Cowboy coffee is not a something you hear a lot about in the specialty coffee world. It doesn’t use elegant and sophisticated equipment. There aren’t any trendy cowboy coffee brewing competitions with clever posters. It is simple and uses no equipment save a pot. It may not be the most stylish brew method of the coffee world, but cowboy coffee is a manual coffee brewing technique none-the-less. Let’s talk about it.
I would like to give some credit for this post to Steve who left a comment on my French Press post recommending this method. Thanks Steve!
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Like French press coffee, cowboy coffee is an immersion brewing technique. If you need a refresher, immersion brewing is a method where the grounds are soaked in water for a predetermined amount of time. The coffee is then separated from the grounds and consumed. Immersion brewing techniques typically use larger grind particle size and a few minutes of steep time.
The premise of the cowboy coffee technique is simple. Grounds are added to a pot of water, the water is brought to a boil, the concoction is cooled slightly allowing the grounds to sink and it is ready to drink. No filters, gooseneck kettles or timers needed. As with all manual brewing techniques, the devil is in the details. Let’s see how good of a cup of coffee we can make when “breaking all the rules.”
If you have a pot to boil water or a camping percolator, you pretty much have every thing you need to make cowboy coffee. Here is the exhaustive list:
- A pot to boil water– I use my aluminum camping percolator sans the filter basket.
- Ground coffee- Typically, I would recommend a 1:17 coffee to water ratio by weight. You may want to back this dosage off a bit since the steep time will be a bit longer. If you are eyeballing it or didn’t bring a gram scale camping (what’s a few more ounces in the pack…) try using a heaping tablespoon per mug. I use a very course grind.
- Heat source- This can range from hot coals, to a Jetboil, to your kitchen stove if you are just curious.
- Mug(s)- I recommend removing the coffee from the grounds as soon as practical. Plus it would be goofy to just drink it out of the pot, unless it was a small single serving pot.
- Start with cold water. Everyone recommends to start with cold water and to add the grounds at the beginning. This gives the water some time to extract those fats and oils while the water is heating up. I give the coffee and water a good stir at this point.
- Bring the mixture to a boil. Don’t let it boil too long. As soon as you see that it is boiling, take it from the heat source. It took my water about ten minutes to reach a boil.
- Let it cool and finish with cold water. The grounds should sink to the bottom as the coffee cools a bit. To help speed this process up (I know you are raring to try it) throw a little cold water on the grounds. Not much we are talking about 20-30 ml. The cooling process take about five minutes. (You can give it a stir after a few minutes to help the grounds sink)
- Enjoy. Once the grounds sink to the bottom, it is coffee time. Celebrate.
Things for further consideration
There are various factors involved that will greatly influence the cup quality of your cowboy coffee. I realize that when you are out camping, you may not be too interested in some of these possibly minute details but I feel that it would be remiss if I neglected to point them out.
- True cowboy coffee should be made over a fire and fires are inconsistent heat sources. Depending on how hot of a fire you have going, it will take the water more time to heat up to a boil. This will have an effect on your consistency. The amount of water you are boiling will, of course, have an effect on the amount of time it takes for your coffee to come to a boil as well. This all changes the steep time. (Let’s not even discuss the fact that water boils at different temperatures at different altitudes…) A free spirit coffee brewer might like this method for it’s randomness. An analytical coffee brewer could go crazy over repeatability issues.
- Grind particle size consistency is still important. As with the French press brewing method, the consistency of the grind size will make a difference in your final cup quality and flavors. Standard pre-ground coffee from the store will probably be ground too fine to fully take advantage of this method. I’m not saying you can’t do it, I’m just looking at the “perfect” cup of cowboy coffee scenario.
- Boiling your coffee can be scary. Let’s admit it. The rules are there for a reason. There are people, smart people, that are brewing coffee all day and testing things. The pretty much uniformly accepted range of optimal brewing water temperature is 200-205 degrees. You may want to consider pulling the coffee off of the heat source when it is at about 205 degree fahrenheit. (You do bring a thermometer with you camping right?). I let mine go all the way to boil and thought it turned out pretty good.
- Camping, fires and coffee just fit together. Nothing scratches my itch for wanderlust quite the same as cowboy coffee. The very name of it conjures up images of a warm and smokey fire on a foggy morning with a blackened aluminum kettle of coffee warming. If you loved this brewing method while you were out camping be realistic; you might not be that impressed with it at your house, outside of it’s native environment.
There are other ways of brewing coffee when camping. With the existence of such devices as the Aeropress, the Snow Peak folding coffee drip and the Sili-Dripper, some people might choose to discard this method and let it fade into an era of the past. I personally was surprised with how much I enjoyed the coffee this method produced.
Remember: If you have a pot to boil water, some ground coffee and a heat source, you are only a few minutes away from enjoying a manual brew. You don’t need filters, press pots or even electricity. It helps to have a few extra tricks in your back pocket.