How to Think About Coffee Inflight, in Hotels, and Around the World

My morning routine is simple. It starts with coffee, and eases into work. That’s true whether I’m at home or on the road.

I’m drinking a little less than I used to. For years I joked that you could run my blood through a still once a week to filter out caffeine byproducts, and use that to run a local taxi fleet’s alternative fuels experiment.

For years I’ve ordered freshly roasted beans online at Old Bisbee Roasters. I grind the beans fresh for each cup. And I generally make my coffee strong, too often people water it down.

Things are a little more complicated on the road, whether it’s inflight or in hotels.

My Morning Airport Routine

At the Austin airport we have an app-based coffee robot. When I turn up at the TSA checkpoint I hit the order button on my phone. By the time I’m through security and walking by the machine my drink is ready. I enter a three digit code and it’s released to me. I stop for a matter of seconds and I continue on my way.

austin airport briggo coffee robot

Some Foolish People Stand in Line to Order From the Machine Instead of Downloading the App

The Problem With Airline Coffee

One Mile at a Time recently shared his thoughts on coffee and much of our thinking is similar, though he’s more positive on coffee inflight than I am, and we have some nuanced differences in approach.

There are really three things that go into airline coffee, and explain why it’s usually bad. There’s the beans, the (tank) water, and the cabin pressure.

Frankly in the air about the best thing you can do with the grounds is use them to mask smells in the lavatory.

coffee grounds in airplane lavatory

Investing in better coffee just makes good business sense.

  • A major legacy airline likely spends $5 – $10 million a year on coffee.
  • Improving it might double the price.

However the value created for an airline far outstrips that price.

  • Improved operational efficiency and reduced delays, by eliminating pilots stopping at Starbucks in the terminal on the way to the aircraft.

  • Improved employee morale, which in turn affects customer service. Better coffee is a product flight attendants can be proud of and reduces complaints they receive from customers.

  • This is especially important on high yield business routes, the ‘first flight Monday morning’ consultant specials.

When United Airlines dropped Starbucks after the Continental merger in favor of Fresh Poo, Delta picked up Starbucks. Then when Oscar Munoz replaced CEO Jeff Smisek in a corruption scandal one of the first attempts at a rapprochement with customers was to introduce stroopwafels and Illy coffee. United is probably using the best beans of any U.S. carrier now, but it still suffers from the water they use and that they’re making it at altitude.

Meanwhile the idea that Starbucks somehow signals quality is strange. And the brand alone doesn’t matter most, when United served Starbucks it was a special light brew because too many passengers were overwhelmed by deeper flavors. They worked to serve the lowest common denominator taste.

Nonetheless I’ve certainly had some good coffee on board. ANA in particular, perhaps a dozen years ago, served an amazing variety of quality choices. I used to eschew alcohol, too excited to try the different coffees, despite wanting to get plenty of sleep on board.

I love Etihad’s coffee service – and not just for the silver trays and baklava – but because they’ve usually been willing to customize the strength of what they serve. To be sure it’s really just adjusting how strong the espresso they use is, and there’s a difference between coffee and espresso, but I get the deep rich flavor as well as caffeine I need after a long Etihad flight.

etihad first class coffee service

Here’s something else that drives me nuts about airline coffee, though – carriers that won’t serve hot drinks when the seat belt sign is on. A little turbulence on approach to Hong Kong after a long overnight Cathay Pacific flight and having no access to coffee is another form of fail.

The Challenge of Hotel Coffee

On the road I’ll often drink Starbucks but the truth is that’s effectively ‘giving up’. Nonetheless I’ll even choose a hotel based on its proximity to a nearby coffee shop that opens early, if not one in the hotel itself.

costa coffee

Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Abu Dhabi International Airport

The problem with hotel coffee shops or carts is that they frequently don’t open early enough. People are coming in from all time zones. If you’re on the East Coast you may have guests from Europe, perhaps just getting in the night before, there’s a good chance they’ll be up before 6 a.m. Similarly a hotel on the West Coast hosting guests from the East Coast.

Years ago I stayed at a W Hotel on the West Coast. I woke up at 5 a.m. and wanted coffee. There was nothing in the room to make it. I called the “Whatever Whenever” line. I wanted coffee (whatever) at 5 a.m. (whenever) but told it was not possible before 6.

And don’t get me started on hotel shops that say they open at 6, but you go downstairs to find that the employees who are supposed to run it haven’t shown up yet.

hilton jfk lobby coffee shop

Hilton JFK

At least the coffee is likely to be better than what you can make yourself in the room, and hopefully made from equipment that gets cleaned every now and then (or at least every six months).

And this is why you check the hotel coffeemaker before you use it…. from r/trashy

If you’re going to use the in-room machine though I want to leave as little as possible to chance. I’ll take a K-cup machine, but the truth is those don’t make very good coffee. Mark Bittman suggests how to hack a Keurig,

Insert one coffee pod into the Keurig and fill the machine’s reservoir with half the required amount of water. When the machine is finished brewing, insert another pod into the Keurig and put another half-requirement of water in the reservoir. When it’s finished brewing, you will have a full cup with twice the coffee, Bittman says.

“I’m not saying it’s any good,” Bittman says, “but at least it’s got a little body and a little flavor to it, and it probably has the amount of caffeine you’re looking for.”

keurig machine w hotel austin
W Austin

That still leaves the problem with in-room coffee that (1) since it’s bad, (2) you probably need to cut the flavor with some sort of creamer, however (3) stuff most hotels stock in rooms that doesn’t need refrigeration isn’t going to get you what you need.

That’s one reason why I’ll sometimes order from room service, first hoping that it’ll be better than what I can make in the room, but mostly just to get fresh creamer for bad coffee. Although I was once accused of stealing coffee from room service at a Sheraton.

Where to Find the Best Coffee

One of the great things about traveling is experiencing the world as other people experience it, and realizing that while your own home town may be great in many ways there’s a whole variety of perspectives and innovations that you can bring back with you and improve your own life in ways you’d never have thought of.

On the whole coffee in the U.S. is much better than it was 20 years ago. There was once a fear that Starbucks would put small independent coffee shops out of business, and the opposite has happened. Starbucks turned out to be a ‘gateway’ to better coffee, introducing a mass consumer market to $4 cups rather than Folgers or Sanka. And many of those consumers graduated to more nuanced takes on coffee offered by smaller purveyors. Independent shops have prospered in many ways because of Starbucks.

However much of the world has been far ahead of the U.S. in coffee. While some people swear by Italian coffee culture – you won’t sit down in a coffee shop so much as stand and drink your espresso, and certainly not get it to go – I’ve found the very best coffee to be in Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.

oriole cafe singapore
Oriole Cafe & Bar at the Pan Pacific off Orchard Road

I’ll take even OldTown White Coffee kopitiam in Malaysia over Starbucks, and independent shops seem to do a better job than most places in most cities here in the States. It may just be – as especially in Singapore and Melbourne – that the competition is so abundant and the consumer tastes developed over long periods.

To be sure there are myriad coffee shops in Austin, and the coffee in my home town is above average for the U.S., but we don’t compare – expectations are so high in other parts of the world that you’re far less likely to get bad coffee just about anywhere you go, without searching out for ‘best’.

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