Author Topic: Camp Coffee  (Read 102 times)

Offline Delmonico

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Camp Coffee
« on: September 26, 2019, 09:28:17 pm »
When we think of the Old West one item that comes to mind among many is coffee, the coffee pot hanging on the iron over the campfire, the coffee pit on the stove in Marshal Dillion's office or Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee in the paper bag and the stick of candy in each back as well as the coupons to clip and save to sent in for merchandise.   

There have been reams written on how coffee was discovered and developed in the Middle East and slowly spread to Europe and from there to America.  We have all heard the story about how England put a high tax on tea and the Colonists in Boston dumped the tea into the harbor and then went out and had a cup of coffee to celebrate, after that we became a coffee drinking nation.

The problem the boycott on tea was that coffee was many times more expensive than tea till the plantations of the West Indies, Central and South America got large enough to drive the price of coffee down.  This would not happen till into the 1820?s, the US Army did not make the coffee ration a standard till 1832, dropping the rum ration and replacing it with coffee.  The Civil War (and to a lesser extent the Mexican War) gave soldiers a taste for coffee and increased the civilian demands when the soldiers returned

Another problem, unlike tea which is used in the same form it is bought, in coffee has to be roasted before it is ground and used.  This was left up to the consumer till after the Civil War and sometimes beyond, it would not be till after the Civil War that coffee truly took over as the hot beverage and stimulant of choice.

One large advance in coffee came in the late 1860's when John Arbuckle of Pittsburg invented and patented a method of sealing the roasted coffee beans by coating them with a mixture of egg white and sugar to seal the flavor into the bean.   This was packaged in paper sacks holding one pound of coffee, one hundred pounds to a wooden case.  Each bag had a peppermint stick in each bag as well as coupons on the sack that could be redeemed for merchandise. 

For many years Arbuckle's was the most popular coffee in the west and is often given the title of The Coffee That Won the West.  Arbuckle had several blends before they faded away and were sold to CW Post early in the 20th Century, their Christmas blend known as YUBAN for Yuletide Blend (although it is not now a seasonal blend) still survives, and their original ARIOSA is now being made again in the original coated beans with the peppermint stick in each bag, but the coupons for merchandise has not been revived.  The term for their coffee ARIOSA has been wondered and pondered by historians, but the most likely is that it stands for Rio South America that area being the largest coffee producer of the time period.

Arbuckle's was not the only option in the period, just like today there were a lot of local businesses that roasted coffee for the local market, an improved coffee roaster was patented by Jabez Burns in 1864, this improvement made it easier for grocery stores to provide fresh roasted coffee.  Other companies started providing pre-roasted coffee and shortly after the of the century pre-ground coffee, vacuum packed in cans started to take over the market.  In the late 20th Century better quality fresh roasted whole beans started taking a larger and larger percent of the market; this makes it much easier for those of us who like really good coffee to make it in camp, more on this later.

If one really wants to experience camp life in the days before Arbuckle's Coffee, most areas of the country have local coffee roasters who will sell you un-roasted green coffee beans.   The rest is simple, just put the beans in a skillet, heat it up and keep stirring the beans till they obtain the desired roast you want.  With skill and practice you can get a fairly even roast.  This is the way the US Army issued coffee to soldiers till late in the 19th Century.   I myself prefer to take the route of ?I bought my beans from a local roaster,? and go with good quality fresh beans.

Before we get into one of the several possible ways to brew coffee in camp I want to touch some more on the coffee beans themselves.  To brew truly good coffee you must have good coffee beans or at least good fresh ground coffee.  We are living in a time where for most people in the United States it is not hard to obtain good coffee.  Beside many of us being located near a local coffee house that roasts beans in house, most any larger grocery store will have at least a small selection of decent quality coffee for sale. 

It has not always been this way, a lot of swill called coffee was brewed in the time, often caused by poor home roasting, poor quality coffee and improper brewing.  There were those who spent the money for good coffee and time to properly roast it and brew it, but they were in a minority.  The pre-packaged, pre-roasted name brand coffees really didn?t do a whole lot to improve this, as costs were cut through the years, by the end of the 19th Century and through at least the first three quarters of the 20th, the United States enter what could be considered a dark age for coffee.   Slowly starting in the 1970?s and 1980?s, a lot of Americans discovered good coffee again.

In defense of all the bad coffee that was served in those times, coffee was not always looked as a refreshing beverage that gave you a nice ?pick me up.?  It was often brewed in a hurry with poor quality coffee, water and brewing equipment as a drug pure and simple.  The soldier resting for a short time around a quick built fire after a long march in the rain, the cowboy who has been up for 36 hours trying to sort a mess out after lightning stampeded the herd, or one of many other reasons you need a stimulant.  For these people and many even today coffee is a drug, pure and simple, they wanted it strong and hot, period.  I?m sure anyone reading this that drinks coffee has used in more than once as a drug rather than just an enjoyable beverage, as I write this I?m doing both. 

The selection of the beans is up to you, many do not realize how the different degrees of roasting and the different strains of coffee raised in places with different climate and soil will have a wide variety of tastes.  Sometimes the beans are sold as blends where a taster directs the type and amount of beans used to make a blend that is consistent in taste, sometimes the beans are sold unblended and are sold as to the country they are from or in some cases the estate or plantation where they are grown.  These can vary year to year, these are what I generally buy, I like to think of these in the same terms many think of single barrel whiskeys.  What one has to do is sample different types of coffee and decide what you like, if you brew any good grounds up into decent coffee you will not get many complaints around the camp fire. 

Some of the regions we can get coffee from today were not heavy producing regions in the 19th Century and may have export little or no coffee to the United States in the time, I don?t consider this a serious problem, I doubt if you brew up decent coffee anyone will question you that much or more likely few will have the knowledge to say you brew is not period correct if you tell them the origins of the coffee. 

Coffee brewing

When it comes to combining the water and the ground coffee is where things can really make it or break it as far as having a nice tasting product when done, provided we have good coffee and good water to work with.  Most of the coffee made in this time was done with some simple form of what we call a boiler, the peculator had been invented in a couple of forms, but the up-flow type that most of us think of when we think of perked coffee, was not patented till August 16 1889 and was invented by Hanson Goodrich and is #408707. This is the start of the percolator as we know it, so we can see it was a fairly late comer in the 19th Century, of course the electric one was invented not long after, this era being the one when electricity was getting very popular for lighting and powering devices in the towns.

The percolator by the early 20th Century took over as the dominate method of making coffee in the United States.  It was handy; it was fairly quick and made a brew that was fairly free from grounds with out any extra effort.  This disadvantage is the water has to boil to make the system work and the water and coffee are continually ran back over the grounds.  The boiling water removes more of the bitter tannic acid found in the coffee bean and the running it over and over the grounds only enhances the effect.  With that, there are folks who prefer the bitterer brew made with a percolator.  If one prefers, there are plenty of period type percolators out there on the market if one wants one, many folks who grew up on percolated coffee prefer it. 

The majority of coffee was made in what is called a boiler, this can range from a metal coffee cup, a kettle, the coffee pot type, or if a lot of coffee is needed a wash boiler will work also.  The term coffee boiler can be misleading, coffee does not need to be boiled in one to make coffee and not using boiling water to extract the coffee will help prevent bitter coffee.  The chemistry of this is a bit complicated, but if the water is in the 195-205F range a lot less of the bitter compounds will end up in the coffee.  What this means to us is if we can control the heat, the water and the grounds some pretty good coffee can be brewed in one.

Most of us who cook in historical situations will have one or more of the coffee pot boilers, either made out of tin plate or more likely and enamelware type.   These can range in size from 3-4 cups to a couple of gallons in size.  For our purposes we?ll assume that we have either a source of decent water on-site or we bring decent potable water in from a distant source.  We also need some decent coffee to use to make it, the beans themselves have been discussed earlier, what we need to work on here is how to grind them.
The coffee you buy today pre-ground and packaged is almost always too fine for our coffee boilers, this means we have to grind it or have it ground to the proper size.  At first for a lot of us, this sounds easy because we have a coffee grinder sitting on the counter at home.  The problem here is most of us own one of the blade type grinders, these grind it too find also, since they are intended for the drip type machines, even stopping before all the coffee is ground fine leaves a lot of very fine coffee in the mix. 

The simplest is to have the store grind it or use the provided grinder and grind all of it before you leave the store, just do the coarsest setting the grinder will do.  If using one of the grinders provided in the store be sure to check it first to make sure someone didn?t leave some coffee in the grinder to leave weird flavors in your good coffee.   A lot of the general stores in the 19th Century had large hand cranked burr grinders to grind coffee purchases for the customers, not every household ground their own.

If one wants to grind coffee in camp there are plenty of original and reproduction coffee grinders that will work fine, the most familiar type has an iron grinding top that sets on a wooden box, the beans are put in the grinder and the crank is turned, the box has a drawer that catches the ground coffee and is taken out to remove the coffee.   The other type looks similar to a hand cranked meat grinder and either clamps to a table or shelf or can be bolted or wood screwed to the side of a cupboard or chuck wagon.  This is the type I have; I found it very cheap at a Goodwill store, a lucky find. 

Another method often used in the past is to put the coffee is something and to crush it with a hammer, the back of an axe or the butt of a gun, a small piece of canvas works very nice for this, of course one could get one of the Civil War Sharps carbines that had the coffee grinder in the stock. 

With our coffee ground we now can brew our coffee; I would guess the majority are going to use one of the coffee pot type boilers, although it was common for soldiers and others to brew up  a cup of coffee right in a tin plate or enamelware cup or even an empty tin can that had held some sort of canned food.  Camp kettles or even for large crowds at some place like a camp meeting, sometimes a wash boiler would be used. 

No matter what we use to boil our water in, the principal is the same, put the desired amount of water in the container, set it on or near enough to fire to bring the water to a boil.  When the water is boiling, remove the pot from the heat and let it cool down about 3 minutes to below the boiling point, then add the coffee.  Let this steep about five minutes and tap the side of the pot to settle the grounds and pour; you may still have few if any grounds in the coffee, but they should be just a few. 

Old cookbooks will give many methods of settling the grounds, common ones include a raw egg, egg shells or even a fish skin, I?ve found these methods are not needed if a grind about the size of coarse sand is used and the coffee is not boiled but instead it is brewed is water near the boiling point.  I myself would rather have a few grounds in my coffee than have the taste of any of these items in my coffee. 

There are other methods of keeping the grounds out of the coffee you serve, a simple on is to have two pots and when the first one has the coffee in it done, pour it into the empty pot using a fine mesh strainer such as a teas strainer.  Another method that will show up in old cookbooks is to use a coffee sock; this of course has lead to all kinds of jokes about brewing coffee with an old sock in the pot.  Today they sell what is called a coffee sock but are just a reusable filter for drip brewing.  The old type coffee sock was made out of cotton and was simply a bag made out of cotton to hold the ground coffee.  It just has to be large enough for the coffee to expand in and it is simply tied on the end and tossed in the hot or boiling water to brew the coffee, it is removed when the coffee is done, it of course is similar to a tea bag. 

A simple way to do this is to get some inexpensive 100% cotton muslin from the store, wash it to remove the sizing and cut it into square.  Just put the coffee in them, then tie the ends and drop it into the pot.  These are cheap and simple enough they can just be thrown away rather than having to wash them. 

The other big question on brewing coffee is ?how much ground coffee do I use??   The standard recommendation in the United States is 2 level teaspoons per every 6 ounces of water.  This is a good place to start and adjust the ratio from there depending on taste and the type of coffee used.   A good rule of thumb for most people is to stay on the lighter side with lighter roasted coffees and use more the darker the roast, but this is up to the individual as to how they like their coffee.   Recipes from 19thCentury cookbooks will often use much higher ratios of coffee than what is recommended today, but one has to remember as I covered earlier, coffee was often considered a drug more than it is today. 

Just like today a lot of people use sugar, milk/cream or both in their coffee, people in the time also did.  (With some of the brew I?ve seen instructions for, who could blame them.)  I myself drink my coffee black, but I always have sugar in the grub box, most of the time it?s only brown sugar, but that is what most common folks would have used in their coffee, more affluent ones would have used white sugar in their coffee, as covered in the section on sweeteners, brown sugar being much cheaper in the time period than white refined sugar, the opposite is true today.  Also it would have been common for poorer folks to use the even cheaper molasses or sorghum syrup in their coffee for sweetener.  Also for many of these folks, they may have had white refined sugar on hand but would have saved that for company. 

The dairy product was easy and cheap for many, often even people in towns kept a milk cow so as long as one had a fresh cow it was cheap if labor intensive.  One alternative available then as well as now was canned milk which may be the simplest in camp unless you have fresh milk or cream hidden away in a cooler somewhere.  The first successful canned milk was developed in the 1850?s by Gail Borden and was a popular item sold to Union soldiers by the sutlers during the Civil War, sugar and coffee was part of the ration, but if they wanted milk in it they had to provide their own. 

With canned milk you will see two terms, evaporated milk and condensed milk/ sweetened condensed milk.  Evaporated milk is milk that has had about 60% of the water removed before canning.  Condensed milk with or with out the word sweetened on the label is milk with the water reduced by the same 60% and sugar added

The product Mr. Borden came out with in the 1850's was the sweetened condensed milk; the evaporated milk with out the sugar did not come along till the middle 1880's.  The reason for the sugar was the large amount inhibited bacteria growth.  Sweetened condensed milk has a slight caramel taste to it because of the heating of the sugar.  Both products are available in grocery stores today. 

Another historically correct way to make coffee is commonly called Turkish Coffee although it is popular all through the Middle East and southern Europe.  In fact this is one of the oldest ways to serve coffee and most likely dates to the 15th Century.  I have never seen any references to it in the Old West, but I?'l put it as a could have been? it would surprise me if it could be proven that there was never this type of coffee made.

To make this, one needs an ibrik (Known by other names in languages other than Turkish) a teaspoon and demitasse cups.  Also one will need coffee ground as fine as flour, I prefer a real dark roast, but any roast is fine, also some sugar, I prefer brown sugar and if desired cardamom or other spice such as nutmeg, mace or cinnamon.

The ibrik is a copper pot that is tin lined and is roughly hourglass shaped with the open top being smaller than the bottom.  The one I have is a 12 oz, this is important to know, because it needs filled to the neck, so mine will make 3-4 cups.

Add one to two heaping teaspoons of sugar for each 3-4 ozs,  fill just to the neck with clean cold water, add  1-2 heaping teaspoons of the powdered coffee for each cup and a pinch or two of  ground cardamom  if desired., do not stir

Put the ibrik on a heat source and slowly bring it up to a boil, it will foam as it boils.  Remove from heat for a couple minutes, bring to a foamy boil again, remove from heat and do the same a third time.  During the brewing, never stir it.

Pour with foam into demitasse cups and serve.  One does not want to stir the cup, what you do is just drink down to the sludge. 

« Last Edit: September 26, 2019, 09:59:22 pm by Delmonico »
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Always get the water for the coffee upstream from the herd.

Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala

The time has passed so quick, the years all run together now.

Offline Professor Marvel

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Re: Camp Coffee
« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2019, 04:15:45 am »
First time I ever posted this...

THANKS FOR THE COFFEE!

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Offline Mogorilla

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Re: Camp Coffee
« Reply #2 on: September 27, 2019, 12:21:24 pm »
I am such a coffee addict!    So, my theory on Turkish Coffee is it was probably brewed in the west in 1860.   In 1860, Sir Richard Francis Burton, traveled across the United States, spending time in Salt Lake City and on to California.   I am not sure where he entered the US, but there was not a train going all the way at that point, so he traveled by horse/wagon at some point and that means time sleeping rough.  By this point, Burton had already explored Arabia and Africa, and coffee is mentioned several times in his writings of those places as he was blending with the culture.  As a fan of good Turkish coffee, I cannot imagine anyone trying it not instantly falling in love with it and therefore I feel he brought it with him as he traveled. 

Excellent write up.    I lean to the coffee sock in my preparation as that is how mom made it when we camped. 
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Offline Delmonico

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Re: Camp Coffee
« Reply #3 on: September 27, 2019, 10:13:16 pm »
I obtained my ibrik from a retired British army officer who hired me to cook on his hunt in the colonies.  He had served in the Middle East where he acquired the taste.  The ibrik was a parting gift.

That's my story and I'm sticking too it. ;D

Dry Dock and Gripmaker are happy to partake if I have it along.

Mongrel Historian


Always get the water for the coffee upstream from the herd.

Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala

The time has passed so quick, the years all run together now.