The origins of the ever popular campfire coffee has its roots right back in the early harvesting of wild beans and then cultivation in Ethiopia from where it spread across the middle east. By the 15th and 16th century there were numerous coffee houses across the region with the drink even being interwoven into religious customs and ceremony. It wasn’t though until the 1770s and the American war of independence that coffee became the drink of choice for colonists of the new world. At that time both tea and coffee were popular drinks in the colonies with both drank by peoples of all social standing. As the political atmosphere began to heat up and people became more frustrated by the high taxes imposed by the British on a broad range of goods and commodities, including tea, people turned towards coffee as a sign of protest against the ruling British, with coffee houses becoming a places of heated political debates and pro-revolution sentiment. Those early colonists and peoples of the frontier would have been reliant on only the simplest of equipment for the brewing of their coffee, meaning that their accounts hold many useful tips and hints to those wishing to travel light and leave behind the brewing gadgets on the market today. With only green coffee beans, a pot to boil in and a simple hand grinder they were able to brew full flavoured coffee around the campfire with which to start their day. In fac,t it is this simple method of brewing coffee that has been the one used most frequently throughout history for its preparation. Today we often referred to this simple process simply as ‘Cowboy Coffee’ in the context of North America and the use of it across the early frontier. As many of us who enjoy drinking coffee will know; there are many different ways of making it and many different preferences for flavour and strength.
This is no new phenomenon with barely two references on the subject of making coffee at camp agreeing on how it should be done, meaning we are able to interpret the process to our own tastes. Some include the addition of fine cloth or muslin to filter out the grinds, other simply state to boil the coffee with no mention of how to sink the grinds at all. This may well hold some truth, as those who have embraced the joys of camp coffee will know that it is often accompanied with a good mouthful of grinds towards the end of the cup, providing added roughage to the drink!
There are several tips on reducing this gritty consistency and ways of sinking the grinds that are worth considering. Most of the references work on the basis of dropping something cold into the freshly boiled coffee and or tapping the side of the pan to achieve the same. This is even mentioned in that classic wilderness adventure story ‘Call of the Wild’. Where Jack London recalls how the men of the far north made their coffee by dropping snow into the pan once it had brewed to sink the grits. Although Mr London is not the most authoritative figure on life in the north country his mentioning of making coffee does help to serve as a useful references to a practice that would have been a daily occurrence.
There is a fascinating reference in ‘Wagon Wheel kitchens’ by Jacqueline Williams which recalls the foods of the Oregon Trail, where it outlines a disagreement between husband and wife on how the coffee should be brewed. The husband, in full confidence of success having asked his wife for the measurements needed in the first place! Proceeds to make the coffee by simply warming the pan with the coffee on top of the water next to the fire. The resulting brew is weak and flavourless with neither enjoying it. The wife having watched the attempt without saying her piece, takes to making that evenings coffee where she takes the greatest of care to watch the pot for the moment of boiling, at which she removes the pot. She is, along with the camp, relieved when the brew is announced ‘very good’ and enjoyed all the more by all on the trail.
References from the Civil War tell a similar story with soldiers on both sides being issued with green coffee beans, or sometimes lesser alternatives, and preparing it in a similar way. The first step was to roast the issued green beans taking care not to burn them, before they could be ground in whatever form possible and boiled. This grinding was often the result of liberal application of pressure from rifle butts if there was no grinder to hand. This roasting of bean, pre-grinding and brewing is the step that is most alien to us making coffee today. The simple reason for this is that it wasn’t until the later half of the 1800s that producers were able to effectively seal in that roasted flavour to ground coffee.Thankfully they did and have made the making of this morning ritual that little bit simpler and easier to enjoy.
Coffee was and is such a part of American “western” culture. The morning began with the Chuckwagon cook getting up at three am just to get the coffee on, any coffee left over from the night before was sometimes added to the stew for added flavor. Cowboy coffee would be traditionally served black, young cobwoys or greenhorns would add sugar and milk but would then be teased by the real cowboys.
So what of the making? Similarly to making coffee in a cafetiere everyone is going to have their own preferences on strength and brewing time. Making camp coffee that is to your taste is no different. To begin with there will be an element of trial and error to find out the amount of coffee needed and for how long you will wish to boil the coffee. As a guild though for groups or if you are at a stationary camp it is wiser to make your coffee very strong so that each person can dilute to taste from a separate pot of hot water. This also means that you will make fewer pots of coffee throughout the day as your pot of super espresso will go a long way kept warm by the fire.
For a standard billy I usually add a good handful per person plus two or three extra for the pot simply placed on top of cold water. I then bring the pot to the boil and once there keep the coffee at the boil for one minute to allow the grinds to circulate around the pot, extracting that full flavour without tasting burnt. Once this is done I will drop a small amount of cold water or snow into the pot and tap the side of the pan to encourage the grinds to sink. Then all that remains to do it fit your mug and enjoy…….at home as well as in the woods!
J. London. 1903. Call of the Wild, New York: Macmillan Publishers
Williams, J. 1993. Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail. University of Kansas Press:
Davis, W.C., 2003. A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray. Stackpole Books:Mechanicsburg PA. pp. 27
National Coffee Assocciation, The History of Coffee. http://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/History-of-Coffee
Coffee Cakes, 2016. History of Coffee in America. http://www.coffeecakes.com/american-coffee.html
The Food Timelinbe, 2015. Beverages. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbeverages.html#cowboycoffee
Washington Trails Association. How to Brew Delicious Coffee. http://www.wta.org/hiking-info/basics/how-to/how-to-brew-delicious-coffee-in-the-backcountry
Cowboys and Chuckwagon Cooking http://cowboyandchuckwagoncooking.blogspot.co.uk/p/chuck-wagon-coffee-just-little-history.html