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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review, Revisited: Esbit Coffee Maker

Hello friends! Yep, another new series. Here I'm going to talk about various items of gear that I've had for a bit, and give my thoughts on them after several months/years of use. Hope you enjoy!

Today I'm going to talk about my Esbit Kaffeemaschine, aka Coffee Maker. You may have read my review of it when I initially got it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that you've read it, as it is now my most popular blog entry ever, finally (finally!) topping the piece about urban parrots and peacocks I did way back in 2005. (I still get comments on that one!) Anyways, after five months of use, I felt it was high time to revisit my review, because there's nothing worse than online reviews of outdoor products where the reviewer brings their item home from REI/MEC, tests it once in their living room, and feels compelled to write a glowing review. Because that ain't "real world" experience, my friend.

I've used it frequently on camping trips since I got it in April. And yes, I still like it. But as with any product, there are pros and cons. Let's go through the pros first.

  • Cute/Cool/Wow Factor: Like its cousin the camping moka pot/"espresso" maker*, the Esbit Kaffeemaschine is a looker. If you go on a group camping trip and pull out one of these babies, everyone takes notice, eagerly awaiting the brewing of the coffee and asking questions like "How does it work" and "Where did you get it?" You might even have a famous photographer take photos of it. And its desgin is classic mid-century industrial, which as we all know is "cool".
From the Ainsworth camping trip in April. Photo: Russ Roca.

  • Can drink coffee immediately. Unlike its cousin, the camping moka pot, the cup does not sit above the source of heat, so the cup remains cool enough to drink out of.
  • Compact. It has its own stove, so you don't need to have a separate stove/source of heat, like you would with the camping moka pot. The stove packs inside the stainless steel unit, so it doesn't take up that much room. The weight of the unit when packed is 11oz/312g, so while it would be too heavy for an ultralight tourer or weight weenie, it still is relatively light.
Snug as a bug.
  • Reliable. It uses a solid fuel tablet (Esbit tablet), which burns well once it gets going. One tab will be enough for a cup of joe.
  • Makes a great cup of coffee! This of course is the most important factor in any coffee making device, especially when bike camping, where every ounce or litre of volume is critical. When done right, the coffee is good and strong, just like it would be with a standard moka pot.
And here are the cons:
  •  Not fool-proof. Meaning, you really need to know what you're doing to get it to work right. Yes, there are instructions (this is a German product, after all), but they leave out a couple critical points: what grind to use and how much ground coffee to use. I figured that a semi-coarse ground works best just from my experience with other moka pots. And I learned from a commenter on my original review post that you need the coffee to be a bit "heaping" in the basket in order to get the full strength. For the first few brews, the grounds in the basket were level (as I would do with a normal moka pot) so the coffee was on the weak side. From the reviews on Sierra Trading Post,** this has happened with a few other folks, too. And Esbit ain't helpful: I emailed them asking about coffee amount/grind type and they never responded.
  • Esbit fuel isn't cheap, nor is it reusable. A box of twelve Esbit tablets costs $6, meaning each tablet is 50 cents. While that might not seem that expensive, a twelve ounce bottle of Heet (methyl alcohol) for my Trangia costs about $2. This fills my Trangia burner about four times, and each full burner of Trangia can burn about 1.25 litres of water (my Trangia pot holds 0.7 L). Under ideal conditions there is some Esbit fuel left over, which isn't easy to reuse. There have been a couple times where a tablet of fuel doesn't do the trick, so I have to throw another one on to finish the brewing process.
  • Doesn't make a lot of coffee. The Kaffeemaschine makes "one cup", aka 8 oz (240 mL) of coffee. For some people this is all they need. But I'm not "some people", so generally I use it twice each morning (meaning two fuel tabs burnt.)
  • All it does is make coffee. This is not a multi-use device. My Trangia camping set has a pot and a frying pan, so there's versatility. I can boil water to make coffee (or tea), heat up soup, fry pancakes, etc. When I'm solo touring, I'm really conscious about space, especially if I'm on a tour where I need to bring a lot of food, like the Helens-Rainier-Seattle-Vashon tour in August. On that one I brought my coffee infuser that nests inside my Klean Kanteen insulated coffee mug.
If I were to give it an overall rating, I'd rate the Esbit Kaffeemaschine three and a half out of five stars.

After all that, you must wonder, "when do I use the Esbit Coffee Maker?" I pull it out for overnight bike camping excursions, because on a short trip I'm not overly concerned with how much stuff I bring. I'll also bring it when April and I camp or tour together, as we can divvy up camping equipment. Plus, having a dedicated coffee maker means we free up the Trangia for other things (like making pancakes), meaning less time making breakfast.

And yep, I'll be using this nifty gadget in the months and years to come. I would like to make a small soda can stove that will fit in the unit, so I can use alcohol instead of Esbit tablets.

If you are interested in finding one, I got mine from Sierra Trading Post. They currently have the best price that I've seen ($22.50 plus shipping/handling), though I got mine for only $12.50. (Must have been a fluke in the pricing?)

*I put "espresso" maker in quotations because no stovetop espresso maker makes true espresso. Yes, the coffee is strong and espresso-like, but is not true espresso as it is not extracted at a high enough pressure.
**One complaint that some have made is that the unit is hot to touch and one can't make another cup of coffee immediately after brewing one. Well, duh. You can't do that with a regular moka pot either. Another complaint is that the brewing time is "long". I've found mine can take five to ten minutes. Considering it takes about five or so minutes to boil water with the Trangia, I don't consider the brew time necessarily long.


  1. Great review. I'm always looking for a good way to brew on the road and I've tried a bunch of far for me it's a Big Sky Bistro press/mug. I'm not even sure they still make them. I've been looking at the AreoPress. I'm like you, I need a big mug in the morning. 8 ozs would just make me crave more.

    I'm also not a big fan of esbit, although I do use it from time to time. I try to hold my breath and not breathe in the fumes. If it makes my lungs as black and sticky as it does my pot bottom, well, that can't be good.

    Again, great review, Jack

  2. Excellent review. I will stay away from coffee making systems which require ongoing expensive supplies, though. I avoid pod systems for that reason, and now will also steer clear of proprietary fuel tablets.

    1. I wouldn't call Esbit tabs proprietary. They are probably the most common, but there are other hexamine tablets available. Trioxane will also work and can often be found at Army surplus stores.

      In my experience, Esbit tablets are very convenient for short trips, will boil 2 cups of water in about 7 minutes with a decent wind screen, and are mostly immune to weather conditions that can affect alcohol stoves.

    2. What Scott says. There are other companies that make "Esbit" tabs. A local outdoor store sells ones made by Bluet, and I think omnipresent generic camping accessories maker Coughlans has a version as well.

      Esbit stoves/tabs are great "backup" stoves, and I usually carry one for the reasons Scott illustrates. Plus, you can use the tabs for fire starters. I've also carried my Esbit stove with a few tabs plus a camping mug for day rides in case I want coffee/tea. (One place where instant coffee comes to play.) I think the best sales pitch for an Esbit comes from Our Exalted Leader Sir Grant:
      "All in all, this is the perfect stove to bring when you're not sure you want to bring one, but aren't sure you want to do without, either. Because it's so cheap and small."

      Still, I'm still thinking of building (or buying) a "pop can" alcohol stove to try in the Kaffeemaschine. It would need to be a narrow can, like Red Bull sized. If you got/can build one, get in touch.

  3. Hmm the coffee looks good, thanks for the post.


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