"There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one's coffee and fill one's pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it." --Knut Hamsun
A Norwegian author who was described as "the soul of Norway" and "the father of modern literature," Knut Hamsun was probably talking of the wild places of his homeland. Yet, his words could have as easily spoken by a cowboy.
Only one image is more vivid than the lone cowboy with his tin cup. That's the image of a group of cowboys around the campfire with a large pot sitting close by, ready to supply refills. The free-range cafe, where stories are swapped, politics argued and weather discussed.
Americans weren't always big coffee drinkers. The colonists were primarily tea drinkers until the Boston Tea Party. Boycotting tea because of unfair taxes and the monopoly of the East India Company, Americans turned to coffee as their preferred drink.
Not that there hadn't been coffeehouses before that. The intelligentsia of Boston, New York and Philadelphia had been hanging out drinking coffee since 1668. Just like their European and British counterparts, these coffeehouses were hubs where stories are swapped, politics argued, weather discussed and business transacted.*
Until 1773, coffee was considered too expensive to be consumed in most households. After the Boston Tea Party, coffee became the patriotic beverage of choice. It also helped that Central and South American growers were producing enough coffee to bring the price of beans down.
Coffee represented independence, democracy and free thinking. It's no wonder it traveled well with the western expansion. That is, the tradition of coffee traveled well. The beans were another story.
"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee." --Abraham Lincoln
Until 1865, when Arbuckles introduced their ground coffee in one pound paper bags, consumers bought green coffee beans in cloth sacks. The beans picked up odors in transit and were often stale by the time they were used. Cook, wife, or lone cowboy would then have to roast the beans in a pan, being careful not to burn them. Then the beans had to be ground before you could start to boil the coffee.
Even with Arbuckles', brewing a good cup of coffee was iffy. (How to make Cowboy Coffee - Canadian style.) At it's best it was never "Good to the last drop" because the last drops contained a sludge of coffee grounds.
Of course, a dark, bitter-sweet brew with a smooth finish wasn't in the cowboy phrase book. When you had to wake up before dawn, or stay awake long after dusk, all you needed was something hot, strong and caffeinated. However, if the coffee was weak, instead of swapping stories, arguing politics and discussing weather, the cowboys might be looking for a new camp cook.
International Coffee Organization
Arbuckles Coffee History
* Coffee trivia: Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse in London in 1688. It was frequented by shipping merchants and became known as a place for obtaining marine insurance. The business became Lloyd's of London.
Alison Bruce is the author of Under A Texas Star (western romance) and Deadly Legacy (mystery). Find her at: