Coffee History: Coffee in the Wild Wild West
American cowboys were on to something when they favored coffee over tea, but what exactly makes coffee, cowboy coffee?
To understand why American cowboys loved coffee so much, we first must have a short coffee history lesson. Tea was a symbol of British oppression to American colonists because of King George’s high tax on it (1760s). To summarize — Britain was deep in debt, so it imposed bunch of taxes on American colonists to help pay those debts (Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, Tea Act). To protest, eventually Colonists went on board British ships and destroyed cargoes full of tea. They threw them into the ocean as an act of resilience to the taxation tyranny, events otherwise known as the Boston Tea Party.
Americans then started choosing coffee over tea and the result was astounding. Because of the taxation on tea, many coffee houses became the place to host heated political discussions and gatherings. The beverage also had a magnetic pull for pro-revolution Americans.
John Adams, one of Founding Fathers and the second President of the United States, wrote this to his wife, Abigail on July 6th 1774:
"I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. 'Madam' said I to Mrs. Huston, 'is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?'
'No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but I’le make you Coffee.' Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better."
After the Revolutionary War (late 18th century), Americans avoided tea even more and became avid coffee drinkers. Serving tea wasn't common and treated as a gentle drink for ladies. In addition, Americans saw tea as unpatriotic and avoided drinking it.
In the early 19th century, settlers began further exploring the American frontier and headed West in hopes of purchasing land or finding gold. Many of those settlers were what we call now, cowboys. And yes, they drank coffee on their way to California.
The Cowboy Coffee Tradition
To understand the cowboy coffee tradition, let's first recap to what we mean by a cowboy. Cowboys are animal herders who used to tend cattle on ranches in North America of the 19th century, doing so traditionally on a horseback.
Coffee was served as water with every single meal for American cowboys. There would always be a pot boiling on the fire, because that how they liked their coffee served — piping hot. Every supply of coffee was treated as bars of gold and it was cherished and praised by them.
Their love for coffee transcended into a wide range of knowledge in different roasts as they could tell their weak and strong coffee apart. For reference, according to True West Magazine, they called their weak coffee as “dehorned belly wash or brown gargle.”
Cowboys drank coffee on a regular basis and pretty much lived on coffee. They worked late at night, switching between shifts, and needed the jolt of energy that coffee provided. Trail boss George Duffield wrote that during one storm, his men were in the saddle for 60 hours straight, but “hasty rations” of bread and coffee is what helped and kept them going on the road.
Coffee was the time for cowboys to sit around the fire and share ideas or stories (perhaps mixed with some alcohol as well). This created relationships and bonds amongst fellow cowboys and strengthened the community while on the road or facing danger.
Make Coffee Like a Cowboy
Cowboys made their coffee in a pot over open fire or on a bed of hot coals. They usually made it in large pots (3-5 gallons) of tinned iron that was blackened by smoke. This size pot was the standard for a working group of ten to twelve men. They poured ground roasted coffee beans in the pot, mixed with water, and waited until the liquid started overflowing outside the pot. Once it was piping hot, coffee was distributed among the fellows.
Brew your own old-school style cowboy coffee:
What you’ll need:
- Large pot
- Coffee grounds
First, you can disregard the coffee to water ratio as the cowboys didn’t have measuring tools back then. Just add the coffee grounds to the pot and fill it with water, exactly how cowboys did it. Bring the pot to a rolling boil and serve. You’ve just made cowboy coffee.
If you want a cowboy coffee, but with less sediments in your cup and more flavor, make it with quality instant coffee.
What you’ll need:
- Large pot
- 8 ounces of water (for every 2 tsp of coffee)
- Instant coffee granules
First, bring the water to a boil and once you see a rolling boil, turn off the fire. Add your preferred amount of instant coffee and the correct amount of water that correlates with the tsp of coffee. Mix it up really good and let it boil again for about 2 minutes. Now, you’re ready to serve!