Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and electronics tinkerer

A pile of freshly-roasted coffee beans

Improvising a vacation coffee dripper

Last week, my wife, daughter, in-laws, and I took a week long vacation to the west coast of Michigan. Bookended by two weekends in Grand Rapids (the second of which was centered around WordCamp Grand Rapids), we rented a cottage in Spring Lake, just outside Grand Haven, MI.

The trip started off well enough (I should mention that my in-laws and I get along well, and my father-in-law joined me a couple of years ago on my walk across Columbus), but things got rough once we arrived at the cottage. No, it wasn’t family drama, nor was the toddler to blame (though her “terrible twos” aren’t helping) — the coffee pot in the cottage was on its last leg.

The first morning, the coffee was…okay. I had brought some beans from Upper Cup Coffee (one of my hometown favorites), but the coffee pot had obviously not been well-maintained. The coffee maker itself took about 30min to brew a 12 cup pot (which is way too damn long!), and when we tried to make a second pot the coffee maker decided it’d had enough: the heating element stopped working. With no heating element, we couldn’t brew hot coffee, and a lack of coffee leads to a severe lack of cognitive function on my part.

Improvising a coffee dripper

Getting a cup of coffee became a priority for most of the household (as I mentioned earlier, my in-laws just get me), so I went to work figuring out a way to prepare a decent cup with what I had available. The kitchen of the rental cottage was fairly limited, but we did have a tea kettle, some basic cookware, and an apple slicer (which will come into play later).

This article on improvised coffee brewers from was helpful (and gave us so-called “Cowboy Coffee” as a backup plan for the next morning), but I still wanted a way to make single-cup servings without dirtying a bunch of dishes.

A few local stores carried common brewers — Aeropress, French Press, and Chemex — at typical small beach-town markup rates (I was able to find a Hario V-60 dripper — which normally retails for ~$20 — for $43), but I was still convinced that I could MacGyver something for less than $10.

An improvised coffee dripper, using an aluminum funnel and an apple slicerAs luck would have it, a trip to the local hardware store uncovered a simple, aluminum funnel, roughly the size of a standard V-60 dripper. Total price? $3.99 + tax. It lacks the intricacy (and handle) of the Hario models, but it works in a pinch. Propping the funnel on top of the apple slicer gave us an easy way to handle the aluminum (which will get hot quickly!) while also keeping the spout out of our coffee. Fortunately, the now-defunct coffee pot already required #4 (conical) filters, so we already had them on-hand and were able to fold them to fit.

The results

Overall, the improvised coffee dripper more than paid for itself. With three, coffee-dependent adults in the household, even one day’s worth of coffee runs would have run much more than the ~$4 invested in this solution. Instead, we were able to brew single cups of great coffee, on demand.

The landlord eventually brought over a new, basic coffee pot (you can see its manual in the background of the picture), but our improvised coffee dripper was responsible for about a dozen coffees over the course of our stay.

Would I improvise a coffee dripper again? Not if I could help it — the quality of a proper brewer is still going to be higher, and carrying an aluminum funnel takes no less space than packing a proper dripper (or an Aeropress, which has been designed to be very portable). That being said, coffee from an improvised coffee dripper is far better than no coffee at all; desperate times, and all that.


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