On the Trail: How to Make the BEST Cowboy Coffee

cowboy-coffeeCowboy Coffee.  This post is all about Cowboy Coffee: how-to directions, brewing tips, proportions, and a few stories, too.  Click on the images and you will find some great pots and paraphernalia for your next camping adventure.  Have fun daydreaming about the campfire as you peruse the pots and gear!  And be sure to visit the Coffee Store on the Home page!  So many fun things to consider adding to your grub box!

Happy trails, hearty souls! xox Boots

Cowboy Coffee.  What exactly is it?  Cowboy Coffee carries with it an image of durable simplicity and unsophisticated invention . . . rugged cowboys, wearing a week’s worth of trail dirt, sipping away at a steaming cup of brew — all the while the cattle are obediently lowing in the near distance, awaiting the call to git along, little dogies.

This hearty brew is an understated science and, as a result, not considered to be a viable, let alone superior, brewing method when out on the trail.  Some people think that Cowboy Coffee is just boiled coffee that likely tastes bitter as a result of being boiled too long over an open flame.

But I am telling you that Cowboy Coffee is more than just throwing grounds into a pot full of water and boiling the bejeezus out of the concoction.  It is an elegant and interactive art form.  And once you have tried a sip of this hearty beverage while taking in the great outdoors, you might be tempted to go back home and get rid of that fancified French press or Italian stovetop espresso maker.

Why is Cowboy Coffee so good?  It tastes just how coffee is meant to taste: robust, hearty, hot, and sturdy.  There are many recipes and opinions on how to make the best Cowboy Coffee, and I am going to share with you the method we used when I was working on a ranch in a remote roadless area of the world.

Now this ranch was the real deal.  No roads anywhere within 50 miles, cold running water only, tent cabins, and outhouses.  And the horses were right there — snorting and neighing and grinding away at the salt lick, outside my cabin door.

The cookhouse was a high-ceiling log structure with long grub tables — each table could easily seat 20+ guests and wranglers, depending on the width of each backside.  The sheer length of these tables was remarkable, with each table top having been cut from single-length logs that spoke of the timeless nature of the forest.  There was an enormous fire-pit and chimney at one end of the cookhouse where the coffee was set to bile.  The chimney had a good draw and provided a fire that you could cozy up to in the early-morning and post-dusk hours.

There were always at least 3 ginormous pots of coffee going at any one time.  There was no system of what pot was brewed first, second, and so on.  You just poured from whatever pot beckoned to you.  These cowboy pots were gallery-quality beauties, smudged and smoked from countless fires.  And heavy.  These pots required a double-fisted pour when they were full.  And the stories that these pots must have heard over the years . . . I can only imagine.

Here is how we made Cowboy Coffee at the ranch:

  1. Start your fire and get a good blaze going.  You are going to want to feed the fire into Boil-Mode flame.
  2. Fill your pot with cold water somewhere about 3/4 of the way to the top.  Do not fill it to the tippy-top.  Your coffee is guaranteed to boil over if you do.  And who wants to waste coffee when you are out on the trail?
  3. Scoop your coffee on top of the cold water.  A general rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 8 ounces of water.  (It really requires that much.)
  4. Be patient.  And watch.  The goal is to let the water come to a boil and swallow the grounds that are on top.
  5. This is the fun part.  Keep watching.  Watching the fire with one eye and the coffee with the other.  My idea of fun anyway.  Once the grounds are seized by the tsunami and they are engulfed, you should see no fresh grounds lingering on top.  Just brew that looks like grounds might be swimming around in it.
  6. Pull the pot from the main flame — just far enough to stop the boil but close enough to keep the coffee nice and hot.  This is trickier than you might think.  You don’t want to re-boil the coffee.  But you do want to keep it piping hot.  It’s a science, remember?
  7. Pour a cup of cold water over the coffee.  Don’t dump the cold water — pour it.  This gesture, be it fact or fiction, serves to settle the grounds to the bottom of the pot.  If you are a doubter or a skeptic, just do it and believe.
  8. Let it all settle for a bit and then pour your first cup of coffee.  It is going to be amazing!

One note about the importance of proportion: It pays to measure.  Proportion does matter in the science of coffee — if you want good coffee.  Just because you are on the trail doesn’t mean that you can be all willy-nilly about measuring.  Before you go on your trip, do some preemptive measuring.  Figure out how much water you will be pouring into the pot and do your math.

Here are some proportion examples for those of you who feel math-curious.  If you are serving a lot of coffee to a large group using a 20-cup ( 160 oz) pot . . . 160 oz / 8 oz = 20 cups x 2 T. = 40 Tablespoons . . . which = 2.5 cups of grounds.  Now before you say Whoa Nellie! think about it.  That is a LOT of coffee to be serving and your attention to proportion will be appreciated.  Another example: If you are using a 64 oz pot and shooting for an 8-cup experience, that will be 64 oz/8 oz = 8 cups x 2 T. = 16 T. . . . which = 1 cup of grounds.

It is true that some old-timers keep adding water to the pot and reboiling the grounds . . . freshening it up a little with some new grounds.  I remember Al, the Cowboy Coffee aficionado, who lived in the school bus across the road.  I would pick up his pot to pour myself a cup and, judging by the weight, assume it to be full of coffee.

But . .  . when only a trickle of brown-black oil dribbled out, I knew it was time to clean the pot for Al.  I would take the pot back home, dump the grounds in the garden, scrub and shine it up for him, and leave it by the fire pit stationed outside the back-emergency bus door.  I understood Al’s theory of skimping on labor, but sometimes you just gots to start with fresh!

And the advice about adding eggshells to the pot?  Many people swear by this.  They claim that adding the eggshells keeps the grounds on the bottom of the pot, keeps the actual coffee grounds-free, and takes the bitterness away.  How?  The eggshell is an alkaline and the coffee is an acid.  The acidity in the coffee is supposed to be reduced by the alkalinity of the eggshells — thus making it taste smoother.

Fact or fiction?  I don’t know.  But it is an awfully fun fact to be able to share when sitting around the campfire.  I have done both and have been happy with my coffee both ways.  But some old-timers?  They swear by the eggshells trick.  Why not try it?  It is fun to experiment and try new things!

Check out these GREAT coffee pots and camp cups that are perfect for the trail.  Pack your coffee tin (or baggie) inside the (clean!) pot as you travel to minimize bulk.  Depending on the size of pot you buy, you can even put your cup in there.

Have fun making Café  à la Cowboy.  By doing so, you are keeping the spirit of the trail alive.




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