cowboy coffee on the campfire


You would be forgiven for thinking that making Cowboy Coffee involves special preparation. In fact, the opposite is the case – cowboy coffee is a back to basics antidote to the expensive complex brewing methods we use in our daily lives. Prepared using a couple of the tips in this article and it can be one of the most satisfying coffees you’ll make.

What is Cowboy Coffee

I’ve been intrigued by cowboy coffee, and recently on a long road trip, tried to make it by the side of the road in less than perfect conditions. I think I still need some practice and to try a few of the techniques I’ve read up on and have also written here in this article.

So, let’s first discuss what cowboy coffee is, which coffee beans you should use and how to prepare it so you extract the full taste and flavour. In this article we look at when you might want to make cowboy coffee, and why you might want to try it yourself.

Cowboy coffee is not a brand; it is a brewing method using a simple technique of a pot over a stove with the coffee grains introduced straight into the water. Done just like this the results can be disappointing, so the cowboys learned a few tricks, and together this is what makes it ‘Cowboy Coffee’.

Of course, the cowboys of the prairie needed a straightforward and inexpensive way to make good coffee. It is similar to the ancient practice of preparing Turkish coffee, though not as refined. Cowhands expected their coffee to be hot black and strong, but also tasty.

Cowboy Coffee vs Other Brewing Methods – the Difference

Imagine the picture in the 19th century, cowboys drank fresher coffee than most people today. Although preparing coffee on the range was a time-consuming task, the people who made it really didn’t have any option other than to buy green coffee and roast it fresh in a skillet themselves before brewing. Contrast that to most of the daily supermarket brands of coffee, where they are roasted months in advance, packed and shipped over distances before finally landing in your cup.

Nowadays, roasting green beans at home is quite achievable – some people even achieve this with a popcorn machine, but you can skip this step if you prefer.

When people familiar with this brewing method think of cowboy coffee, they might have experienced a cup full of the sediment that comes from the loose grounds. But in fact, you can avoid this with some preparation and a few tips we teased earlier.

As you might expect for a coffee that needed to be made on the range, cowboy coffee is one of the simplest ways to make our favourite tasty brew, and it produces with a fabulous aroma without the need for any special (and increasingly expensive) equipment. Perhaps that is why the workers in the speciality-coffee world aren’t so fond of it. When it is made using the right technique and a few tricks available around the campfire, it produces a surprisingly smooth cup. You may hear some people complain that they can’t drink coffee because it upsets their stomach or gives them acid reflux due to the potential for a high acidity content. But, when you boil coffee using this method, there are ways to remove the bitterness and acidity – hence the tips!

When to Make Cowboy Coffee?

Camping seems like the obvious choice for giving this one a try.  Getting back to nature and a simpler life is something most of us yearn for at some point. Despite all the wonders the wilderness could offer, it always feels better when you start it with some coffee, and somehow it feels more appropriate to be brewing it old-style rather than with a gadget.

OK, so you’re ready to give this a go, let’s get into the details on how you make it. As always with making coffee, to ensure you get a good cup out, you need to put good beans in, so your first task is to obtain high-quality coffee beans – if you’re not sure where to start, check out our list of great small-batch roasters in our ever-growing list of recommended roasters. You don’t need freshly roasted coffee, but if you want total authenticity and top results, then this is what to do. Of course, you could always buy green beans and roast your own, but we’ll cover roasting green beans in another article.

In the table below, I list the three main types of brewing methods commonly used outdoors. The Moka Pot is also sometimes referred to as Stovetop Espresso, or sometimes incorrectly referred to as the cowboy coffee pot.

cowboy coffee pot
Traditional Enamel Cowboy Coffee Pot. Basic and indestructible. But if you get an antique one, do check for rust.
Moka Pot
Moka pots are rugged outdoor options and use steam pressure to push hot water through the coffee grains. I’ve personally found these a bit of a pain to clean, and there are three sections. Other than that, they’re suitable for travel and come in different sizes.
French Press
You can use cowboy coffee techniques in a French Press by adding cold water and scooping out the remaining floating grains. rather than pressing down the plunger. I brew mine for 9 minutes.

Look for the roast date on the coffee bag – this is not the same as the ‘Best Before’ date. You’re looking for beans that were roasted no more than 35-40 days ago.

If you start with stale, low-quality beans, you will end up with a subpar beverage, no matter what brewing method you use, cowboy or otherwise.

The amount of coffee you use determines the overall strength of the brewed coffee, and you simply adjust the dose based on the total amount of brewed coffee desired.

To achieve a regular strength coffee, use between 1 ½ to 2  scoops per 12-ounce cup and set the grind size to the same as you would for a French Press. The grinds should be quite large and rough and feel course and abrasive if you rub them between your fingers. The size of the coffee grounds affects the rate of absorption by the surrounding water during the brewing process, with the rule of thumb is the coarser the grind, the faster the coffee is absorbed. When coffee is absorbed too fast, the brew can be too bitter, so you may need to experiment to find the right level for the beans you’ve chosen. Different beans react differently, so minor adjustments should be made for each new bag you use.

Of course, the quantity of coffee you are using determines the overall strength of the brew and needs to be adjusted of basics on the total volume of coffee desired. When camping, it’s a good idea to keep a standard two-tablespoon coffee scoop handy. As you get comfortable making the brew, you may find yourself tweaking the recipe and procedure to fit your taste and preferences. Because the outdoorsy types often by necessity or preference, use the most straightforward method they can, so ‘cowboy’ or ‘campfire’ coffee are very popular choices.

If we’re discussing this technique for people off the beaten track, then we should also make a quick note on the effect of altitude on the brewing process. Specifically, it may be necessary to change the amount of coffee grounds used. At high altitudes, the boiling temperature goes down, and you may want to add more coffee grounds — although no more than a 1.4 coffee to water ratio compensate.

To truly impress your friends around the campfire and demonstrate that you have taken your coffee making skills to the next level, you can refer to the technical description of the absorption and extraction process as “decoction”, which is the smooth commingling of the grounds with boiling water to extract the flavour.

Advantages of Cowboy Coffee

The main advantage is how simple it is to make. If only we could extend that kind of simplicity to the rest of our complex digital lives. You need a good pot, typically enamel, and… Nothing else. Other than of course the coffee and water.

If you don’t have a special cowboy coffee pot yet, then any pot that can boil water will work. That’s one of the greatest things about cowboy coffee – you can adapt the procedure of making this coffee to use whatever you have available.

Opinions vary over the importance of the time for boiling, but most people agree you need to properly boil the water – a proper roiling boil, no thermometer and precise temperature settings required. But over-brewing the coffee can make the difference between a sweet, balanced cup and squint-inducing bitter sludge. Bear in mind that brewing cowboy coffee isn’t an exact science and takes some time and error to perfection.

Two Ways to Make Cowboy Coffee

For both methods we’re going to use the traditional Cowboy Coffee Kettle we mentioned above. This kettle is based on an open range fire brewing and the coffee goes straight in. No messing around. Without the use of a filter, all the flavour locked inside the oils and compounds within the coffee beans is transferred to the brew, giving your cup of coffee a rich, and more full-bodied taste.

For both methods, a suggested coffee ratio is 1 to 2 heaped tablespoons per eight ounces of water, but your quantity may vary depending on the kind of coffee that you use. You typically put in a little more water than you would in say a French Press. Stir it in a slow way, only enough to circulate the coffee around the pot or pan.

Method 1

Bring the water to a boil, add the ground coffee and let it steep for typically 3 to 5 minutes – experiment with what works with your beans and pot. Take it off the fire so it stops roiling and let it sit for a minute or two so the granules that are inclined to sink, go to the bottom of the pot. Now pour in some cold water, working your away around where the granules have collected and most of them will just sink to the bottom with the cold water. Now gently pour your smooth brew and allow yourself modest self-congratulation.

Method 2

The first part is the same, so as above, boil your water in the pot, add the ground coffee and let it continue to boil for 2-3 minutes. This time after you take it off the fire and let the grains settle, add some crushed eggshells. Yes, eggshells, and let them settle with the coffee grains.  The eggshells not only help settle the coffee granules, but they are alkaline and can naturally alleviate bitterness.  Pour slowly so as to not disturb the sediment and enjoy the wonders of great coffee done without fancy equipment. Not everyone agrees with this approach, and probably it’s not necessary, but I’m going to give it a try because I’m curious.

Steps in Brewing Cowboy Coffee

These steps will make 2 cups.

  1. Boil 16oz of water in your pot or pan
  2. While the water is boiling, grind your coffee beans. I tried a medium-coarse and got pretty good results
  3. When the water is boiling add 3-4 heaped tablespoons of fresh ground coffee. I left the top open on my pot
  4. Wait 2 -3 minutes and smell the aroma
  5. Take the pot off the flame and give it a minute to let the granules settle
  6. Now add either a dash of cold water or some eggshells and wait another minute. Be patient. The granules will settle to the bottom
  7. If you have any stubborn coffee granules still floating on the top, scoop them out with a spoon and throw them
  8. Slowly pour the coffee into your mug, being careful not to disturb the sediment at the bottom
  9. Enjoy the results

I have to say the best part I found about brewing Coffee Cowboy style is the looks I get from other campers, or in my case weary road travellers, who either have no coffee (poor fools, what were they thinking) or have some fancy equipment which they are typically still fiddling with when you’re already sipping your hot coffee. In this case, it is acceptable to raise an eyebrow in their direction while observing their continued efforts.

Thanks for stopping by Partner.

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