There are those of us who can't go a morning without a cup of coffee. Then there are those who require a portable espresso maker. We picked a recent trip to California for a few days of trailer camping as a perfect time to test what turned out to be a marvel of caffeine delivery, the Handpresso Auto.
About the size of a water bottle and just under two pounds, the Handpresso Auto is perfectly portable, all the more so thanks to a power cord that coils neatly around the body and a plug that hides in a recess. (The airport security officer who pulled it from our carry-on – upon hearing our explanation – simply offered a wry smile, saying, "Can't live without it, right?")
The Handpresso Auto is simple to use – even simpler than a fair number of tabletop units we've seen. The routine goes like this: Unscrew the top and pour in just under two ounces of water. A ring of little transparent dots goes dark one at a time as the reservoir fills, so you know when to stop pouring. Place an E.S.E. pod – that stands for Easy Serving Espresso – on top and screw down the lid until two white tick marks align. Don't worry about doing this wrong: If the pod is off center or the tick marks don't align, the device automatically won't turn on. Smart.
Then pop the Handpresso Auto into your car's cupholder and plug it into the 12-volt cigarette lighter socket (depending on your vehicle, it may need to be turned on, too). Hit the power button and the internal pump begins chugging loudly; a tiny needle on the front gauge swings clockwise as pressure builds. The chugging stops within 60 seconds, but the needle keeps moving for another minute or two, a sign that pressure is still building. Once the needle pegs all the way to the left, indicating that pressure inside the machine has peaked (at 16 bar, for all of you espresso geeks), a loud beep announces that it's go time. (On a few occasions, we had to hit the power button to reactivate the pump after it failed to build enough pressure, but it was a minor hiccup.)
When you're ready, flip the unit upside down, hold it over a cup, push the button on the side and, with a hiss as the pressure releases, you're rewarded with a shot of steaming black gold that's just hot enough to drink. The flavor is smooth, rich, and tasty.
The Handpresso Auto isn't cheap, and the E.S.E. pods, like coffee, range wildly in price; we ordered a pack of 18 for $6, or about 33 cents a shot. But for espresso aficionados and fiends who drive a lot and value the autonomy of not having to stop and find a store for a caffeine fix, it's a worthy expense. One you might even call essential. [$199; importika.com]