Camp cooking: How to make a great cup of coffee

Gary Garth, Special to USA TODAY Published 8:00 a.m. ET May 12, 2018

“Outside of insects and bum sleeping the rock that wrecks most camping trips is cooking.”

— from Camping Out by Ernest Hemingway, Toronto Daily Star, June 26, 1920

Coffee is a camp staple, and judging from Western movie lore, easy to prepare. Just toss a handful of coffee into a blackened pot filled with water from a nearby creek and set it atop a blazing campfire under a blanket of stars.

This is romantic nonsense.

Coffee is a fragile, complex commodity, the flavor of which is directly affected by many variables. It should be crafted carefully.

That doesn’t mean a good cup of coffee can’t be brewed over a campfire, although most campers today brew their coffee (and cook their meals) by way of a propane or liquid fuel stove — tools that are efficient, dependable, clean burning and even heating.

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There are numerous methods for making camp coffee. Here are a few tips for brewing the perfect (or near perfect) cup:

Start with beans. Fresh ground beans provide a fresh release of oils that are the heart of coffee’s exquisite, complex flavor. Beans are available almost everywhere bagged coffee is sold. Roasts vary, but I prefer a darker roast, which results in a darker and richer but not necessarily stronger taste.

Store the beans in an airtight container, but do not keep them in the camp ice chest or cooler. The moisture will have a negative effect.

You’ll need a hand crank coffee grinder. The Javamill ($29.95 from GSI) is a solid, no frills unit. Snow Peak offers a stainless-steel version with its Field Barista, which features a convenient hinged crank handle, but carries a hefty $99.95 price tag. Both feature a ceramic grinding wheel. How finely you should grind the beans is also a personal taste. I prefer a coarse grind, although generally, the finer the grind the more oils are released and the more intense the flavor of the coffee. However, too fine a grind will yield a bitter brew.

(Should you forget your grinder, beans can be crushed by wrapping them in a cloth and pounding them with a rock.)

There are several methods for turning the beans into brew. For one or two cups, I prefer the pour-over method. You’ll need a cone, filter, cup and something in which to boil water. Place the filter in the cone and set the cone on the cup. Add the ground beans (three or four teaspoons per cup) to the filter and slowly add boiling water. Cones are available in ceramic or plastic. I prefer the Melitta 1-cup pour-over cone in red, which makes it easier to find in the camping gear box.

A more traditional camp brewing method is Cowboy Coffee. Fill your pot with about six cups of water and bring it to a scalding boil (this can be done over a campfire). Remove the pot from the heat and add a half cup (about two handfuls) of freshly ground coffee. Stir, cover and steep for three minutes then add a tiny splash of cold water, which settles the grounds.

For another version of Cowboy Coffee, add a half cup of freshly ground coffee and six cups of cold water together and boil gently. When the mixture reaches a soft boil, remove from heat for three to four minutes then add the splash of cold water to settle the grounds. This generally produces a very strong brew, powerful on western romance but often harsh on taste.

A camping percolator also produces an excellent cup of coffee and can afford the romance of preparing your brew over a campfire, although a cookstove provides a more controlled cooking environment. Percolators are available in various sizes at most outdoor retailers and online outlets.

Gary Garth writes a monthly outdoors column for USA TODAY.

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