Midsized American cities, campgrounds, your Sanka-loving grandparents' house—a lot of places are inhospitable to the discerning coffee lover. What to do when you're miles away from the great coffee you know and love?
The first (and lowest-maintenance) option is to plan ahead. Web-based resources like the admittedly incomplete but nonetheless very helpful Espresso Map abound, but they undeniably over-represent major and majorish cities while largely neglecting the places where you might really need a decent cup of coffee, such as the sleepy little town of Carthage, Maine, where I'm headed for a wedding this weekend. What's a globetrotter with a caffeine headache to do?
The Facebook for Coffee
For starters, scope Barista Exchange. Kinda like the Facebook for coffee professionals, the social networking and forum-based site has a section devoted to tracking down and discussing coffee shops far and wide. Visiting Beaumont, Texas? You could check out the Barking Dog Coffee Lounge. Jetting off to Malaysia? B.E. has something for you, too: Lighthouse Coffee Bar in Penang. Thanks to the (jittery) participation of more than 10,000 active members, there's a good chance somebody on the BarEx has revealed a solid latte resource at least within striking distance of wherever you're headed.
See Where Fellow Travelers Went
Plenty of other bean-crazy individuals have done the hard work for you, too, thank heavens. Brave souls like those behind Man Seeking Coffee and Coffee In Action take espresso shots for the team on their never-ending quests for delicious coffee wherever they go, and have lived to blog the tale. Perusing their travelogues can seem like the caffeinated equivalent of espresso-marks-the-spot—they've definitely unearthed some real caffeinated treasures (and can often steer you away from the fool's gold lurking out there as well).
Tweet the Coffee Nerds
And, of course, you can always just ask in realtime. Twitter is a great place to get recommendations from folks with extensive experience and short attention spans. Longtime coffee professional, New York Times coffee correspondent, and all-around swell (and opinionated) guy Mike White (@mike_white), for instance, is possibly the fellow to start with. Not only does he almost always manage to sniff out a decent cuppa wherever he goes, he also knows so many folks that if he happens not to know firsthand where you can get a bangin' shot of espresso in Boise, he can probably instantly connect you with someone who can.
When all else fails ("You're going where? Do they even have electricity there?"), you gotta bring your own. Until I discovered Free Coffee Mondays (hallelujah!), Mr. Meister and my Christmastime trips to visit family in Oklahoma City have necessitated a kind of coffee first-aid kit that I now always tote along: I don't pack light: I pack coffee.
My carry-on inevitably has: a bag of beans, drip cone, filters and hand-crank grinder tucked inside, and my father-in-law is kind enough to not snicker at me over his copy of The Daily Oklahoman while I weigh my dose and rinse my filters in the morning. He gamely even let me make him a cup once. ("Woo-wee, that was a strong coffee," was his sole comment, made to my husband when I was safely out of earshot. It's possible I need more of a kick than can often be found in America's Heartland.)
Staying in a hotel? Most large chains at least have in-room makers but use preground coffee in individual pods. Ditch 'em and bring a pack of small auto-drip filters and your own grounds. (Yes, I said "grounds." You could go whole hog and bring beans and a grinder like I do, but you're probably not nuts, and we're talking the lesser of two evils here—preground but relatively fresh-roasted coffee vs. prepackaged instant hotel-room rubbish seems like a no-brainer to me.) Though they inevitably come with the individual coffee packs, most of the machines are pretty standard Mr. Coffee-type makers, which gives you the freedom to brew at will.
Ever been utterly coffee desperate on the road? Did you discover a great new little coffee shop, or did you wind up taking matters into your own hands?
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. Her latest project is Eat This Neighborhood, wherein she attempts to eat at least one thing at every single restaurant in the vicinity of her Chelsea apartment.