Don’t confuse rustic for roughing it with your coffee.
When it comes to outdoorsy activities, some folks pack a travel kit of coffee gadgets in an effort to recreate a coffee shop-level quality experience. Others lean in to the rustic nature of outdoor life. We’re doing the latter and embracing Americana with the most rustic of all brew methods: cowboy coffee.
Cowboy coffee generally refers to coffee boiled in a vessel (such as an enamel pot) directly over an open fire, poured straight from that pot into cups and consumed. I’m generally of the opinion that the simpler the brew method the better, so this appeals to me greatly. Though — having heeded Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s advice — I am not a cowboy. So I had to look to a starting point for this adventure, and there’s perhaps no better place to begin than with cowboy cooking expert Kent Rollins.
The method listed on Kent’s site was indeed simple — he even gave his blessing for using a saucepan instead of an enamel pot — so I put on “Old Town Road” and hit the kitchen to start brewing. I happened to have a bag of Temple’s Ethiopia Sidamo Sasaba, which was perfect as it shares some roast flavors with coffees commonly used for this brewing method, while also having complex fruit flavors.
The recipe was basically this: Put water in the pot, add coffee grounds when it’s warm, bring it to a boil, and keep it there for two to three minutes. Let it rest for a minute, add a little cold water (to help the grounds fall to the bottom), and serve. I scaled-down the recipe to a third of the size, but followed the rest exactly.
Right off the bat, the specialty coffee side of my brain had some questions. The most obvious: Everything we’re taught about specialty coffee tells us that boiling water is too hot to brew good coffee. And while I’ve recently heard some very smart people say that using straight off the boil water is not actually the devil, this method isn’t like a pour over or French press, where that water will cool throughout the process. Rather, we’re going to boil the water the whole time (not to mention creating more turbulence with that rolling boil). That means lots of stuff getting extracted from the coffee. And the reason we don’t usually aim for that much extraction, through high temperature or any other variable, is because it makes coffee taste super bitter.
Also unlike most of our brew recipes was the ratio of coffee to water. It’s hard to know exactly how much coffee a recipe calls for when listing coffee by volume (like cups or tablespoons) instead of weight, but Kent seemed to recommend using at least 22 times as much water as coffee — far more water than the common specialty coffee ratio of 16.6 to one. That would usually lead to weak coffee, but maybe with the over-extraction (getting more flavor particles out of the coffee than usual) and some water evaporating in the boil, it would be okay? By the time I was done speculating, I had basically finished brewing and had results to taste.
I added the little bit of cold water as instructed, but turbulence during the boil helped the coffee grounds settle to the bottom all on their own. The coffee, which I ladled from my saucepan into a cup, didn’t actually taste as weak as I’d feared — partially (I think) from the over-extraction and partially because of all those unfiltered oils and fine particulates remaining in the coffee. It did, however, taste quite bitter and astringent, leaving my mouth super-dry. And while the roasty flavors of the coffee had no trouble coming through, the fruity flavors were lost.
The cowboy internet had a few pretty common fixes for making your cowboy coffee taste better, including egg shells and salt. The shells were meant to work double duty, helping the coffee grinds sink to the bottom and taming some of those sharp flavors. There’s no doubt that the alkalinity of egg shells has some effect on the bitterness and acidity. But while taming some bitterness is desirable, shells won’t help bring out complex flavors from great coffees — and acidity is something specialty coffee drinkers tend to value. Salt has a similar effect.
I could do better — especially armed with some advice from my favorite outdoorsy coffee pro, Marty Sweeney from Denver’s Novo Coffee. “Brewing coffee in the backcountry can be a challenge,” Marty told us. “I recently came across a listicle ranking different solutions for camping coffee. One of them was a teabag-style product, which the author disliked because of its long steep time. But I realized that, unlike in most of the country, our water boils in Denver at 202 degrees — and even lower in the mountains. This means you can steep it in boiling water, because the water remains within the SCA-recommended 202 +/-2 degree range.”
“I tried it out in my kitchen, filling some tea bags with Novo Coffee’s Bule Hora ground slightly coarser than drip. I started with a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water and boiled the grounds for four minutes. Then, I let the coffee bag steep in the water until it was a drinkable temperature. The results were really promising, so I tried it again the following weekend at a campsite in the mountains. The coffee was wonderful, bright and fruity, with clean, articulate flavors. It’s going to be my go-to brewing recipe for many trips to come.”
Living at sea level, I’m still going to avoid boiling coffee, but anyone reading this on high should definitely take advantage of your lowered boiling points and bubble away (here’s a handy elevation and boiling point chart). Second of all, you’ll notice Marty’s coffee to water ratio is more in-line with traditional French press and pour over recipes. Finally, the tea bag. While Kent Rollins frowns on the use of a coffee sock as a filter in his cowboy recipe, it is a thing I have heard of, and if we want a cleaner cup and pot, that might be the way to go. I had some Trade Cold Brew Bags laying around, and figured those might do the trick.
Before the bags, I wanted to test out those changes to brew ratio and temperature. I started by boiling my water in a saucepan, taking it off the heat, and waiting until it got down under 205 degrees Fahrenheit (I measured with an instant thermometer, but you’ll be fine just waiting 30 seconds). Then I dumped in my medium-coarsely ground beans — significantly more this time — stirred, and covered the sauce pan. After two minutes, I stirred one more time to make sure there weren’t a bunch of grounds floating on top and covered again. At four minutes, we were ready to go. There was a little bit of foam on top of the coffee, without all that heat and turbulence everything didn’t quite sink, but I was happy to find that didn’t lead to a particularly gritty texture as I ladled myself some coffee.
The results where much improved! I got a reasonably strong coffee and, especially as it cooled a little, all the flavors of the Sidamo Sasaba came through — from the roast to the fruit and flowers, with a lot less bitterness. With just one extra stir and 90 extra seconds, I think this method was basically just as easy as the traditional boil, and while I’m a fan of getting the amount of coffee beans you have to stretch, using the extra coffee was worth the improvement in flavor for me.
I was ready, then, to introduce the bag to see if we could make this even easier. I repeated the off-boil recipe, but this time, instead of just pouring the grinds in, I tied them up into my Cold Brew Bag. As with any coffee put through a relatively fine filter, the body felt a lot cleaner. Cleanup was super-easy and I realized that with a filter like this you’ll get a more drinkable coffee than you would otherwise. With the unfiltered coffee — whether using a ladle or pouring from a spout — you’re going to get a mouthful of grinds. With a filter, that last bit won’t be quite as clean as a drip coffee maker, but the amount of fine grinds at the bottom is fairly negligible (like in a French press or cold brew).
As far as the taste, we weren’t quite there yet. Even after letting the bag sit in the water for seven minutes, the coffee wasn’t strong enough, and its complex aromas and sugars didn’t come through as much as in the unfiltered version. Why wasn’t this version reaching the extraction levels of my previous effort nor Marty’s high-altitude boiled and bagged version? Well, there’s a reason we don’t brew coffee in little bags like we do tea (and, frankly, why a lot of tea people would prefer you don’t do that for tea either). If all our coffee is tightly bound in one part of our pot, the water around that coffee will fill up with coffee particles and won’t do a great job extracting. Plus the mass of coffee grounds tends to float at the surface. A rolling boil moves that coffee around a bit and the fact that the hot water isn’t dropping in temperature at all helps extract more as well.
To achieve this without a rolling boil, this sea-level cowboy decided on two things: active stirring to move that water around and a finer grind for more extraction. With that, we have two cowboy recipes that’ll both get you delicious coffee. If you don’t mind the bottom of the pot getting a little gritty, the unfiltered version is faster and easier; if you want a cleaner cup with slightly more effort, grab some bags and go for it. They’re for one quart of water, but you can scale that up or down as you wish by dividing or multiplying both the water and coffee amounts by the same number.
Since this recipe simply boils down (pun intended) to heating up water and throwing coffee in it, it’s easy to make anywhere. Enamel pot on a grill? Yes. A saucepan on a camping stove or your kitchen? Of course. Campfire coffee boiled right over the fire or straight on the hot coals? Yeehaw!
Unfiltered Cowboy Coffee
- Fill an enamel coffee pot, saucepan, or any vessel you could boil water in with 1 qt (32 oz or 907 ml) of water. Place it over a heat source and bring the water to boil
- When it hits a rolling boil, take it off the heat source and wait 30 seconds
- Set a timer for 4 minutes, add 2 oz (57 g) of medium-coarse ground coffee, stir, and cover
- After 2 minutes, stir again
- After 4 minutes, pour coffee into a thermos to save for later or serve and drink immediately
Filtered Cowboy Coffee
1. Fill an enamel coffee pot or sauce pan with 1 qt (32 oz or 907 ml) of water, place it over a heat source, and bring the water to boil
2. Fill a filter bag with 2 oz (57 g) of medium ground coffee
3. When it hits a rolling boil, take it off the heat source and wait 30 seconds
4. Set a timer for 7 minutes, add your filter bag, stir, and cover
5. After 1 minute, stir again
6. Stir once every minute (turn the bag over if it’s floating)
7. After 7 minutes, remove the coffee bag and pour coffee into a thermos to save for later or serve and drink immediately