Today we take coffee for granted and make it without giving it too much thought. We measure out some pre-ground coffee grains and throw it in the coffee maker, push a button and then walk away. The Mountaineers did not have this kind of luxury, so how did they do it?
There are many references to coffee in the journals of the period. It was a staple of their diet as Alfred Jacob Miller noted.
Dwarf trees, bearing excellent plums, were to be found occaisonally, not to be despised by men, whose only change of diet was coffee and meat at breakfast; —meat and coffee at noon;—and "da copo" at night. 1
While their supply of coffee lasted, it was treasured. The quote below shows just how far one would go to get a cup of coffee. Larpentuer was a clerk, so his circumanstance is a little different than a camp keep out on the trail.
It was only by seeking for coffee in the warehouse, picking it up grain by grain out of the dirt, that I now and then got a cup of coffee, without sugar; but it was a great treat notwithstanding. 2
While most of these references are not strictly from mountaineers, they are from roughly the same time period and from people that were out west. It is very probable that the circumstances were the same. Below is the most complete and descriptive reference that I have found regarding the process of making coffee. It will serve as the basis of this article. Everyone has their own preference to how they make coffee, and as we go along I will discuss some different techniques that can be used. There is plenty of room for experimentation and change in the process. As long as you end up with a warm cup of drinkable liquid, I think you will have succeeded.
Indeed our coffee, which, as long as it held out, had been served up with every meal, according to the custom of the West, was by no means a beverage to boast of. It was roasted in a frying-pan, without much care, pounded in a leathern bag, with a round stone, and boiled in our prime and almost only kitchen utensil, the camp-kettle, in "branch" or brook water; which, on the prairies, is deeply colored by the soil, of which it always holds abundant particles in a state of solution and suspension. In fact, in the course of our tour, we had tasted the quality of every variety of soil, and the draughts of water we had taken might vie in diversity of color, if not of flavor, with the tinctures of an apothecary's shop. Pure, limpid water is a rare luxury on the prairies, at least at this season of the year. 3
Now let us walk through the individual steps needed to make a good pot of coffee while on the trail.
The coffee sent was would've been transported as green coffee beans. Roasted coffee beans start to loose their freshness after a few days, and ground coffee goes stale even faster. At least one inventory list that I checked specifically mentioned green coffee (Invoice of merchandise shipped on board S.B. Diana, 1835 to Fort Union.) It could've been purchased at rendezvous or at the various forts.
Today green coffee beans can be procured at your local coffee house. They are easily carried with you on the trail in a cloth or leather bag and they don't take up too much room. I like to also store another smaller bag inside of my coffee bag. We'll discuss the reason why a little later.
The other supplies that you will need in order to make coffee are a kettle, a frying pan to roast the beans, water, cloth or leather bag, and a hatchet, stick or rock.
The first step to making your coffee is to put a pot of water on the fire to start boiling. If you are using water that may be unsafe, make sure to bring it to a rolling boil before making coffee.
In order to bring out the flavor of the coffee, the green beans must be roasted. Since roasted coffee beans don't start to loose their freshness for a few days, you can roast them ahead of time. If you're on a couple day camp you can roast enough the first day for the whole trip. I usually just roast the beans that I will use while I wait for my water to boil. If you roast too much you can always put them away for the next day.
Irving describes roasting the coffee beans in a frying pan. If you do not have a frying pan with you, you could always use the lid to your kettle. In a pinch you could even try using hot rocks to roast the beans.
That night parched coffee gave out. We had nothing in which to burn more; but, as necessity is, ever, the mother of invention, we selected two flat stones from the channel at hand, twenty-five to thirty inches in diameter, which we placed on the fire till heated; then one was taken off, the coffee poured on, and stirred with a stick. The stones served alternately as they became cool. When the coffee was sufficiently burned, a piece of skin was laid on the ground, ands a clean stone, a foot in diameter, rested on the knees of the grinder, with one edge on the skin. A small stone, held in the hand, reduced the grains between it and the larger one to a powder by a rotary action. 4
While the beans are roasting, stir them frequently with a stick or spoon so that they roast evenly. While roasting the beans will gradually change color. Once they get to a nice brown color you will notice them starting to pop. If you keep cooking them they will gradually turn darker and start to take on an oily appearance and pop one more time. It is personal preference for how long you roast them. Or as Irving describes, you can roast them without much care. As the beans pop some of the outer layer of the bean will come off. This is known as the chaff. Once the beans are done roasting you can blow into the pan to remove the chaff.
In order to brew the coffee the roasted beans will need to be ground. It does not take too much effort to crush the beans once they have been roasted. You are just trying to get them as fine as you can. They can be placed into a leather or cloth bag and pounded with a smooth stone, the back of your camp axe, or even a round log. A round piece of wood can even be used like a rolling pin. A cloth bag has the advantage that you can throw it in the pot when you're out of beans and get another cup of coffee. As long as you are careful in your pounding, a cloth bag should hold up just fine.
I have also seen people crush their beans in just a square piece of cloth. The beans are placed into the center, the cloth gathered up, and then it is used just like a bag.
Garrard described another method using two stones, in a similar fashion as one might use a mano and metate and grinding the beans in a circular fashion and letting the grounds fall onto a piece of skin. Personally, it seems like it would be easier to just crush the beans inside of the skin in the first place.
Once you have finished grinding your beans, take a moment to inhale the aroma. There's nothing quite like the smell of freshly ground coffee while on the trail.
We lived the whole way on buffaloes' flesh and venison — we had no bread; but laid in a good stock of coffee and sugar. These, however, from an unforeseen accident availed us but little; as on the second or third day of our voyage, after we had taken our coffee on the shore, and Ba'tiste and Bogard had gone in pursuit of a herd of buffaloes, I took it in my head to have an extra very fine dish of coffee to myself, as the fire was fine. For this purpose, I added more coffee-grounds to the pot, and placed it on the fire, which I sat watching, when I saw a fine buffalo cow wending her way leisurely over the hills, but a little distance from me, for whom I started at once, with my ride trailed in my hand; and after creeping, and running, and heading, and all that, for half an hour, without getting a shot at her; I came back to the encampment, where I found my two men with meat enough, but in the most uncontrollable rage, for my coffee had all boiled out, and the coffee-pot was melted to Pieces! 5
Once you have crushed your beans and your pot of water is boiling, take the pot off of the fire. You do not actually need to boil the coffee. The ideal temperature for extracting the flavor out of coffee is between 197 and 205 degrees fahrenheit. Supposedly boiling the cofee can cause it to come out with a more bitter flavor, although I am not sure I can notice much of a difference.
Place the grounds into the kettle and stir. Let it steep for about four or five minutes. If you make too much, you can always reheat the coffee when you want some again.
Whenever coffee was mentioned in the journals, usually it was accompanied with a mention of sugar. Drinking the coffee black, or sweetened with sugar is entirely personal preference. I sometimes will throw in some mexican chocolate to sweeten my coffee. If you were so lucky as to have milk available you could use that for quite a treat. Garrard describes finding seven cows with calves while attending to some cattle, which they promptly milked and all pans, kettles, and tin cups were put into service.
How we feasted! A pot of rich milk was put on the fire, and when it boiled, the ground coffee was poured in, staying for a moment on top, to contrast the more strongly with the foamy fluid, until it sank; while we stood around, watching with eager eyes the grains as they were thrown to the surface by the ebullition. It was splendid! 4
Unless you strained the cofee when pouring it into your cup you will likely have some grounds in it. There may also be some chaff or uncrushed beans floating at the top. This is especially true for the first cup from the pot. You can just skim them off or spit them out as you drink. You can settle the grounds by pouring in a splash of cold water.
Drink slowly between tight lips and you shouldn't get too much grounds or beans in your mouth. And if you do, just spit them out. I usually throw the last bit into the fire as it is mostly grounds.
Now that you know how to make coffee the old way I will share with you the easy method. Have someone else do it. Sleep in until someone else has already got the coffee on the fire, or wander around camp with your empty cup. It won't take too long before it is full.
That's it for the process of making coffee. It is pretty simple and it adds to the experience around the campfire. It will also give you an appreciation for what goes into the cup of coffee you drink.