Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cowboy Coffee: A Divine Lifetime Indulgence

Although at times I don't believe it myself, there can be more to life than just carving a nice woodspirit walking stick or making a just right slide-top box in the woodshop. Sometimes life just needs to be an indulgence in pleasure  and that's what I mean when it comes to brewing the perfect pot of coffee. Recent studies even show that java is good for your health if you don't have chronic heart disease.

Just recently I purchased my first French coffee press and once again I've discovered the joys of chasing the perfect, yet elusive cup of good tasting coffee. As you can see in the pictures to the right from my 1979 Alabama log cabin it was a daily ritual for me to relax beside the fire pit and enjoy a fine cup of cowboy coffee made in an open pot right over the fire. The coffee made over open flames with my dog licking my face was always the "perfect" cup and I'll explain why as I go along...

And I'll tell you my method for making it but first I have to give you a little background about how my love affair with "real" coffee came to be. To do that I'll have to take you back to the 1960's and Grandma Brock. Whenever  we visited her there was always a pot on the stove or else she would make one. I always thought that her coffee was special because it just tasted rich and with full bean flavor. She made it in a peculator on the stove so it wasn't sifted through a paper filter which is what's wrong with most of today's coffee. The rich flavor found in the coffee beans natural oils are filtered out so the "body" of the brew is lost and that's the sad story about modern coffee.

As I came of age in the 1970's it wasn't long before my indulgence with coffee matured into what has become a life long obsession. In 1979 I went to work for an Alaskan  outfitter in the Chugach mountains where I was first introduced to real cowboy coffee.

One thing that I learned is that Alaskan's are tough people and if you want to learn how to make the best coffee possible then find people who work for a living in the Great Outdoors. For about two months of the season, we were up at 4:00 a.m. feeding and saddling horses, then up into the high country we'd go. We usually didn't get to bed before midnight so when you work like this, having good coffee isn't an option and Alaskan's do know how to make perfect coffee. Therefore I soon discovered that the best coffee is found not in the office, but 20 miles into the wilderness so I am fortunate for this experience.

The first two pictures to the left is the log cabin that served as our base camp and that is where I lived for about one year combining the 1979-80 season. And yes that is a pot of cowboy coffee on the stove after a long days work.

The picture directly to the left is about 5 more hours on horseback to what we called Glacier Camp and this is the exact spot where I learned about coffee that will make you clear your throat and leave hair growing on your chest, so ladies please beware! I had already learned about making cowboy coffee by the time I first arrived at Glacier Camp but this was a unique experience, to say the least!

At Glacier Camp there was a shortage of fresh water nearby so we had to use the river water coming directly out of the nearby glacier for making our coffee. The problem with that was that this water had a gray color due to all the silt from the glaciers underground erosion machine. We had to use this water or either take a layover day for hauling fresh water from a mile away so the choice was easy for us when time was short... learn to enjoy a cup of coffee with a "crunch". That was the wildest coffee I've ever had but it seemed to make us as tough and wild as the grizzly bears roaming the bush around us.

Imitation cowboy coffee can be made right over the stove at home but that's not the method I'm describing here. Real cowboy coffee is made preferably right over the flames of an open fire but a wood stove works good too. Ideally I like using a one quart spouted pot with/handle but a regular cooking pot with/lid and wire handle will work. Just fill the pot with water up to the desired level and at least a couple inches under the rim. I then pour in my desired "hefty" amount of coffee grounds, then place on the flames of the fire without the lid until it begins to boil. Set the coffee on just enough flame to allow brewing with a very subtle roll for just a few seconds then take it off the direct flame and let it sit for about 5 minutes with the lid on.

Now the fun part: With the lid securely on the pot take the wire handle and sling it around in a circular motion 10 times with a firm grip. This will finalize the brewing but mainly it settles the coffee grounds to the bottom of the pot by centrifugal force. Beware that you should first practice this method of "slinging" coffee first by using cold water because the coffee water is boiling hot and WILL cause serious injury if slung on you or a bystander. Make sure that the area is completely open and clear of other people and obstacles such as trees and bushes. Coffee can then be poured directly into a thermos or a cup but pour gently so that only just a few "complimentary" grounds get into your cup. Now that's real coffee!

Take a look at the video below for a quick example of how to sling your pot. Notice that he is standing far away from other people in an open area and actually slinging the pot over the river bank. Also notice how he uses very good "technique" in gradually stopping the pot and not so quickly that the grounds would mingle back into the brewed coffee. This guy does it exactly like I do it and he even has my 10-swing count down to a "T".

Then came the 1980's when I went to work as a counselor/teacher in a wilderness camp working with at-risk kids, and where I still work today as an educator. Part of our education program includes an adventure aspect where students experience a 2-4 week canoe trip so this is where my cowboy coffee brewing skills were further refined. I estimate that after 30 years I've accumulated about 8,000 paddling miles and more than 2,000 miles on Florida's Suwannee river alone. That's certainly a lot of coffee-making miles where I honed my brewing skills to a fine art. It was a regular competition among counselors to compete for the best cowboy pot so I've sure had my fun.

Coffee is something to look forward to after a long day on the trail and it's a wilderness luxury like none other. For some reason coffee tastes a lot better when out on the trail and for that I can only explain that it must be the chemistry of good company combined with the wilderness and a warm campfire that makes coffee so good while "on the trail". If you haven't had real cowboy coffee then in my opinion you haven't yet lived, so find some friends, grab a canoe, then make a pot and I bet that you will agree.

1 comment:

  1. Army coffee! Very similar to yours...except I'm not sure if the cooks ever swung the pot. they just threw coffee gronds into a large pot of boiling water. It was GREAT! smooth and definately needed for guard duty...