Coffee has been a staple of the long haul since traders and Dutch investors brought the bean from the horn of Africa to Europe and, by extension, Europe. There’s no question that a morning cup of joe is delightful and warming in all seasons here in the modern world, and perhaps it’s doubly so out in the backcountry, where hikers, backpackers, and campers wake up to pristine sunrise vistas and rattle themselves awake with coffee’s characteristic caffeine.
Somewhere between those Dutch coffee traders and our present-day breath-busting orders of “double Ristretto venti half-soy nonfat decaf organic chocolate brownie iced vanilla double-shot gingerbread” frappuccinos, coffee reached what many still consider to be its zenith today: cowboy coffee.
Named for the herders and wranglers who break horses and herald livestock in the western United States, cowboy coffee is notoriously simple to make. All it requires is a coffee pot, coffee and water to put in it, and a heat source, which has traditionally been a campfire but could just as well be a camping stove.
Cowboy coffee is a great-tasting mood booster and one of the best stimulants for general communion and idle chit chat that is nonetheless enriching even when it’s banal. Some folks knock cowboy coffee because of its popular image as a gritty, sludgy cup of tar that would knock out just about everybody but the Marlboro Man. On the contrary, cowboy coffee is the backcountry equivalent of a Yorkshire tea or chai in New Delhi, and just as rich, smooth, and enjoyable.
At the chuckwagon, which is the name they gave the field kitchen of a wagon trail headed west, cowboy coffee is served without cream, milk, or sugar. Many avid coffee drinkers can’t fathom drinking a cup of joe with no additions, but when these types of bitterness-averse caffeine quoffers often proclaim that cowboy coffee is the only coffee they’ll drink black. Everything you need to make cowboy coffee is much more durable and less frustrating to use than a french press or even the instant coffee maker back at home.
There are a few brewing methods depending on who you ask, but the principle process is generally the same. A few alterations that are meant to reduce acidity or bitterness or work to keep coffee grounds at the bottom of the coffee pot and away from drinkers’ teeth are either decried or sworn by.
Read on to get a full rundown of cowboy coffee and all the particular tweaks people have been giving this warming beverage. You’ll be happy knowing how to make cowboy coffee on and off the hiking trail, at home or at a campsite. There are plenty of variations for you to try out once you understand the particulars and all the steps it takes to make cowboy coffee.
Types of coffee beans for cowboy coffee
As you’ll see in the cowboy coffee recipes further on in this guide, you can make cowboy coffee with any coffee bean that can be roasted and ground up. There are some coffee beans from places like Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Columbia that are widely held to be the best in the world. We’re going to mention those, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shame in packing along a tin of Folgers to make your cowboy coffee.
Pre-roasted and pre-ground coffee can be a huge time-saver when you’re at a campsite and already have tons to do to keep the place in order. No matter what kind of coffee beans you want to use to make cowboy coffee, it’s likely to be smarter to grind the beans at home so you can leave the grinder behind.
Amazon has a huge market for coffee beans both whole and pre-ground. Since cowboy coffee is meant to be strong enough to perk you up into striking out on the trail again, we recommend a single-origin coffee bean. The blended varieties often have some kind of complicated milk-based drink in mind, and for that purpose there are many well-suited options. But if you can afford it and you really want a strong black cup of joe when you wake in the morning at your campsite, then a single-origin coffee bean. So what are some of those single origins?
There are three main coffee-growing regions in the world. These regions cover huge swaths of land and many, many different countries that all have unique aspects to their coffee beans. There’s no way to say definitively which is the best because the choice between the varieties of taste and aroma available from these three coffee-growing regions depends completely upon personal taste. The three regions are India and Indonesia, Africa, and Central and South America.
Very generally speaking, Central and South American coffee are strong, direct, and a bit sweet like brown sugar. African coffee beans are mellow, fruity, and multifaceted. India and Indonesia produce coffee beans that are more earthy and pleasingly rich. Make sure to buy the right kind of coffee beans to use with a coffee pot and not espresso beans or anything fancy like that. Filter roast, single-origin coffee beans are perfect for cowboy coffee.
Heat source for cowboy coffee
Camping stoves and alcohol stoves can boil water just as well as the classic method of heating the coffee pot over a campfire. We have lots of respect for the original way and for the majority of people there will be a campfire burning at the campsite already so it just makes sense to make your cowboy coffee on it.
But for campers who are going out with a large group and plan on making large batches, there’s no shame at all in using the more modern methods. Backcountry baristas in the chuckwagons of old would use wood stoves to heat coffee pots to satiate the caffeine requirements of a group that large.
The one consideration we would advise all cowboy coffee cookers to consider ahead of time with regards to their heat source is that there will come a point in the process where the coffee pot needs to be removed from heat. A robust full boil needs to be brought down to a roiling boil, which means you have to take the coffee pot from high heat to get the boiling water to remain comfortably in at a rolling boil temperature.
It’s not so hard to do on a campfire, as you can remove a coal or move the coffee pot further from the center of the fire. Don’t hesitate to try this method out at home before you try and brew fresh coffee at the campsite so you can make sure your chosen heat source, coffee pot, and coffee beans will produce the cowboy coffee you want.
How to brew cowboy coffee
If you want a rich, warming brew that will wake everyone up and get them chatting before the regularly scheduled backcountry activities begin, there is a time-tested procedure to make cowboy coffee that will produce a cup of joe that’s almost completely free of coffee grounds and has a sharp taste to match the great outdoors where you’ll be drinking it. The procedure is simple, but there are a couple of variations and additions that you can try if you want to personalize your own cowboy coffee recipe to suit your particular taste. The basic procedure to brew cowboy coffee goes like this:
1. Get your coffee pot. Make sure it’s durable enough to take the heat. Keep it out of the hottest part of the fire so you can still pick it up.
2. Fill the pot with water from a potable source. Even though you’re going to boil it, consider treating it with a water filter before you put it in the pot if the source seems less than clean.
3. Place the pot near enough the coals of your campfire to get it boiling. High heat is fine, but make sure you have fire-retardant gloves to protect yourself from accidental burns. The goal temperature here is going to be 200 degrees Fahrenheit but while it’s coming to its first boiling point you don’t have to worry about that too much.
4. Once the water is boiling, and we mean a really hearty boil, set it aside to cool a little. Now is when you want to get that water to 200 degrees. It shouldn’t take more than a minute to cool to that temperature, but if you’re in freezing cold conditions then consider halving that.
5. When the water is at 200 degrees more or less, spoon your coffee grounds into the water. The rule of thumb for coffee is two heaping spoonfuls for every cup of coffee you want to make. A cup of coffee is about 8 ml and a spoonful is a tablespoon, but given the rustic style of cowboy coffee, you should wean yourself off precise measurements and learn to know your cowboy coffee recipe just by looking at it.
6. Stir in the coffee ground and give the whole thing about 5 minutes of brewing time. Give the pot a gentle swirl after 5 minutes and then give it another minute or two of brewing time to let the coffee grounds settle inside.
7. Some people stop the process at this point and start doling out a cup of joe to all their compatriots. But one essential step to really get those coffee grounds to settle is to use cold water. Pour cold water into the coffee pot through the spout and around the edges of the top opening. Pouring cold water in through the spout of the coffee pot doubles as a protection against coffee grounds collecting there. Let the whole thing settle. The cold water won’t weaken or dilute the coffee. You don’t need to add much. The cold water will force the coffee grounds to settle. After it sits a minute or two you can pass the fresh coffee around.
Variations and additions to cowboy coffee
Since cowboy coffee has a bad reputation as being gut-bustingly acidic, people have invented various ways to cut the acidity. One of the more memorable of these methods is to add eggshells to your cowboy coffee. That’s eggshells, not eggs themselves. It’s convenient since most people are making cowboy coffee at breakfast time with a hot plate of eggs anyway, but there is some dispute as to whether the eggshell method works at all.
Old-timers like cowboy Kent Rollins believe that the eggshell method is complete balderdash, but others swear it reduces the acidity. We’d recommend trying it with and without to see if you personally think it’s better with eggshells. When properly brewed, cowboy coffee is smooth and comforting, quite the opposite of acidic. If you find your brew too sour, consider switching coffee beans for the next time.
If you do want to try the eggshell method, just take two halves of an empty egg and drop them into the cowboy coffee during those five minutes of brewing time. They’re easy to fish out if you leave them in halves. If you break them up, you can look forward to a very annoying cup of joe and some probably perplexed looks from your fellow backcountry travelers when they take a sip of coffee and feel a sudden crunch. Eggshells are alkaline which helps them cut through coffee’s acidity allegedly. There is also a theory that they can help keep the coffee grounds in the bottom of the pot, but once again the jury is still out on that factoid.
Cowboy coffee with the sock method
If you’re really worried about getting coffee grounds in your cup of cowboy coffee, you can try the sock method. It’s exactly the same as the procedure we listed above, except the coffee grounds are put inside a sock. In our opinion, it’s not completely necessary, but it is the only way to make absolutely sure that the coffee grounds won’t be in your mug. We’ve found that pantyhose that are tied off at one end works extremely well. But whether you use a sock or pantyhose, go ahead and buy a dedicated pair just for cowboy coffee use. There’s no need to subject everyone to even the merest possibility that someone’s foot has basically been inside the coffee pot.
If you want to try some version of filtering with your cowboy coffee, try using a regular coffee filter and do a makeshift pour-over. This can be helpful if you finish the pot of cowboy coffee or want to save the remainder. When you reach the bottom of the coffee pot where the coffee grounds have settled, it can be quicker and more effective to pour everything through a filter. Keep in mind that if you’re keeping it at a cool enough temperature, cowboy coffee can be reheated and sipped on for about 4 days after you brew it.
Cowboy coffee is one of the ties we have to the drovers who used to traverse the west in much greater numbers than they do today. The spirit of a warm coffee first thing in the morning, following a meal, or during a break has permeated even the corporate culture that’s so increasingly pervasive today.
The feeling of enjoying the company of others is increasingly rare in the modern world, which is one of the reasons we head out into the backcountry anyway. Cowboy coffee definitely reinforces those good vibes. The rising sun, or perhaps even the setting sun, is much more striking and peaceful with a strong cup of joe in your hand. In cold temperatures, cowboy coffee can keep you warm all throughout the day.
The recipe is so simple that you could probably have guessed it before you finished this guide. There are a few tweaks to fix perceived corrections in the flavor and acidity of cowboy coffee, but overall the simple procedure hasn’t changed since the day of the chuckwagon. Like so many other things we encounter in the backcountry, cowboy coffee is just a slowed-down version of a pastime increasingly rushed onward by the demands of daily life.
At the campsite, everything has the chance to slow down. We never know what the day will bring, but if you enjoy a hot cup of cowboy coffee on your next backcountry adventure, you can make sure you and your fellows will be ready to greet the day with a warm and pleasant feeling in your belly.
Bonus tip: Curious about additional cowboy coffee recipes? Look at one camper’s method for brewing cowboy coffee with eggshells!