Cowboys Drank Better Coffee Than Most Hipsters Do Now

by Bernard Brandt

cowboy chuck wagon

Yeah. And I can prove it, too.

Ever since my favorite nephew gifted me with a copy of Modernist Cuisine, I’ve been making considerable use of it. This book, in case I haven’t told you, and I believe I actually have, is a graduate level course in food science, and discusses deeply, intelligently, and luminously, the physics, chemistry, and biology of food. While it gets a just a bit deeper in what some have called ‘molecular gastronomy’, and what I call ‘inorganic gastronomy’, than I at present particularly like, I don’t plan on kicking it out of my library any time soon. In fact, I can not recall when I ever in my life received a better gift. Thank you, John.

But I digress somewhat. Included in Volume 4 of its five volumes is a chapter devoted to the subject of coffee. The author’s opinion is that most restaurants and coffee shops have little idea as how to prepare coffee correctly, which is a pity, because the science is simple, and the steps necessary are few, in order to make really good coffee.

The first step is roasting. This is the process by which the green coffee loses a lot of the nasty and unpleasant tasting substances still in the green coffee, and where the carbohydrates in the green beans are caramelized, while the proteins, amino acids, alkaloids, and oils in the beans experience the Maillard reaction which makes meat so tasty when cooked, and coffee so delicious after it is roasted.

For best results, green coffee should be roasted, then allowed to cool, out-gas some remaining CO2 for four or so hours, then stored chilled for four hours or more, and then used up to a week after they have been roasted. Personally, I find that freshly ground coffee peaks in flavor about two days after storage, and then starts to degrade after seven days after.

Unfortunately, those wonderful volatile oils and other substances degrade rapidly after roasting, even when stored in vacuum or nitrogen. This means that all of those bulk roasted coffees that you see at Whole Paycheck, Smart & Final Solution, and other gourmet vendors, have lost most of whatever it is that make them great coffee. Well, at least they’ve not also been ground as well.

So the way to start having really good coffee is to roast it freshly before you use it. Just like the cowboys did.

Which leads us to the next step to really good coffee: don’t grind it until it’s time to brew it. The grinding creates a lot more surface area for the hot water to interact with the grounds to get all that good stuff into the solution. It also creates more surface area for the volatile oils and amino acids and stuff to evaporate.

There’s another thing to consider: the type of grinder.  If you use a standard propeller blade grinder, you’re not going to get a consistent grind in terms of the coffee granules. Some will be coarse, while others will be powder. The best way to get a consistent grind is with a burr grinder, either the new-fangled sort with the electric motor and the powered fans to keep the grounds cool, or the old fashioned sort which looks like a wooden box with the grinding knob on top. You know, the kind that the cowboys used.

Then finally, there’s the process of brewing. Some methods are just no damn good at all. Like the percolating system found in most 1950s households or churches. I know of no better or worse way of turning fine coffee into sludge. I suppose the paper cone method is good, if you like the taste of paper, or the newest trendoid system of brewing little packets of pre-ground coffee. If you like the taste of stale grounds, or heated plastic, that is.

The best two methods that I know of are the French Press method, and the Espresso method. In the first, the coffee is poured into a chamber, then water just off the boil is poured in. The coffee solution is then stirred, covered with a plunger, and left to set for four or five minutes, after which the plunger is pressed down, and the coffee is then served.

The second method involves a brass machine and temperatures, pressures, and steams better suited to an alchemist’s or a sorcerer’s atelier than to a breakfast kitchen.  Sorry, guyz, but the dinky little plastic and metal tube contraption just does not cut it.

Now, which of the two methods would YOU prefer to use when you’ve just woken up and are groggily attempting to make coffee? Especially when the first method makes nearly as good coffee as the second.

But the cowboy method of brewing coffee is just to pour the grounds into a pot of water just off the boil, to cover the pot, to let the grounds brew in the hot water for four or five minutes, and then to pour the contents through a sieve and serve. Simple, no? And, it appears, it is just like the French Press method.

And here’s the point: for all of the steps that are necessary for really good coffee, the cowboy chuck wagon took more of them than yer average hipster coffee bar. Freshly hand-roasted coffee? Check. Freshly ground coffee, using a burr grinder? Check. Good clean water? Check. Water at 198° F. combined with the fresh coffee grounds for four to five minutes? Check.

Damn fine coffee? Double check.

And finally, here is a point worth considering. For far less money than one currently pays for gourmet roasted beans, one can buy green beans that, in less than 20 minutes, using a cast iron frying pan, a metal spoon, and the top of a standard gas range, one can freshly roast one’s self, and get a far better product. And if one is willing to spend a few more dollars for an old fashioned coffee grinder, and take a bit of care, one can have far better coffee than one can find at StarSchmucks.