If you’ve ever watched old Westerns you have seen the ubiquitous coffee pot, shaped a little like a smoke stack, at the center of the camp fire or chuck wagon. Coffee on the trail appeared to be just as important as the saddles and pistols. They made that coffee on an open fire without benefit of all our sophisticated equipment and filters, and cowboy coffee was well known for being strong and delicious.
The secret to cowboy coffee is simplicity, and this makes it appealing today on trails and even around the house. Many of us may want to learn to make cowboy coffee even just for the nostalgic appeal.
It is a fact that heading into the woods will mean doing without some things. But there is no reason to go without coffee, no matter how rough your trip may be. Cowboy coffee is simple, requires only one real piece of gear (a pot), and just like any other method of brewing, it has its own flavor and qualities.
With little more than a coarse grind, a sturdy pot that will stand up to a fire, and cold water, cowboy coffee is incredibly simple if you know what you are doing.
Table Of Contents
- What To Expect
- Standard Method
- Cold Water Method
- Eggshell Method
- Coffee Sock Method
- Other Methods
- Technical Considerations
What To Expect
The main issue with cowboy coffee is keeping the grounds out of your cup. There are a few methods to prevent this problem. Even still, cowboy coffee will not be as clear as the brews most of us are used to, but that is part of the appeal. Like Turkish coffee, cowboy coffee is a rich and dense brew. The flavor and richness are visible.
Many of us have grown accustomed to specialized ways of brewing coffee. The technical knowledge that goes into brewing coffee today can be quit complex. There are some technical things we can account for in making cowboy coffee which I will get to after we explore some methods.
A tried and true recipe, one that was gleaned from the chuck wagons of old, involves little more than a pot, coffee, and water.
The Standard Method
Start with a coarse grind. You will want your grind to be about the size of a grain of coarse salt. This larger grind is conducive to the length of time you allow for the brew. Cowboy coffee brewing methods rely on contact time as the main extraction technique.
If you’re traveling with coffee beans and not pre-ground coffee, you can easily grind on the go with a cheap portable manual coffee grinder.
For every cup of coffee (8 ounces), use two tablespoons of ground coffee. (I make a full pot, or about 8 cups. I don’t know how to drink coffee any other way).
- Use a sturdy pot with no flammable parts or parts which will melt. (Remember, you will be boiling water on a campfire). Also, don’t place the pot in the middle of the fire – you’re going to have to pick it up in a few minutes.
- Bring your water to a boil and set it aside to cool for about 30 seconds to a minute. You want the water temperature to reach approximately 200 degrees which is the optimum temperature to brew coffee.
- Spoon your grinds directly into the pot and stir or swirl it around. Let this brew for about 5 minutes. As a side note, a good way to keep your coffee hot during the brewing process is to dig a small hole near the fire to set the pot in. This will insulate the pot and keep your coffee warm.
- Finally, give the pot a gentle swirl, let the grounds settle a bit inside the pot, and pour.
Any grounds that made it into your cup will settle relatively quickly and easily. The brew will be cloudy, but again, this is to be expected. Cowboy coffee is rather rich and has more in common with a dense Turkish brew or thick sweet Cuban espresso.
There will be some dregs at the bottom of the pot. To clean up, swirl just a bit of water around inside the pot and give it back to nature (used coffee grounds have a near-neutral pH and are a great natural fertilizer).
Some people may find this straightforward method just leaves too much sediment and grounds in their cup. There are a couple of methods which will help you drop the grounds out of the brew as much as possible:
The Cold Water Method
The most straightforward way of reducing how much ground coffee ends up in your cup is the cold water method. Go through steps 1 through 3 of our “standard method” above, but this time add a half cup of cold water to the coffee after it’s been brewing for the requisite 5 minutes.
The addition of cold water will draw down the grounds and cause them to settle. Even after you give your brew a second swirl, the ground coffee should remain largely at the bottom of the pot.
The added benefit of the cold water method is that it helps to draw out the flavors trapped in the dense oils of the coffee bean. The temperature difference will work as a second cold extraction and add depths of flavor to the final brew.
The Eggshell Method
When I first heard of this method I thought “no way.” But there is more to the egg shells than settling out the grounds – there’s some interesting science behind this method.
To start, you need some egg shells – save the egg shells from making your eggs in the morning, or bring some along for this explicit purpose. You don’t want them dripping with egg white, but they do not need to be pristine either. A little of albumin (the protein found in egg white) will help.
While your water is coming to a boil, break up the egg shells and mix them with your ground coffee. Once the water has boiled and you have set it aside, toss in the coffee/egg shell mix.
Do not stir with this method. Let the egg shells and grinds brew. Two things will happen: First, the egg shells and left-over albumin will bind to the coffee grounds and settle them out. Second, the added benefit is that the alkaline chemistry of the eggs shells will offset the acidity in your coffee, giving you a smoother body and flavor. Cowboy coffee tends toward the acidic side. Some people love that tart flavor, but others may prefer the softer brew you get from using egg shells.
Cowboys may well have missed out on the advanced science of brewing coffee, but they had the pioneer instincts to know how to use the chemistry of what was at hand. Egg shells employ the egg protein to clear up the brew, and the chemistry of egg shells brew a slightly more delicate body to the coffee.
The Coffee Sock / Coffee Pouch Method
If you’re heading into the woods and you don’t want to take your chances on egg shells, or you just don’t want to deal with grounds in your coffee, there are some things available to make a more modern version of cowboy coffee.
You can make use of a “coffee sock” or “coffee pouch” to make coffee that’s a little more like what you brew at home, but that still retains the open fire flavor of cowboy coffee. A coffee sock is exactly what it sounds like. It is a cotton sack to hold your grounds when you place them in the water – exactly like a tea bag.
After boiling your water and letting it sit for 30-60 seconds, drop in the coffee sock with your ground coffee. This will brew just like the old cowboy coffee methods, but you’ll be able to pour a cup clear of grounds and you can neatly remove the grounds contained in the coffee sock afterwards.
The coffee sock will require the added step of cleaning out the sock, but it is a nice alternative to egg shells or cloudy coffee. The flavor of your brew will be largely the same.
It’s just as easy to use a literal sock (or handkerchief, or scarf, or any other cotton-based article of clothing) instead of a product made specifically for this use, and a lot cheaper too. But I get that many people may find this unappealing. If you do use one of your own articles of clothing, just make sure it’s clean!
Of course, there are a number of companies which make presses, pour over models, and other portable coffee makers which can fit into your pack. These are available all over the web.
Brewing coffee today has taken on the dimensions of art. Coffee can even have something of the high-brow indulgence at some levels. I wouldn’t knock that. The fine coffee we enjoy at specialty cafes all over the place was once a rarity, something available only to a select few. But there is something truly comforting about brewing coffee with nothing more than water, a pot, and a campfire.
Part of the reason we head into the woods is to remove ourselves from the excesses of contemporary life. The satisfaction of making a morning pot of cowboy coffee can be a part of this simplicity.
You can see that we took note of water temperature for brewing cowboy coffee. Approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit is the optimum temperature for brewing. Your brewing time will vary according to other factors as well:
Elevation will impact your cowboy coffee. First of all, cowboy coffee is an ideal brewing method for high elevations. The direct extractions which occur in cowboy coffee methods are amenable to elevation differences. Boiling point is lower at altitudes above 10,000 feet and you will want to add more ground coffee to compensate for this. There are cafes in the Colorado Rockies which are so far up the mountains that they have taken to brewing cowboy coffee because it is the best method for brewing coffee at high elevations.
Also, ambient temperature matters. If you are doing some winter camping, your brewing times will get necessarily shortened. Add the coffee right after you remove the pot from the fire, instead of waiting for it to cool off a bit. This will slightly affect the taste of your brew but the cold outside temperature will offset the high heat of brewing.
As much as we may love the super-sophisticated coffee available to us in these modern times, sometimes there is no substitute for the simple things. The impetus to head into the woods in the first place generally involves the need for greater simplicity. But this drive to get away need not leave us without our coffee.
Cowboy coffee is probably the simplest method, and the most tried and true method, of brewing coffee in the woods, in the desert, on an island—where ever you have found yourself far from the noise of modern life.
The cowboys lived it rough, but they learned to keep the things that mattered. A well-brewed cup of coffee got them going in the morning and warmed the body when they were on the trails. The people of old learned to do this right, and their methods persist because they work.
Whether you plan on making cowboy coffee in the backwoods, or if you just want to try it over a backyard fire, the methods for brewing cowboy coffee presented here will work quite well. Experiment to find the one that works for you. The only real measure of cowboy coffee is how you like it!