What Is Cowboy Coffee And How Do I Make It? 

From espressos to iced coffee, café au lait, macchiatos, and cappuccinos, you’ve brewed them all. You’re looking to expand your coffee horizons when a buddy mentions cowboy coffee. Now here’s a type of coffee you haven’t heard about. What is cowboy coffee and how is it made?

Cowboy coffee invokes the resources available on the trail. The beverage was consumed by cowboys, hence the name. To make cowboy coffee, you need to warm up coarse coffee grounds using water and then drink it after the beverage brews. 

If you want to learn more about cowboy coffee, this article will tell you everything you need to know. We’ll discuss the history of the beverage, how it rose to prominence, and how you can make it today. Keep reading, as you won’t want to miss it!

The History of Cowboy Coffee

As we touched on in the intro, cowboy coffee earns that name due to its preference among real cowboys. 

Unlike in John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies, the life of a real cowboy was not so glamorous. Cowboys took the job to make money, as working as a cowboy allowed young men to rake in between $25 and $40 a month. 

That might not be much money now, but back in the 1860s to the 1890s when cowboys roamed (this was the time of the Wild West, after all), it was plenty of cash. 

Cowboys would build frontier towns, work cattle drives, fix buildings and fences, and take care of livestock, especially horses. These were rigorous jobs that cowboys committed to, and the hours were anything but traditional. 

To keep up their energy, they drank plenty of coffee. It wasn’t like they could use a coffee machine to brew their coffee.

For one, that wouldn’t have been available due to the nature of their job. Also, coffee machines didn’t exist until 1908 when Melitta Bentz made the first drip coffeemaker. 

Thus, cowboys had to brew coffee using the means available to them in the outdoors, and those means usually weren’t much. That’s why the cowboy coffee recipe is so rudimentary, requiring only coffee grounds, fire, salt, and water. 

Considering how technologically advanced the 21st century is, why is cowboy coffee still something people talk about and drink today?

Well, because there are all sorts of situations when making cowboy coffee is still a viable option. If you’re at a campsite and don’t have access to electricity, then knowing how to brew cowboy coffee is handy.  

It’s also interesting to try, especially if you’re someone who’s sipped nearly every type of coffee under the sun! 

Cowboy Coffee Brewing Methods – Step by Step

You have to try cowboy coffee, as you’re very curious now. To make cowboy coffee, you need a stovetop or a fire, a mug or cup, and a coffee pot or kettle.

Here are the recipe quantities:

  • Salt (a pinch)
  • Coarse ground coffee (1/2 cup)
  • Water (4 cups + ¼ cup)

Do you have everything you need? Great! Now it’s time to start brewing. 

Table showing step by step how to make cowboy coffee. 
step 1: In a clean coffee pot, pour in 4 cups of water. Sprinkle just a little salt into the water. 
step 2: Turn on your stovetop, or–for a more authentic cowboy coffee recipe–light a fire. Hold the coffee pot over the flame. You’re not trying to burn the coffee pot, just warm it up, so don’t hold it too close to the fire.
step 3: Allow several minutes to pass. The water will begin warming up, but it shouldn’t come to a boil yet. 
step 4: When the water is hot enough, add the coffee grounds all at once. Begin stirring the grounds. 
step 5: Continue holding the pot over the flames. By this point, the water should begin boiling. Now all you have to do is keep the coffee pot where it is. The water should boil for at least two minutes, but feel free to add an extra minute if you’d like.
step 6: After the two or three minutes have elapsed, remove the coffee pot from the open flame. Place the pot somewhere cool and allow it at least a minute to reduce its temperature. During this time, the coffee grounds in the pot will also begin to settle.
Step 7: You can drink your cowboy coffee from here if you want, but we recommend an additional step. Add ¼ cup (or slightly under) of cold water, especially if the coffee grounds have floated to the surface of your brew.
step 8: Pour the cowboy coffee into a mug and enjoy! 
Steps to Make Cowboy Coffee

Does Cowboy Coffee Taste Good?

We know what you’re going to say. From the description alone, cowboy coffee seems like it tastes gritty, murky, and sort of flavorless with so much water. 

Sure, maybe it was good enough for the cowboys of the Wild West days, and perhaps campers today can drink it, but you’re not so sure you can.

Cowboy coffee is anything but bad-tasting. It has a smokey flavor thanks to the inclusion of the campfire, and some enthusiasts have even said that cowboy coffee has a gourmet flavor.

That said, if you’re expecting sharp coffee, then cowboy coffee might not be for you. Since you’re boiling the coffee, the acidity lessens. That doesn’t detract from the other flavors though. 

Tips for Brewing Excellent Cowboy Coffee

Perhaps you tried making cowboy coffee once or twice, but you weren’t thrilled with the quality or flavor. The following tips will ensure you have delicious-tasting cowboy coffee every time, so giddy up!

Use a Strainer to Prevent Chunks of Coffee Grounds in Your Mug

If your brewed cowboy coffee has come out too gritty in the past, it’s probably because you’re not straining the coffee before you serve it. You can use a sieve or whatever household strainer you regularly use for parsing fine grinds.

Some people don’t mind the presence of the coffee grounds but know that the gritty grounds are completely optional to drink. 

Don’t Use Fine Coffee Grounds

Although you can make cowboy coffee a few different ways, all the recipes call for coarsely ground coffee, or they should, anyway. 

There’s a reason for that. When you choose fine coffee grounds, problems arise. You won’t be able to filter out the coffee grounds, so the beverage will be very gritty and chunky. 

On top of that, the coffee will taste bitter. Why is that? 

You’ve extracted the fine coffee grounds too far, so their depth of flavor has spoiled. You’ll want to dump your mug of cowboy coffee in the grass rather than take one more sip. 

Use Fresh Beans

We would recommend this for making any kind of coffee, and it applies to cowboy coffee as well. Fresh coffee beans will naturally taste better than beans that have been sitting around in your pantry for weeks or months. 

If you are buying whole bean coffee, don’t forget your coffee grinder.

Adjust the Strength of the Coffee

Some people think you can’t change the strength of cowboy coffee, but that’s not true. 

At its most basic, to make cowboy coffee, you need coarsely ground coffee beans and water that comes to a boil. You can tinker with the amount of water you add as well as the type of coffee beans such as dark roast or light roast. Try out some different configurations to see how you like it!

Don’t Forget the Salt

Cowboy coffee recipes only call for a pinch of salt, but its inclusion is still important. 

The salt was originally added to cowboy coffee to replace the electrolytes that cowboys would lose when working and sweating. Campers and other athletic types who drink cowboy coffee and explore today’s great wilderness will experience the same benefits.

Even if you’re just camping out in your own backyard with a cup of cowboy coffee, we’d still recommend using salt. It can control the bitterness of your coffee so it tastes more pleasant. 

Related Reading: Why do people put salt in their coffee?

Of course, salt can’t correct mistakes such as boiling very fine coffee grounds, so keep that in mind!  

Measure Your Coffee-to-Water Ratio

Here’s a great solution for watered-down and bland cowboy coffee: take more precise measurements.

When you add eight ounces of water, you need only two tablespoons of coffee. Feel free to bring measuring spoons and cups to get the measurements right, but you’ll probably have to leave your coffee scale at home. 

Pour Coffee Slowly 

You’ve taken the time to brew great cowboy coffee, so don’t rush it now. Once the coffee is ready, you want to pour it into your favorite travel mug gradually. 

No, you’re not trying to make the process dramatic. Rather, a slow pour keeps the coffee grounds contained to the bottom of the pot. 

Serve It Hot

Cowboy coffee is meant to be enjoyed as soon as it’s done brewing. The longer the coffee remains in the pot, the bitterer it can become, as the extraction process continues even when the coffee is off the heat.

Are you the type of person who always drinks more than one cup of coffee? In that case, then it doesn’t hurt to use a thermos when brewing cowboy coffee. The carafe will retain heat better and delay over-extraction. 

Experience the True Cowboy Way of Brewing Coffee

If you want to get the full experience of what it was like as a cowboy making your morning cup of coffee, try starting your own fire and heat the water over the open flames.

If you can’t necessarily start a fire in your own backyard, try using the grill and heat the water over the hot coal.

If all else fails, there’s no shame in using the good ole’ stove.

Final Thoughts 

Cowboy coffee is an antique, authentic recipe from the days of the Wild West. The recipe requires coarsely ground coffee beans, water, fire, and a dash of salt. 

If you feel like you’ve drunk every type of coffee out there, then you should try making cowboy coffee. It’s unique, tastes great, and comes in handy in a pinch if you’re out camping but can’t plug in a coffeemaker!


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