Cowboy Coffee

I’m a coffee drinker, as were many of the folks who settled the west. Pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, farmers, miners and townsfolk all loved coffee, but the process of making it wasn’t as simple as it is today. Green beans were roasted in a skillet over a fire, then put into a cloth bag and crushed with a heavy object. The grounds were dropped into a pot of water and boiled. The roasting beans had to be tended to carefully, because if one bean burnt, the flavor of it ruined the entire batch. Home roasted coffee could be quite foul if the roasting process went amiss.

Before the Civil War, real coffee was expensive, so many people drank mock coffee made of rye, okra seeds, parched corn or bran. (Parched corn is dried corn roasted over a fire.) In the mid-1860s, Jabez Burns developed a commercial coffee roaster about the same time that affordable paper bags became available. A man named John Arbuckle developed a special glazing process using egg and sugar to preserve the flavor of the beans, and then bought the rights to a patented packaging system and began selling roasted coffee beans in one-pound paper bags. By 1881, his company was operating 85 coffee roasters. His coffee was billed as the “coffee that won the west”.

Now back to cowboy coffee. While on the trail, cowboys had to stay alert during bad weather and hard times and coffee helped them do that. It also kept their insides warm and helped wash down meals. A camp cook usually kept several pots of coffee going at once, and it wasn’t uncommon to leave the old grounds in the pot and simply add new. One camp cook wrote that he used about 175 pounds of beans a month.

There are several ways to make cowboy coffee, but they all involve putting the grounds directly into the water.  Some people advocate bringing the water to a boil, then throwing the grounds in (a 1 to 8 ratio — 1/8 cup coffee per cup of water). Others (including me) put the grounds in the water and bring the coffee to a full boil. Regardless of when you add the coffee, the next step in to settle the grounds. To do that, you either pour cold water through the spout, or add crushed eggshells. (I’m a water gal.) If this is done correctly, there should be very few grounds in your cup when you finish drinking.

And then there’s always this recipe from Western Words: A Dictionary of Range, Cow Camp and Trail that you might consider trying:  “Take two pounds of Arbuckle’s coffee, put in enough water to wet it down, boil it for two hours, then throw in a hoss shoe. If the hoss shoe sinks, she ain’t ready.”

Have a great Wednesday!


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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

18 thoughts on “Cowboy Coffee”

  1. I loved your blog on Cowboy coffee. I so glad we don’t have to make it with the grounds in the bottom any longer. We’ve come a long way in this department.

  2. Coffee always makes me curious.
    I see the saddle bags a cowboy carried, and a bedroll and wonder that he took the space for coffee when he carried so little.
    And the space for a coffee pot. Can you really imagine it? It wasn’t in the saddle bags and you don’t see it hanging from the saddle. But they sure seemed to always have coffee and lament if they did not.
    Anyway I think we don’t really have a good vision of coffee as cowboys drink it.

  3. I didn’t realize they still sold Arbuckle’s coffee until we found some when we were traveling out West a couple of years ago. I have never fixed coffee by boiling the beans.We originally used a percolator and now use a drip coffee maker. I have a French press, but haven’t used it yet. Thank you for the interesting post. I hadn’t realized the beans were purchased green and people needed to roast their own. I knew they had to grind the beans and have one of the coffee grinders. I am trying to figure out how cold water or egg shells would keep the grounds down. I love the picture with all the dutch ovens and cast iron pots. We love cooking over the fire and these seem to make everything taste better.

    • Dutch oven cooking is quite an art. I love using cast iron, but I never do it outside. I had no idea Arbuckles Coffee still exists. Thanks for the heads up, Patricia!

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