There are few things worse than airplane coffee. To be fair, in-flight coffee doesn't have a lot working in it's favor. Flight Attendants are not trained baristas (wouldn't that be amazing?!) and the beans they are using are likely pre-ground and treated as though they don't have an expiration date. And, then there is the science.
Science dictates that flying puts our coffee drinking game at a disadvantage. At the 2014 SCAA Symposium Discussion Forum led by Dr. Charles Spence, we learned that our ability to perceive certain flavors is altered in flight. Low humidity, lack of air pressure, and loud ambient noise all dull our senses—akin to having a cold.
According to a 2010 study commissioned by Lufthansa, "the combination of dryness and low pressure reduce the sensitivity of our taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30%." Studies by Cornell food scientists have also shown that airplane noise affects the palate, "by suppressing sweetness and umami." A surprising result of all this is, tomato juice tastes particularly delicious on airplanes—perhaps this the perfect opportunity to use up the coffee with those pesky tomato notes.
Although we are starting with a deficit, the fact remains, the best way to combat drinking the inevitably terrible coffee coming quasi hot off of the beverage cart is to bring your own and brew for yourself. That said, you will not be able to account for the temperature, quality or amount of water you are using in your recipe so—even if your senses weren't dulled—you aren't going to win the Brewers Cup with this one. Surely, just knowing you are able to pull off an in-cabin-brew will supply you with enough satisfaction to thoroughly enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Before we go any further, this post comes with a big—HUGE—disclaimer. Safety first. Hot liquids in a confined space with turbulence and strangers could potentially lead to a disaster. In fact, I don't advise that you do this. However, if you do decide to brew coffee in flight, you are at your own risk, my coffee friends. Someone has actually been banned from an airline for an in flight Aeropress accident—you have been warned!
In the event that you feel like living on the edge of your super small airplane seat, I have compiled step-by-step instructions which will help you navigate the unique intricacies involved in staging a mile high brew.
*Bonus points if you can pull this off while taking photos for an article, and your super anxious dog is stowed underneath the seat in front of you.
You will need:
- Your Favorite Aeropress Recipe
- Aerobie Aeropress Brewer (3 parts: 2 sides of the press & the filter cap)
- Aeropress Paper Filter
- Porlex Hand Grinder
- Heavy Duty Portable Mug with Lid
- Pre-weighed Beans (I used 15g of Coffee)
- Lots of Napkins
- Plastic bag
- Hot Water (from the flight attendant)
- Extra Cup for Hot Liquids (from the flight attendant)
1. Pre-Flight Prep at Home
Set yourself up to succeed by pre-weighing beans and pre-adjusting your grind. Since there isn't enough room for a scale in your carry-on (it's obviously packed in your suitcase) it is important to weigh out your beans before boarding the flight. Put an individual portion in a plastic bag with a single Aeropress paper filter. Pre-set the grind on your Porlex hand grinder, so you don't have to troubleshoot with grind size in-flight.
2. Assess Your Cabin Situation
Get a good read on the demeanor of your neighbor—is there a rambunctious child sitting next to you? Is the seat belt sign on? How far are you from the service area? Awareness of what is around you is the first step in knowing whether—and when—it's safe to brew. Timing is important. If there is a beverage service on the flight, wait until after the flight attendants have serviced the whole plane or at least their section. This way, the moment you are ready for hot water, you know they are available to give it to you.
3. Get Grinding
While you are grinding your pre-weighed beans, continue assessing the cabin situation. Once you've finished, stow the ground coffee (still in the grinder) in the seat back pocket so your grinds won't spill when you get up to get hot water.
4. Ask Your Flight Attendant for Hot Water
Take your portable mug to the service area and kindly ask the flight attendant to fill it up. While you are there be sure to request an extra cup suitable for hot liquids (usually styrofoam). That way, you have somewhere to discard whatever hot water doesn't fit in your Aeropress for brewing. Use the hot water to wet your filter and set up your brewer for the inverse brewing method.
Put the lid on your portable mug to assure you can pour the hot water carefully and accurately. Add coffee grounds followed by double the amount of water. Use the Porlex grinder's handle to stir the coffee until it's fully saturated. Wait for roughly 30 seconds and then pour the remaining water into the Aeropress. Fill up with as much water as you can without feeling as though you are compromising cabin safety. You can stir your brew again using your trusty grinder handle. Then put on the filter cap and breathe a sigh of relief.
6. Do a 30,000 ft Press
Hallelujah—you are in the home stretch! Flip your Aeropress over on top of your mug and take a second to admire the tower of glory you have created. Also notice, this set up looks exceedingly ridiculous on an airplane tray table. Now begin to apply pressure. You may find it is harder to press at 30,000ft.
Note: Do not attempt to Aeropress into a plastic or styrofoam cup like those provided on the flight. They cannot withstand the press, will break, and it will be an epic disaster. You need to brew into a pre-tested, sturdy, reusable cup.
7. Stow your Equipment
Your tray table is now covered in used coffee gear. The faster you clean up, the better. Place the lid on your precious brew. Use napkins to wipe everything down—including the grinder handle. Wrap your Aeropress (as is) in a plastic bag and return it—along with the rest of the equipment—to your carry on bag.
Note: You can dispose of your used coffee grounds and clean your Aeropress once you reach your destination.
8. Enjoy Your Mile High Brew
Congratulations! You did it! Sit back, relax and enjoy.
1. Are people going to think I am weird?
Absolutely. Brewing your own coffee on the airplane is undoubtedly going to start a conversation or two. You'll be fine—just focus on the task at hand.
2. Can I bring my own hot water?
Ideally, yes. It would be best to bring a well insulated flask filled with hot water to brew with on the flight. You could fill up at any of the cafes in the airport before you board. One of the biggest challenges of traveling is space. Since the rest of the coffee gear takes up a lot of room, this guide gives the option to do without bringing your own flask. If you can swing carrying-on your own hot water, it will make brewing coffee in flight much easier and probably a lot more delicious.
3. I'm taking a long flight, can I brew more than once?
Yes, you certainly can. The only tricky part is rinsing off your Aeropress between brews. Whatever you do, DO NOT WASH OFF YOUR AEROPRESS USING WATER FROM THE BATHROOM SINK. Airplane sink water is non-potable which means it is not safe for human consumption. If you decide to do two brews, you will have to clean your Aeropress with bottled water.
4. If I use my hand grinder in the cabin am I going to make too much noise?
If you are worried about the sound of your hand grinder disturbing the peace, don't. There is a ridiculous amount of ambient noise on the airplane, the sound of grinding is practically negligent. Besides, it doesn't take that long.
5. Should I make coffee for the person sitting next to me?
If they are a relative or friend, absolutely. If not, perhaps you can prepare a few extra portions of beans before you get on the flight to give yourself the option. In cabin coffee making is a bit of an ordeal, so whomever you are brewing for better be worth it!