Now, it should be noted that I am no coffee geek. I do however attempt to make as good a coffee as I can. For a country that drinks as much coffee as it does, Finland is surprisingly dull when it comes to the bitter tears of arabica. I know people who will drive to Sweden to buy their coffee. I like to visit the local coffee store (Mandragora) which is run by a very nice Czech woman who knows her stuff.
I recently jumped on the AeroPress bandwagon, and haven’t looked back. Now, for the first time, I can actually taste the subtle flavours to be found in a well-brewed cup. Yes, I grind my own. And yes, I invert.
That may sound like coffee snobbery to you, but I know there are ores out there far more dedicated to coffee perfection. I just like to have a damn fine cup of coffee when I wake up.
You can imagine my excitement then at the description of the coffee on the Grower’s Cup packets:
"Coffee from Bolivia is classified among connoisseurs as a "clean cup," making it very delicate to enjoy. The mild, malted and honey-like flavor is balanced with pleasant fruity hints of apple and apricot." - Bolivia, El Alto
"It has a delicious sweet aroma, a taste of mature cherries, and a rich dark aftertaste of chocolate." - Ethiopia, Sidamo-3
"This coffee [...] has a nice, sweet aroma of butterscotch. The taste is bright and lively with fine acidity, but with delicate sweetness which enhances the balance in the cup." - Mexico, Chiapas
Talk about building up expectations! That sounds exactly like the kind of thing I want when I wake up in the wilds. Could this possibly be the ultimate backpacking coffee?
Before I answer at question, I should let you know how I typically take coffee on the trail. I’ve tried cowboy coffee (messed up my nalgene bottle with that), filtering (not bad, but too much hassle), Turkish coffee (delicious, messy), and instant Nescafé (yuk). While in the US, Starbucks released their “Via” sachets, which are pretty good, and I’ve been searching for them in Finland to no avail. I found some Nescafé Espresso sachets which are average - they still have that instant taste, and (obviously) make just a small cup. So, Grower's Cup came just at the right time.
The packets are nothing if not ingenious. The pre-ground coffee is contained in an upper pouch with a built in filter. When you open the packet, you need to tear out two red strips that seal the pouring spout. Then you simply 0.5l pour hot water into the pouch, seal it up, and wait while it filters through into the receptacle pocket at the bottom. While you wait you can take the time to read that excellent marketing spiel on the back, and get your taste buds truly whetted.
The packaging suggests waiting 5 minutes for mild coffee, and 8 for strong, but in reality it's ready when the water has filtered through. I found that most brews looked a little insipid: light brown, not very strong and a little cloudy.
As for taste... unfortunately I found many of the servings to taste a little stale, dry, cardboardy, and unpleasantly bitter. It tasted a lot like old ground coffee, made with too little grounds. When I made it with a little less water than the recommended 0.5l the results were considerably better.
Of the three favours - Mexican, Bolivian, and Ethiopian - I enjoyed the Ethiopian and Bolivian varieties the most. I offered some to friends and family, and we all agreed: it was “okay” at best.
As an experiment I made coffee using the grains from the Grower's Cup packets in my AeroPress. The results were much better. The AeroPress tends to improve on the taste of most coffees, and it made a significant difference in this case too. I began to taste what the packets promised.
I think part of the problem it that Grower's Cup are overselling the excellence of the coffee with those descriptions about butterscotch, chocolate, mature cherries, and apricot. Believe me, I wanted to taste those flavours, quite desperately. But, when following the intended method of praparation, those flavours were simply not there. Sadly I couldn’t get past a slightly stale taste of wet cardboard. The best I achieved was a subtle taste of burned brownie. I don't know if the packets are to blame, the water temperature, the filtration method, or the coffee. It's possible I had some bad batches I suppose - the seals on some of the packets seemed less secure than others.
There are also a couple of other unfortunate aspects in the design of the Gorwer's Cup system. Bearing in mind that these are being marketed as gourmet coffee for backpackers, as any backpacker - heavyweight or ultralighter alike - will tell you, one of the joys of eating and drinking on the trail is that with every mouthful your pack gets lighter. Unfortunately with Grower's Cup, your pack gets heavier.
Before use, the packets weigh around 45g, which is in itself a bit on the heavy side (although we might overlook that if the coffee was truly excellent). But after you’ve made the coffee, the grounds remain wet, and the packet weight skyrockets to around 100g. Take ten of these on a trip with you (a not unreasonable amount) and by the time you’ve finished them all you’re carrying 1kg of used coffee trash. For me, this is an unacceptable burden.
To highlight this, take, for example, a Via packet. It weighs just a couple of grams when full. When used, its weight is so little my scales are not sensitive enough to measure it. Maybe ten of the empty packets weigh around 1g.
So, 1g or 1kg... Tough call.
The second flaw is that when those wet grounds are squeezed in your pack, you better hope you remembered to put them in a tightly sealed trash ziplock, because all that remnant coffee will be squeezed into your pack.
Sadly, once all aspects have been considered - taste, weight, cost - I’m still going to be hunting for Starbucks VIA for my backcountry coffee fix.
I do wonder if the system could be adapted to be reusable - so you don't need to carry so many packets. Maybe there would be a way to re-use one packet and take your own carefully selected, ground, and stored coffee - but then why not just use your bandana as a filter, or just take an actual coffee filter (which would still be lighter)?
In the end, while Grower's Cup have an excellent and innovative idea going for them, the weight penalty for used packets is too high, and the end result - the coffee - just doesn't live up to the promises made on the packaging.
Like they say... them's your beans.
For more about different methods for brewing trail coffees, read Backpacking Light's excellent coffee throwdown