When I think of Stanley thermoses, I think of the people who built America — hardworking, blue-collar men and women like my grandpa Frank. He lived in a Polish-Catholic enclave in Toledo, Ohio, and worked at the Autolite factory. He and my grandma lived next to her sister Rose, who was married to my Great Uncle Jim, a former tank commander on D-3 at Normandy. I spent a considerable part of my childhood at my grandparents’ home, and remember my grandmother’s soft scrambled eggs and my grandpa’s Stanley thermos on the table, filled with piping hot black coffee, complete with its banged-up Hammertone Green patina and shiny silver screw-on cap and the memorable winged and crowned bear logo.
If you dig all-steel, double-walled vacuum bottles, we have William Stanley to thank. He invented the wonderfully rugged and efficient containers in 1913 and they’ve been keeping hard-working people stoked for more than a century. Prior to his innovation, thermoses were typically lined with glass, which was awesome until they broke and scattered deadly shards in your brew. (Note for Marines: Don’t eat glass. Crayons good. Glass bad.) So good ol’ Bill Stanley came up with the Char-Vac that packed charcoal dust between two stainless steel walls to create vacuum insulation. This method made the bottles heavier and a bit bulkier, but the tech lasted until Stanley opted to discontinue the Char-Vac and thicken the outer steel walls in 2009, which created a lighter bottle that wasn’t as rugged. So they introduced a Master Series in 2017 with a Quad-Vac design that delivered both performance and durability.
Americans know Stanley makes a great thermos, but can the company make a great travel coffee press? Pour a cup of Joe, dear reader, and let’s find out.
The 16 oz Stanley classic travel mug French press came in a no-frills recycled cardboard (yay!) shipping box. When I unscrewed the top lid, it revealed a leak-proof drink-through lid, and when I unscrewed the entire cap, I found a green plastic and stainless steel mesh plunger and set of instructions. I appreciated the simple, no extraneous bullshit introduction. And I loved that it didn’t have any single-use plastic packaging or marketing materials. The Stanley is made of quality 18/8 stainless steel (same as great razor blades), weighs 1.1 pounds, is 9.6 inches tall, and 3 inches in diameter. It has an integrated stainless steel carry loop and is car cup carrier-compatible. Stanley advertises that the French press will keep hot things hot for four hours, cold things cold for five hours, and iced things icy for 20 hours.
How we tested the Stanley classic travel mug French press
I established five basic criteria for evaluating the Stanley classic travel mug French Press:
- Thermal efficiency – could it keep hot things hot and cold things cold as advertised?
- Ease of use
- Delivery – could it produce a delicious cup of coffee without silty or sludgy crap at the bottom of the cup?
I used it exclusively for a week to make my post-workout morning brew and tinkered with various coffee grinds, coffee and water ratios, water temperatures, and brew times. I always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to a T on the first test, and then tinker to dial things in to get the best brew.
Before we get into the Stanley’s performance, you need to understand a few things about French press coffee. First, the French press, or more properly cafetiere, requires an immersion technique, as opposed to drip brewers. (That crappy Mr. Coffee on your kitchen counter is, essentially, a drip brewer, and it sucks. So go sit in the corner and think about what you have done!) In the immersion technique, your coffee and water hang out in the same chamber for a while to extract the goodness from the coffee beans. You manually stop the extraction by pressing down on a plunger which pushes a filter, typically stainless steel mesh, through the vessel to separate the grounds from your beverage. In drip or pour-over brewing, moving coffee is poured through a bed of coffee and pulled by gravity through a filter and into a collection vessel. With immersion brewers, like the AeroPress or French press, you generally get a more full, round flavor. With drip brewing, you generally get a lighter brew with a bit more acidity and clarity.
Without overcomplicating it, brewing great coffee comes down to several key elements:
- High-quality, properly roasted beans (fresh ground preferred)
- Pure water (no chlorine!)
- The right grind for the technique (coarse to extra fine espresso)
- The right water to coffee ground ratio
- The right water temperature
- The right amount of brewing time to allow for proper extraction
There’s more to it, but I’ll stop there.
Test 1: Thermal efficiency. Per Stanley’s instructions, I put 4 tablespoons (56 grams) of coffee into the vessel (seems like a lot, I know!), filled the mug (about 450 grams) with hot water just off the boil (195 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit), let the coffee brew for six minutes (seemed way too long), plunged, tasted, took a temperature reading, and screwed on the cap. At time (T) = 0 minutes, the surface temperature of the liquid was 175 degrees Fahrenheit. I checked the temperature four hours later with my laser thermometer, and the temperature was 130 degrees Fahrenheit, a loss of 45 degrees. During that time, I used my thermometer to detect where the greatest heat loss was coming from and found it was at the point where the stainless steel met the plastic cap. No surprises there. While 130-degree coffee isn’t exactly hot, it wasn’t an unpleasant temperature to drink, but the flavor of the coffee was way over-extracted, bitter, and unpalatable.
Next, I put cold water into the vessel. At T=0, the water was 44.4 F. Five hours later, I measured it at 61.7F, a gain of 17.3 degrees. It was cool, but not cold. Not so impressive.
Lastly, I removed the plunger basket, filled the vessel with ice, measured it, and screwed on the cap. At T=0, the temperature was 30.9F, and at T=20 hours, the temperature was 31.5F — impressive!
Finding: The Stanley Classic French press adequately meets their 4-, 5-, and 20-hour marks, and excels at keeping iced things cold, which is odd for a coffee press that’s supposed to keep coffee hot. Better design of the cap to container interface could improve the thermal retention of the product.
Test 2: Portability. If you’ve read my reviews, you know I’m always looking for lighter, more effective, and cheaper gear to take on long-distance backpacking trips. At 1.1 pounds (500 grams), the Stanley Classic French Press Travel Mug is way too heavy for me to carry in a backpack for several days. I would, however, take it on trips — whether camping or on travel — where weight isn’t an issue. It fit nicely in the cupholder of my truck and in the pocket of my leather briefcase/laptop bag. I didn’t find the stainless steel carry loop to be terribly useful, but some folks like to clip things to the outside of their packs so they can swing and bang, and that’s your prerogative, but I can’t stand it. (Rant over).
Test 3: Ease of use. Mechanically, French presses are Marine-proof. With only two essential parts, they’re simple and don’t require a lot of dexterity to properly manipulate. While I wish the plunger basket had a beefier gasket to reduce the number of grinds slipping by into the brew, it was a snap to clean up afterward.
Test 4: Capacity. An average cup of coffee is about eight ounces or so, and the Stanley packs 16 ounces or two cups. That’s worth carrying.
Test 5: Delivery. Most baristas recommend a coffee to water ratio of about 1:16 (60 to 70 grams per liter), a fairly coarse grind, and a four-minute brew time for French press brewing for best effects. The recipe from Stanley was, “Add approximately 2 tablespoons of coarse ground coffee per 8 oz of hot water (approximately 200F or 93C).” First off, don’t measure in tablespoons. It’s too inaccurate. Use grams and weigh your stuff for consistency. It really helps to buy a digital food scale to assist with accurate measurement. They’re cheap and worth it. Two tablespoons of coffee are about 10.6 grams. One fluid ounce of water is 29.6 grams or so. The Stanley recipe calls for 21.2 grams of coffee per 473.6 grams of water or a ratio of 1:22, which is a bit light. A 1:16 ratio would put us at 30 grams or so for 473 grams (16 ounces) of water. The Stanley-recommended recipe result was ok but not spectacular. After I sealed up the lid and let the coffee sit for four hours, the temperature was warm but not hot and the taste was bitter. Leaving the coffee sitting on the grounds over-extracted the grinds and made it undrinkable. Gross.
I played around with the coffee and water ratios. The coarser grind at a 1:16 ratio (30 grams) and a four- to six-minute brew tasted much better. I also tried a medium fine grind at 22 grams and cut the brew time from four to two minutes and achieved a much better brew.
The beauty of the French press is that you are in control of the extraction and can experiment to achieve a brew to your preferred taste.
And here’s the #ProTip: Don’t ever leave the coffee resting atop the grinds in the French press. Doing so will over-extract the grinds over time and leave you with a bitter-tasting coffee. A quick hack to improve the performance of the Stanley is to brew it, pour it into another container, remove the basket plunger, rinse out the grounds, pour the coffee back in, twist on the cap, and hit the road. It only takes 20 seconds or so, achieves a better-tasting coffee, and, damn it, you’re worth it!
Another #ProTip: Coffee grind size and brew time are related. Coarser grind equals less surface area which requires more brew time to extract the coffee. Finer grind equals more surface area which requires less brew time to extract the coffee.
What we like about the Stanley classic travel mug French press
I’ve got a soft spot in my cold, black heart for Stanley. They make rugged products that have served generations of blue-collar workers like my grandparents. The Classic Travel Mug French Press is (fairly) thermally efficient, portable, easy to use, has sufficient capacity, and I was able to produce a solid cup of coffee with it after a few trials and tweaks. I loved the design aesthetics and ergonomics as well. It felt good in my hand, had a cool-looking winged bear logo, and brought back some fond childhood memories. The plastic basket plunger was easy to manipulate. I would like to see a more robust gasket on the plunger filter basket, but the gasket and stainless steel mesh filter did a better-than-average job of keeping grinds and grit out of the brew when compared to other French presses I’ve used. And the Stanley was a snap to clean up afterwards. It’s a well-designed French press at a nice price. At $35, this is a well-built value purchase, and I’ve seen a lot of overpriced stainless steel double vacuum products out there these days.
What we don’t like about the Stanley classic travel mug French press
I’d like to have experienced better heat retention over time. I measured a 45-degree drop over four hours, and that’s not that great. Was the coffee still warm? Yes. Hot? Not so much. While it performed great with keeping iced beverages cold over 20 hours, this is supposed to be a hot coffee carrying device. A better cap-to-metal body interface is needed as that is where I measured the most heat loss with my laser thermometer. I also thought the coffee recipe in the instructions was off. I’m a big fan of award-winning coffee expert James Hoffman’s technique and 1:16 ratio recommendation.
The Stanley Classic Travel Press is a good buy in my book for those who are looking for a cool coffee travel mug. It’s hefty, so I won’t be taking it on my next 60-plus mile multi-day Appalachian Trail trek, but I will be tossing it in my kayak or in my climbing pack for my next trek to the crags. Heck, I’d even take it along on day hikes, too.
I wanted to make sure I was being fair with the heat loss observation, so I replicated the tests. I filled the vessel with hot water, measured it to be 187F with a kitchen thermometer, waited four hours and remeasured. The T=4 hours time was 142F, a drop of 45 degrees.
FAQs about the Stanley classic travel mug French press
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Stanley classic travel mug French press cost?
A. MSRP for the Stanley classic travel mug French press is $35 at Walmart.
Q. Is the Stanley Classic Travel Mug French Press dishwasher-safe?
A. Absolutely! And it’s a snap to rinse out by hand too.
Q. What’s the body made of?
A. The body is made of 18/8 stainless steel and the cap is made of BPA-free plastic.
Q. Does the Stanley classic travel mug French press have a warranty?
A. Yep. It’s a lifetime warranty, my friend.
Joe Plenzler is a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1995 to 2015. He is a backcountry expert, long-distance backpacker, rock climber, kayaker, cyclist, wannabe mountaineer, and the world’s OK-est guitar player. He supports his outdoor addiction by working as a human communication consultant, teaching at the College of Southern Maryland, and helping start-up companies with their public relations and marketing efforts.
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