The perfect cup of joe

| March 05, 2008

Connecticut-based independent owner-operator Sanford Becker runs the upper Midwest and mid-South with a four-cup household Mr. Coffee drip brewer and a stash of the affordable Eight-O’Clock brand bean coffee in the sleeper. “If you grind it yourself, it seems to have a fresher taste,” says Becker. “I have it in a sealed tin, so it seems to last that way, too. When I keep ground coffee in the truck, I’ll get it ready the night before. When I wake up, I hit the inverter switch, and I’m ready to go.” He’s part of the 20 percent of drivers who reported having some sort of coffee maker in their truck.

No trucker interviewed for this story reported continued use of the 12-volt direct current-powered models of coffee makers, though many reported having tried them in the past. With inverters and/or genset-type APUs, the ease of obtaining 120-volt power has led to the wide adoption of more speedy household makers. J.B. Hunt leased owner-operator David McCollum also utilizes a Mr. Coffee four-cup brewer. “It takes about 2 minutes to brew the four cups,” he says, “which I then put in an insulated cup. This is the perfect size coffee maker for the truck. I don’t need to leave it turned on, and it brews much more quickly than 12-volt coffee makers.”

Becker’s maker brews directly into an insulated carafe, eliminating the need for the glass pot and hot plate. “The hot plate has the tendency to burn the coffee,” he says. “In the carafe it’ll stay hot four to five hours. I store the maker on a shelf in the sleeper. When I’m not using it, I have it bungee-corded in. It stays there all day long.”

If you’ve got coarse-ground coffee and a way to heat water in-cab, one particularly attractive, portable brewing implement is a French press. It’s a carafe in which you combine grounds and super-hot water (200 degrees, just shy of boiling, says Merfeld, is the perfect temperature) then “press” a filter to the bottom after steeping. The end result is what Merfeld believes is a superior taste. “[French presses] aren’t very expensive,” he says, and “give you a coffee with all of the original flavor but leave a sediment on the bottom of your cup. The sediment is usually caught in paper filters or other filters in most drip coffee makers.” But he adds that it’s the infusion of the sediment remaining in the colloid that gives coffee made this way its more rich taste.

Cleaning a French press can be messy, though, requiring a great deal of water.

McCollum keeps a stock of flavored ground varieties from Gevalia Gourmet Coffee and Tea Service, paying by the shipment, which comes every 10 weeks – “at the cost of $33.95 for 2 pounds of coffee,” he says. “It’s shipped in half-pound packages so that it doesn’t get stale.” He leans toward flavors like Pumpkin Spice, Chocolate Raspberry and Irish Cream. (Visit Gevalia.com to browse their selection.)

Merfeld’s taken to ordering unroasted green coffee beans and experimenting with his own roasts at home in search of the perfect coffee. He recently upgraded from an $80 Fresh Roast roaster to a Heathware I-Roast, purchased for $189. He can now roast a week’s worth of beans at once. He buys green beans at $4.50 a pound, purchasing from a variety of Internet retailers, including Bald Mountain Coffee (Baldmountaincoffee.com), where last year he purchased organic Mexican Chiapas beans that Merfeld found roasted to a fresh, bold taste reminiscent of Dunkin Donuts’ coffee.

“Whenever you roast coffee, the machines all produce some smoke,” Merfeld cautions. The first time he roasted beans he made the mistake of performing the operation in his kitchen. “My home was so full of smoke that it took a day or so to get rid of the smoke smell.

“I prefer to roast my beans outside on my patio or porch,” he says. “What I have to be cautious about is not to have the machine out when the wind is blowing hard because it is very easy for the machine to catch fire. You must keep an eye on the machines while they are roasting to ensure that the beans are roasted at the right level that you prefer.” The longer the roast, the darker the roast and the more bold the flavor of the end result, your cup of coffee. Robusta beans will be bitterer than the darker, more smoothly flavorful Arabica beans common in today’s “specialty” blends.

Whether you roast your own coffee or not, the freshest-tasting cup will come from freshly ground beans, as Becker notes above. Merfeld recommends a burr grinder instead of a typical blade grinder. Blade grinders chop the beans, resulting in unevenly sized grounds, and getting the approximate level of grind you want is largely a function of how long you grind the beans. Getting a fine espresso grind with a blade is problematic. A great deal of heat is built up during the longer process, and that heat can be transferred to the grounds and result in a burned taste.

A burr grinder crushes the beans against a stationary surface, resulting in a more consistent size among the grounds. The size of grounds can typically be adjusted. Merfeld swears by the Zassenhaus models, hand-cranked grinders with a high level of durability and function. They’re often hard to find, though, he says. Other makes include Delonghi, Solis and Capresso. Prices range from around $30 to more than $100.

Other varieties are out there. In addition to Bald Mountain’s site, two good resources to browse the options are online retailers www.espressozone.com and www.thecoffeebrewers.com.

Whatever you prefer, odds are a thorough search will yield the cup you’re looking for. Tennessee owner-operator Andy Soucy, leased to Landstar Ranger, swore off coffee for “10 or 15 years,” he says. It didn’t sit well with his stomach, increasing his stress level. But then, in May of 2006, he says, “Folger’s came out with their ‘Simply Smooth’ roast,” called by the company “the first nationally available stomach-friendly coffee in the United States.” He’s been back in coffee ever since.

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