realized that with only a small amount of extra effort, they can enjoy a cafe-quality cup of coffee,” says Savanna Frimoth of Snowpeak. The brand’s earliest coffee-specific product were kettles, like their Classic Kettle, which definitely gives off an early 20th century camp vibe. In the mid 2000s the brand added the foldable dripper, both lightweight and easy-to-pack. “There’s no reason to deny yourself your favorite treat simply because you’re outside, and once people have that realization, it’s very hard to return to instant coffee,” says Frimoth.
That drive for infusing the outdoor experience with a little bit of luxury—whether it’s a bar of dark chocolate, a good hunk of aged cheese, or a solid pour-over—has become a way to add an extra layer of enjoyment to the overall experience, even for those of us who might otherwise err on the side of simplicity.
“I tend to be not that fussy about things. I’m fussy about my experience—I want to go have the experience. That has definitely changed because I’m like, you know what, life’s too short for bad coffee,” says Casimiro, who generally prefers the Kalita Wave as his outdoor brew method.
Coffee has become such a love of his, that he and his wife launched their own coffee brand, Long Weekend Coffee. “I felt like no coffee brand had spoken to the outdoor recreation culture in a way that maybe Yeti had done with coolers, for example. I know that regardless of how the evolution of coffee and the outdoors, it’s massive now, it’s huge,” says Casimiro.
Part of that is a shift in the outdoor industry, but also the general culture at large. “I think that people are understanding that taking more time and having a deeper experience with one thing is going to be more memorable and valuable than running around like a chicken with your head cut off,” says Casimiro, giving a nod to the more extreme aspects of outdoor culture like peak bagging. But that sentiment also aligns with how many of us feel about everyday life: sometimes our moment of brewing coffee is the one place we regularly slow down. “I’m not looking for fast,” says Papé of his own outdoor coffee brewing approach. “I’m looking for like a good cup. Some people don’t understand the five minutes of [brewing], it’s meditative.”
It’s undeniable that COVID shifted the ways that we explore and adventure, challenging many of us to refocus our attention to what is in our backyards. In the face of a culture that has for so long demanded that we aim for bigger, better, faster, and farther, we have also begun to wave the proverbial white flag and carve a path that aims to be a little slower and more intentional.
But it’s not just our own individual experiences that matter. If anything the embrace of coffee in the outdoors also says something about how much we crave a sense of connection. Coffee has long been a social cornerstone, a catalyst for community. Paired with an outdoor pursuit, that catalyst can become even more potent.
Perks notes when two common points of interest come together—in his case, coffee and bikes—they provide a particular space of common ground. “It brings people together in a way where they actually act like humans again,” says Perks, reflecting on the various individuals who come to #coffeeoutside events. “It’s kind of surprising, right like in such a polarized world?”
Ten years since his initial coffee brewing photos from the beach, Perks loves seeing how the embrace of the experience continues to evolve. “For me, it’s just a wide-open party to get people to do things,” says Perks. “If it builds community and it levels the playing field to get more people together, and talking and treating each other well? That’s it, 100%.”
His enthusiasm is a reminder there is beauty, joy, and connection to be find in the most mundane and routine of activities, and coffee outside is exactly that; turning what is for most an essential everyday activity and infusing it with something more meaningful, something more adventurous, something with more community.
Whether that means that you’re hyper focused on dialing in your adventure brewing set up, or you just want to make coffee with your friends in a beautiful place, the mere act of taking what’s usually an indoor activity into a different space causes us to experience it differently. It begs of us to slow down, to take in what’s around us. It’s a moment to just be.
No matter what coffee you bring, what gear you use, if you say to someone, “hey, want to come make coffee outside with me?” you’re sure to make a friend.
The original #coffeeoutside photo by Perks is featured below. Because if you brew it, they will come.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a freelance journalist based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.
This story features original artwork and photography by the author, except where noted.