The Coffee Drinker's Guide to Holiday Brewing

Snow falls softly on the sidewalks while hurried shoppers bustle past window displays and “LAST CHANCE SALE!” signs. The Peanuts Choir, accompanied by Schroeder and Vince Guaraldi, sing Christmas Classics that radiate from everywhere. Kids race each other downhill, bundled up under layers of coats and scarves and mittens and sweaters and snowpants and three pairs of socks, gripping tightly onto sleds while their laughter floats frozen in the chilled air above them. Your parents’ trusty coffee machine—you know, the one that’s been used daily since Frasier aired in ‘93; the one that you’re mostly certain has, in fact, never moved from that space on the kitchen counter next to the knife block under the cupboard full of novelty cups—is waiting for you, ready to turn what would be an otherwise scrumptious late-evening dessert course into a pastry hour that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

Yes it’s that time of year again, the holiday season. A time for loved ones that you don’t see often enough, for pecan pies and cornbread stuffing, and for smiling politely while your Aunt Alex talks about her new coffee pod machine “that you really should look into! I mean, you like coffee, right?!? This one makes the BEST cappuccino!!”. But this year is going to be different. That’s right, this year you’re going to arrive at the party loaded down with everything you need to brew up a tradition-shattering cuppa joe.

A brewing set up, a little evergreen, and a cozy sweater

Whether you’re the sort of person who never leaves home without a Steeped packet in their back pocket or the person with a carrying case for their Fellow Stagg EKG+, there are five parables ahead (each of them followed by some pointers of course) about all sorts of coffee drinkers confronting the perils of brewing away from home. If you need inspiration for how to survive your next pilgrimage to the cheek-pinching homes of your childhood, read on my friends.

The Chaotic Coffee Wizard

Every get-together for the last handful of years the Chaotic Coffee Wizard has heard the same refrain, “You know how to make coffee, right? Why don’t you make us some of that fancy stuff next time?” and this year it finally happened. Arriving almost entirely unprepared with only a bag of ground coffee and a can-do attitude they surveyed the brewing options, immediately ruling out the percolator-of-dubious-origin and auto-drip machine excavated from the attic. Calling an audible to more rudimentary means the Wizard summoned a saucepan, mesh strainer, and water from the filtered pitcher in the refrigerator. Water on the boil, grounds in the pot, cut the heat and cover to steep, muttering quietly “wow I hope this works” over and over again.

A mug of coffee with Chemex, Fellow Stagg kettle, candles, and Christmas tree

Apparently “wow I hope this works” are the magic words and after 6 minutes in the cauldron the Wizard strained out the DIY drip, marveled at the fantastically simple witchcraft of full-immersion coffee and thought to themselves “huh, I wonder if this is how my siphon is supposed to work”. Maybe next year they’ll come more prepared, even if they’ve already proven their ability to make it work against all odds.

The Wizard’s Lesson

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself making coffee like a from-scratch soup, but our Coffee Wizard is a reminder that the only requirements for great drip coffee are filtered water, roasted coffee (with a consistent grind), heat, and time. Brewing this way will require some adjustments—for example, if you typically brew pour-over coffee you should expect full immersion to take a little longer than you might be used to, and you should certainly plan to cover the pot while your coffee steeps because the larger surface area will encourage much faster heat loss than in any typical coffee brewer—but the results can absolutely be delicious. If you prefer cleaner or lighter-bodied coffee you can use an additional filter to line your strainer before separating your grounds from the brew; coffee filters from the auto brewer that you’re ignoring, paper towels, or even cheesecloth would all be great options for getting a cleaner cup. Remember to give your filter a good rinse to avoid leaving your fresh brew tasting like paper towel though. And, if you find yourself without a strainer or other filter you can always ladle coffee straight out of the pot, just be sure to let the grounds settle after brewing and don’t agitate them too much while you’re serving it up.

The Professional Amateur Barista

Some folks are uncompromising in their standards, and the Professional Amateur Barista came prepared to impress. Their carry-on bag (which didn’t make sense when they arrived, I mean, they only drove from the other side of town) holds enough gear to operate a small cafe—a Baratza Encore, two bags of whole bean coffee, a pristinely clean Chemex, a Fellow EKG, enough Third Wave Water to brew for the whole neighborhood, and an Acaia Pearl, all tucked away like Mary Poppins headed off to teach Brewing Fundamentals. They already had their recipe dialed in, grind setting written on each bag, and a short spiel written out to try for the third time to explain the difference between washed and semi-washed coffees to their aunts and uncles (who, by the way, are perfectly happy to sip mugs of K-cup) while everyone waits, again, for water to boil.

Idealistic maybe, the Professional Amateur Barista is a reminder that no matter how dire the circumstance, there’s always time to weigh out and grind for a brew.

Coffee brewing in a Chemex, with Comandante grinder, candles, Stagg kettle, and Christmas tree

The Professional Amateur’s Lesson

Not the most efficient solution for a travelling brew bar, but if your hope is to share the full specialty coffee experience with your loved ones there’s no better way to show them every detail that goes into brewing up a perfect mug of java.

If you’re committed to travelling with a gooseneck kettle and a fragile brewer certainly be sure to stow them securely to avoid damage—I like to wrap gear in clean laundry if I’m travelling for an overnight, but having a few bar towels on hand never hurts when you’re going to be brewing anywhere. It’s definitely worth considering whether or not you can accomplish high quality coffee with simpler tools though. A standard stovetop tea kettle and a french press that you’ve gussied up with a cut out Chemex filter could go a long way to delivering satisfying flavor clarity. Then, if you happen to strike their fancy with your professional level brewing, the simplified gear requirements could translate more easily (and with less investment) to a relative’s daily routine. With an impressive but attainable set of tools, a delicious brew, and an excited and knowledgeable demeanor, you’ll turn heads and incite curiosities that your loved ones never knew that they had about their morning go-go juice.

The Cold Brew Connoisseur

An unsung hero, the Cold Brew Connoisseur arrived ready to party. Prepared with a collection of cold brew cocktail recipes, a NitroPress, and two mason jars already full of coffee concentrate they set to work mixing up some magic. In the morning they got up to steam milk for candy cane garnished peppermint mochas while pajama-clad loved ones milled about the kitchen waiting happily for a warm cup of cheer. This coffee lover gets to travel light—just some coarsely ground coffee, a pot to steep their black gold in, and a few different ingredients to liven up the delectable coffee syrup that they never seem to be without.

Pouring steamed milk into a mug of coffee with Bellman Steamer, and Stagg kettle

The Connoisseur’s Lesson

Cold brew is a versatile option for making lots of coffee-based drinks for people with varied preferences. Dilute your cold brew concentrate for standard iced coffee, use the concentrate in place of espresso for drinks similar to lattes, or look up the newest cold brew cocktail and mocktail ideas for something entirely different. The NitroPress is a great tool for the Cold Brew Connoisseur as well; with recipes for all sorts of beverages including cold brew, espresso, tea drinks and more, the options for entertaining those picky guests start to seem endless.

Regardless of what you use your cold brew for you’ll be best served keeping it refrigerated in a sealed container once it’s brewed—this will help slow the oxidation and staling process as much as you can—and try to only brew as much concentrate as you expect to use over a couple of days.

The Benevolent Brewer

Everyone should be so lucky as to have a person like the Benevolent Brewer in their lives. Always happy to lend a helping hand they showed up prepared with a bag of beans, their trusty hand grinder, spring water, and coffee detergent to get the insides of that Mr Coffee shining like new; sure it actually took two full wash and rinse cycles to get the pot scrubbed clean of the “seasoning” that’s been baked in, but the soak left plenty of time for visiting with Nana, petting Duffy the dog, and playing a quick game of hide-and-seek with the little cousins to keep them out of the kitchen. The Brewer even brought their french press to whip up some fresh decaf for the caffeine-averse (because decaf drinkers deserve love, too).

Comandante grinder and Acaia Pearl with handbag and knit sweater

Always thoughtful, they even left a bag of their favorite house blend, already ground for auto-drip, on the counter at the end of the festivities with a note saying “Thanks for hosting! Please send me that sweet potato recipe, I absolutely must have it!”

The Brewer’s Lesson

With a little TLC, good beans, and quality water, many auto-drip machines brew up great coffee—though maybe if the drip machine from your childhood is still kicking around somewhere it’s time to consider a nice gift for the folks holding on to that heirloom.

One of the major pitfalls with many auto-drip machines is their trouble maintaining temperature, so preheating your brewer by running a brew cycle with no coffee in the basket will make a significant difference in your cup quality. When it comes to cleaning, do your best to use dedicated coffee detergents, and avoid the home remedies like white vinegar, baking soda solution, or lemon juice; these can help deal with scale if there’s build up from hard water, but won’t do anything to address any kind of coffee build up. Speaking of hard water, if the water isn’t good for brewing wherever you’ll be, many of the pH neutral spring water brands found in grocery stores do well for brewing, just be sure to avoid distilled or reverse osmosis water (unless you’ve got some Third Wave on hand, of course) because they lack the mineral content needed for good extraction.

The Covert Caffeinator

Try as they might, the Covert Caffeinator has never been able to convince anyone else to try their “fancy” coffee. For years they worked at it, even going so far as to pick up a whole pot of batch brew to bring along once, only to drink a liter of it alone while everyone else sipped store brand “Black & Tan” blend drowning in powdered creamer. A heart-wrenching lesson, the Covert Caffeinator learned that day to keep the conversation away from coffee, instead focusing on the woes of the local sports teams, the routine maintenance they recently did to their car, and other riveting and generally agreeable topics.

Still desperately in need of good coffee they’ve adapted since that fateful gathering, now arriving prepared with nothing but their trusty KeepCup and a pocket full of Steeped sachets. Maybe they can’t share their passion with everyone else, but at least they can keep themselves energized without causing a stir.

Fellow Stagg white kettle resting between brews

The Caffeinator’s Lesson

When all else fails, the future is now for instant specialty coffee. Some of the most notable coffee roasters around are partnering with companies like Steeped, Sudden, and Voilà to offer single-serve and instant options, while projects like Cometeer Coffee Capsules are working to make specialty coffee even more accessible by offering coffee pods for any K-Cup compatible brewer.

With a good grinder and some cinchable tea sachets you could even make your own pre-filled coffee bags in a pinch—grind as fine as your grinder allows and stuff your sachet, plan on agitating your coffee quite a bit as it brews. That extra agitation will help to saturate all of the grounds in your bag, and will get you up to a good extraction yield for a tasty (though probably thin) mug of coffee. With access to a little hot water you can enjoy a nice cup of joe anywhere; just be sure to keep your own mug on hand for those desperate times.

What are you planning to do for coffee this holiday season? Do you have a story of caffeinated triumph over insurmountable odds? A fool-proof method of sharing your love of the good stuff with friends, family, and loved-ones? Tell us below!

Happy holiday brewing, y’all.

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