Zen and the Art of Trailside Coffee: A Philosophical Approach

Touring through Colombia’s coffee-growing region, and re-reading of Robert M. Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has inspired Joe Sasada to reconsider his passion for coffee from a more philosophical angle. He shares some tips and tricks for everyone to level-up their trailside brew game, as well as a photo gallery from that stunning region

I’m not the first cyclist for whom Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has had a big impact, nor to take lessons from it specifically across to the endeavor of bike touring (see Emma Jones’s excellent earlier article). Having the pleasure, and pain, of hauling ass up and down the coffee fincas of the Colombian Andes last year, life got pretty deep at times. On a particularly savage climb, I had the revelation that Pirsig’s philosophical framework could be applied to another great passion of my life – coffee. Bear with me here…

As a recap, the book is a philosophical exploration, through the lens of a long distance motorcycle trip, of the meaning of life. A central theme is a concept of “quality”, the pursuit of which gives meaning to our lives. Pirsig describes people as “romantic” or “classical” thinkers:

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as the underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.”

Classical thinkers value process, reason, and rationality. Romantics on the other hand view life from the perspective of subjectivity, emotion, and experience. For Pirsig, motorcycle riding is Romantic, whereas motorcycle maintenance is purely Classic. Clearly, the same framework can be applied to cycling, but I would argue it can also be applied to the process of brewing and consuming coffee!

The moment of pure experiential joy when your morning camp stove coffee hits the lips, warming the hands as you take in the view, knowing that wherever you are, you got there under your own steam – this is where I channel my Romantic energy. The moment is ephemeral, reflected also in the way the coffee flavors change as it cools. There are few greater pleasures in life than this experience!

The preparatory process before that, however – now that’s all Classical. The coffee in the cup is the product of a specific process, where the pursuit of quality and attention to detail across each of the constituent parts results in that magic. As per Persig, it is the attitude towards the brewing process, not simply the rational knowledge of how it works, that makes the difference.

In Pursuit of “Quality”: A Classical Approach to Brewing Trailside Coffee – Kit Considerations

Coffee is the sum of its parts, and an attention to detail throughout the process will always result in more quality! Space and weight considerations are likely to be the primary factors when considering the brew kit you can reasonably justify bringing on your ride, on anything from a casual day ride to a full-blown tour.

Required Ingredients/Kit Needed:

  • Coffee (whole beans, pre-ground, or instant)
  • Clean water
  • Kettle/pot and stove system for boiling
  • Brew apparatus (French press, pour-over (dripper), AeroPress, or moka pot being the most obvious options)
  • Mug
  • Water filter (if necessary)

Nice-to-Have Extras:

  • Manual grinder
  • Weighing scales

(In the pursuit of quality, I always bring along fresh beans and a grinder – if you’re looking for info on the instant variety, our esteemed Radavist editors have got you covered)

Brew Systems for Bike Touring – Where Classical Meets Romantic Thinking

French Press: Your no-frills, honest workhorse


  • Super easy to use. It doesn’t need special attention during the brew — just leave the water, then come back and plunge 4 minutes later.
  • No extras needed (eg filters).
  • If big enough, can brew for multiple people.
  • Don’t need a special kettle, pouring straight from a pot is fine.


  • Quite bulky/inefficient to pack, given the shape.
  • The glass/plastic section can easily get smashed.
  • Tricky to clean, especially if running low on water.

Brew Tips:

  • Keep it simple. Pour your water in, wait around 4 minutes, stir, wait a bit more, and plunge.
  • Traditionally used with a slightly courser grind, but you can go finer if you like a more oily consistency.

Taste Profile:

  • Big, bold, and intense flavor profiles with a rich mouthy texture, given the metal mesh filter allows a lot of the natural oils through.

Other Comments:

  • Some camping-specific versions integrate the French press mechanism into a drinking mug, for space saving. This could work, although I don’t really like the idea of the coffee continuing to brew while I’m drinking it.

Pourover: The connoisseur’s choice, but requires some skill for consistent results


  • Brings out the most balanced and complex flavor profile.
  • Many lightweight/collapsible versions of a traditional V60 dripper take up minimal space.
  • Easy clean-up.


  • Filters (paper/cloth) are required and need to be disposed of responsibly. Filters are hard to find if you are
  • touring in remote areas.
  • Margin for error is quite high, where bad technique, water ratio, or a poor quality grinder can produce bad results. So an extra kit – a kettle with decent pour control, a scale, and a quality grinder – is recommended, adding extra layers of complication/weight.
  • Brew needs constant attention for the whole process.

Brew Tips:

  • Many methods! Usually involving a “bloom” process for 30 to 45 seconds, followed by a slow-controlled pour, in stages, up to around the 2 minute mark, with total draw-down aiming for the 3 minute mark.

Taste Profile:

  • Clean, delicate, lighter body with complex flavors balancing both the acidity and sweetness of the coffee.

Other Comments:

  • Depending on the actual dripper, it’s possible (or not) to brew for multiple people at the same time. Most bikepacking-friendly versions will probably be best to brew only one cup at a time, which can get time-consuming.
  • There are a bunch of differently designed collapsible versions. I’m currently enjoying using my helix metal style one.

AeroPress: A bikepacking classic for good reason


  • Excellent taste profile without the same margin for error as a pour-over, offering a lot of control for the experimental baristas.
  • Plastic body is bombproof, and some grinders are small enough to store within its body, which is very efficient for packing.
  • Easy clean-up
  • Can easily brew for 2 people by making a highly concentrated shot, and then topping up with hot water.
  • No special kettle needed.


  • More bulky than a collapsible V60.
  • Need to carry proprietary paper filters or a reusable metal filter, both of which can be hard to find (but small so easy to haul).
  • A bit tricky to use if you don’t have a flat surface, and requires a sturdy mug (not a collapsible) to press down onto.

Brew Tips:

  • Lots of variations. Get on YouTube and go down the rabbit hole. You can experiment with bypass brewing, the inverted method, and wide ranges in grind size/brew ratios. Go nuts. I like to grind fine for intense flavors.

Taste Profile:

  • Quite varied depending on brew method, but often clean with clearly defined flavors.

Other Comments:

  • A great choice, especially if you like to experiment a bit. If you know the size capacity of your grinder, easy to dial in the water/coffee ratio with a bit of practice in the kitchen – less need for scales.

More Tips & Tricks in the pursuit of “Quality”

Buy a Grinder

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the grinding process. Freshly-ground coffee is always going to taste best. Control over the grind size is also key to dial in the taste of your coffee by adjusting coarser or finer, which you can’t do with pre-ground coffee.

The best manual hand grinders are quite heavy. My Comandante C40 comes in at nearly 700g! Plus it’s too nice to be chucked in a pannier. I carried a Hario Porlex Mini on my most recent tour, which is a classic for a reason and super lightweight, but now quite old tech, and there are better options these days.

I am currently rolling with a 1zpresso Q Air (roughly $80) which has a high-quality burr set combined with a plastic body. It’s around 370 grams and fits inside an AeroPress. For my money, it offers the best combination of quality/weight/price out there – would recommend!

If you take one piece of advice away from this article, let it be this: investing in a good quality manual grinder and fresh beans will be the easiest way to improve your coffee game.

Water / Temperature:

Water makes up about 98% of a cup of coffee. So, it goes without saying, don’t brew using muddy pond water.

Depending on the roast profile of your beans, it’s usually best to brew at around 90-95 degrees, so make sure you wait a good 30 seconds from the boiling point before pouring the water. Light roasts can tolerate hotter water towards 100ºC but for very dark roasts, wait even longer.

Brew Ratios:

Sometimes coffee is a bit weak, and sometimes it blows your head off. In these situations, the ratio of coffee to water is wrong, which can easily happen unless you have a good system of calculating this. A good starting point is around a 1:16 coffee/water ratio for many brew methods

The easiest way is to carry a set of mini scales to weigh both the water and the coffee. If this seems a bit much, then having a rough idea (e.g. how roughly how much coffee fits in your grinder / how much liquid your mug holds) can help you control this, even if it will be a bit hit-and-miss.

Controlling all these variables = Extraction:

Bringing together all of the above, as well as one last crucial factor, time, we can start to control the extraction of our coffee, which will determine the taste. We are looking for the sweet spot between the coffee being too sour/acidic (under extracted) and too bitter (over extracted)

  • Grind setting: finer/coarser = more/less extraction
  • Time: Less/more time = less/more extraction
  • Water temperature: colder/hotter = less/more extraction
  • Coffee/Water ratio: higher/lower = stronger/weaker taste

If you are not getting the results you want, try to maintain some consistency with the above factors until you find a combination of settings that produces a good cup of coffee.

A Word on Filters

Paper filters are technically biodegradable, but are often bleached, so not the most environmentally friendly. I prefer to dispose of them in a normal bin rather than compost. Of course, in line with Leave No Trace principles, we dispose of our coffee mess like the rest of our rubbish!

Cloth filters are a great option to save on single-use papers. THE KEY THING for cloth filters is to keep them very clean, and crucially, not to let them dry out; otherwise they stink and produce bad-tasting coffee. Keep them moist in a little plastic bag between washes. These are tempting to use for long touring but likely to get a bit skanky. Therefore they’re probably better for shorter endeavors. CoffeeSock (USA) and The Cloth Filter Co (UK+Europe) sell good products.

Metal filters (like a little AeroPress disc) are a great option to reduce waste and are low maintenance for cleaning. They will not filter out as many natural oils in the coffee resulting in thicker coffee, which some people like/don’t like. For AeroPress, I use an Able Disc (fine version) which does a pretty good job!

A word on Beans

Buy ethical/traceable, buy sustainable, buy local. Farmers must be paid a fair price. Distributors should be employing sustainable best practices otherwise there will be no more coffee to enjoy. Support local retailers rather than big chains if you can.