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Behind the Cup |August 19, 2020

A Guide To Amazing Camp Coffee

Camp CoffeeWith all of the uncertainty of traveling this year and many being cooped up for so long, the number of Americans choosing to do some camping this summer is on the rise. While we are willing to give up many things to get back to nature, including the comfort of our beds and the warmth of our showers, the one thing we are not willing to give up is our coffee. Camp coffee is a must.

In fact, I’d venture to say that drinking camp coffee may be one of the unique joys of life. How you choose to drink your coffee will largely be determined by what kind of camper you are. In my life, I have experienced three categories of camping; backpacker, drive-in camper, and glamper.

Backpacking

In my backpacker days (30+ years ago) weight consideration was at the top of the list. Finding the perfect balance between keeping the pack manageable and having the necessary comforts was an art. Instant coffees, pouring hot water through a bandana with coffee grounds, and a variety of low brow extraction methods abounded. We didn’t care about the taste so much as we wanted to drink something hot with caffeine.  Backpacker style camp coffee can sometimes be more about the setting than what’s in the cup.

Drive-In Camping

When my kids were small, we camped a couple of times a year but almost always drive-in camping until they got into Intermediate school. In Hawaii (at least back in the old days) you could roll right up to the beach in some places and throw your tent up next to your car. It allows you to carry a lot more gear, which has its pluses and minuses. We tried to keep things pretty simple. During those days our camp coffee included cowboy coffee, pour overs, French presses, single-serving pour-overs, and percolators.

Glamping

Many years ago, before I was married, one of my friends, Mr. Yoshida, invited me to camp with his family. In my travel-light-back-to-basics way, I showed up at his place with my backpack to see two vehicles packed with beer and food and all sorts of amazing gear. When we got to our campsite, he and his friends (and family) spent close to 4 hours setting up a small village of tables and chairs, beds in tents, BBQs, pizza ovens, and a mini kitchen with a generator and lighting system. I tasted for the first time what is known as glamping. It’s a bit much for me personally. I will say that I was greeted in the morning with an incredible cappuccino made on his camp stove with a Moka Pot and warm, hand frothed in a French press, with milk. That was certainly the most amazing camp coffee I have ever had.

Options

Let’s look at your various coffee options while camping, chat about a few coffee hacks, and finally, I’d like to share with you a possible “coffee experience” for each camping style.

I have eliminated anything requiring glass and am assuming you can make boiled water. (If you can’t I have included a cold brew as well)

Here are your main camp coffee options:

Instant Coffee
Although they claim instant coffees taste better than they used to, I haven’t imbibed any instant coffee for 20+ years. In this regard, I can’t give you an honest assessment. I do know that when I was backpacking the world in my early 20’s, there was a place for it. It’s light, cheap, convenient, and little or no storage issues.

Single Serve
There are a variety of single-serve options out there. They are basically filters preloaded with 2 Tbs of coffee and a cardboard stand that unfolds to sit on top of your cup. You just set it up on your cup, pour in the water and you’re good to go. You can also find the single-serve filters only and add your own coffee. Search for “Single Serve Hanging Ear Disposable Drip Bags.”

Homemade Coffee Bags
This is like making a tea bag for your coffee. If you have some varieties of coffee you’d like to try and don’t mind the prep work to make your coffee bags, it produces a decent cup of camp coffee if you can get your water temperature right. Take a regular coffee filter, load it with 2 Tbs of your favorite coffee, twist it so that you have a ball of coffee, and tie it with cotton string or non-flavored dental floss. Just steep that in your water to the desired strength.

Submersible Filter Cup
Much like the single-serve previously mentioned, this is the eco-friendly way. These baskets sit on the lip of your cup but are submerged in the hot water. Let it sit to your desired strength, pull out basket.

Pour Over
Hard metal or even collapsible silicone pour-over stands are readily available and can give you a regular beautiful cup of coffee anytime, anywhere. Simple, consistent, and easy to pack.

Percolator
For many years, camp coffee equaled percolator coffee. In the old days, people also made their home coffee using these clever devices. Coffee grounds go into a metal filter basket and the water goes in the pot. A long metal tube goes through the center of the filter to the bottom of the pot. As the water heats, it is forced up through the tube pouring down on the coffee. Pouring already brewed coffee through the grounds, again and again, makes a pretty thick cup, but when camping, it has a certain charm.

Moka Pot
These are similar to the percolator except the upper and lower chambers are separated and as the coffee goes up through the tube and filter, it doesn’t fall back into the grounds. It is collected in the upper chamber. Like a cross between an espresso and a drip coffee. Don’t use this over the campfire as the plastic handle will melt.  

Cowboy Coffee
Coffee grounds boiled in a pot on a campfire and then either allowed to settle or filtered. The longer it sits, the stronger the coffee. If you like a hearty cup, try this as it is the ultimate in camp coffee.

Camp Stove Drip Maker
For glampers using a gas stove, they actually make a drip maker that sits on your stove and is used just like your drip maker at home.

Stainless French Press
Again, don’t take breakable glass presses with you. No matter how careful you plan to be, broken glass at the campsite is a major faux pas. Stainless steel French presses are easy to find, a little pricy, but make an exceptional cup of coffee, and many keep the coffee warm all during breakfast. You can also use these to froth milk. Simply heat the milk over the fire, put in the press, and vigorously agitate it until frothed.

Aero Press
The long plastic piston-like cylinder with a round paper filter makes a surprisingly delicious cup of Joe whether camp coffee or homebrew.  It’s kind of a cross between a French press, a pour-over, and espresso maker. Aero Presses are versatile, inexpensive, easy to clean, light, and compact.

When considering these methods also ask yourself:
• How will I boil the water?
• Do I want to bring a hand grinder or grind the coffee before I go?
• Do I want to make a big pot that everyone can access or individual cups one by one, or have the ability to do both?
• Is size, storage, cleaning an issue?
• How will I keep my filters dry should I use them?

A few notes:

• You can buy reusable filter discs if you don’t want to carry paper filters. For backpackers, this opens dozens of creative ways to make coffee without worrying about it getting wet.

• Combination French Press mugs allow for brewing and drinking from the same vessel.

• Coffee grounds are an organic, easily compostable material and can be buried without worry.

• Adding warm cream to your coffee keeps it warmer longer. Adding cream to your coffee changes its viscosity, and causes the rate of evaporation (in this case equaling heat loss) to slow down.

• If you like your coffee black, simply put it in a vessel with a lid to keep it warmer longer.

A Rare Experience

Camping, in its purest form, allows for a lot of leisure time. Sitting, chatting, staring at nature in between the swimming, hiking, eating and bird watching may motivate you to “do” something.
That’s a great time to be able to try something new. If you are a coffee aficionado, there is no better time to play with your camp coffee and create some memorable experiences. Below I have outlined an “experience” for each camping level.

Budget Cold Brew Coffee for Backpackers

I have known and loved many a backpacker in my day and the one thing I always admired about them is their ability to live with a smile and appreciate the little luxuries when they appear, always keeping their minds flexible and creative.

Here is the ultimate, low budget, backpackers camp coffee cold brew.

1) In the evening, while it’s still light, put 4 cups of fresh water and 1 cup of course-ground coffee into a 1-gallon Ziploc bag. (double bag if you can)

2) Seal it, lightly agitate it, and set it out of harm’s way.

3) In the morning, carefully strain this brew through a bandana or towel (or filter disc) into your cups to drink cold.

4) If you have a morning fire, you can strain into a pot and heat the coffee before drinking.

Making coffee in a Ziploc bag is of course not my #1 recommendation but if you are truly back to nature, and need your coffee, it works.

Fire Roasted Cowboy Coffee for Car Campers

If you’d like to drink coffee like they did in the old west, follow this procedure. Remember that when it comes to cowboy coffee, if you can’t paint the side of a building with it, it’s not coffee. (But feel free to adjust to your taste)

You Need:
• Green unroasted coffee
• A way to crush beans (manual grinder, mortar and pestle, rock and bandana)
• Pot of water
• Frying pan / wooden spoon
• Bowl

I used to always bring a cast iron pan with us, I literally used it for everything and it was indestructible. If you have only the aluminum frying pan it will still work, but heat control can be problematic.

1) On the night before, when the campfire is well established, put 1.5 cups of green coffee beans in the frying pan. Rest it on the grill near the edge of the fire. You will need 11-13 minutes of constant motion (shaking the pan and stirring) to achieve your roast. (do this while it is still light out)

2) Remember the handle will get very hot so wrap your hand in a towel to grab the pan’s handle. Shake, stir, shake, stir. It’s hard work, and you want to see all the beans cook evenly.

3) Your goal is not to cook it as fast as you can. You need to control the slow development of the coffee so monitor your time. Lift the pan away from direct heat if you need to slow the cook.

4) Around 10+ minutes, you will begin to hear cracking and popping
(known as the first crack), keep stirring and shaking.

5) We are shooting for a medium-dark roast. Allow the beans to continue to pop for a few more minutes, looking for general uniformity of color. See how it’s done here

6) When you have the desired color, dump coffee into a bowl and stir quickly to cool the coffee. From time to time, blow on it to expel as much of the chaff as possible.

7) Once the beans have cooled place them in a paper bag overnight.

8) In the morning, grind the beans and put in a pot of water on the fire. Using your intended coffee mug, add four mugs worth of water plus one extra to the pot and 12 Tbs of coffee grounds.

9) Heat water to boiling and then remove from direct heat.

10) Adding a splash of cold water helps the grounds settle.

11) At this point, you can gently pour into cups for drinking or through a strainer.

Like or dislike, you are now drinking something similar to what the cowboys of the old west drank.  Find out more here

Glampers

Glampers need to outdo all other glampers in a sort of “whoever has the most toys wins” kind of way. Nothing will raise you above the Joneses like opening the morning with a full-service espresso bar.

You need:
• A Bialetti Mini Express or a Moka pot (Watch Demo here)
• Milk/Cream/Half and Half
• Sugar/Syrup/Sweetener
• Chocolate (syrup or bars)
• Can of Whipped Cream
• Stainless French Press (for frothing) (or, iTeknic Electric Milk Steamer Soft Foam Maker)

Remember these basic ratios:
Cappuccino- 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 foamed milk
Latte – 1/6 espresso, 4/6 steamed milk, 1/6 foamed milk
Mocha – 2/5 espresso, 2/5 chocolate, 1/5 steamed milk

You can further fancy up all of these with whip cream, a splash of spice, etc.
Pre-printing menus, laying out a tray of sumptuous pastries, and mastering camp coffee latte art will truly set you apart as glamper of the year.

Wishing you all an amazing summer. You deserve it, as well as a great cup of coffee.

About the Author
Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farms Tour and Retail Store Operations.

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