The Ch’i of Coffee
Coffee. For some of us, breakfast’s not worth the bother without it, and a campfire without a coffeepot on the boil is incomplete. But while we’ll all agree on coffee’s allure, we can still fall out over the best way to brew it.
by Tamia Nelson | July 19, 2005
What’s the most evocative aroma? The pungent perfume given off by the forest floor after a gentle rain? The spicy mist that swirls around a falls on sultry summer evenings? The sharp tang of a salt flat at low tide? The electric rasp of ozone hanging in the air after a lightning strike? Or is it the fragrance of fresh-brewed coffee, rising from a fireside pot as tendrils of fog drift across the cool waters of a mountain lake at daybreak?
I know which one gets my vote. Of course, many paddlers begin their day with a hot cup of tea. Others favor orange or grapefruit juice — or at least a reasonable facsimile. And a dissipated minority crave something cold and cloying and carbonated. No matter. Each to his own, I say. But I remain adamant. Until I have a mug of coffee in my hand, the dawn world looks bleak and gray and cheerless. Once the first cup works its magic, though, every prospect pleases, even if a hard rain continues to drum on the tarp and the mosquitoes are out for my blood. Such is the power of coffee.
Maybe you feel the same way. Still, we probably wouldn’t agree just how to make that first cup of the day. Or what to put in it, come to that. Coffee lovers are fiercely partisan, and wonderfully loyal. We’re deaf to the entreaties of anyone who advocates an unfamiliar method, brand, or roast. And though the electric drip pot is now well established in most home kitchens, some foodies swear by a French coffee press, while a few members of an embattled old guard brew coffee in heirloom percolators. Further off the beaten track, small bands of enthusiasts rally around exotics like espresso and Turkish coffee. We can’t even agree on the preparation of the bean for brewing. Gourmets prefer to grind their own. The rest of us are content to purchase our beans ready-ground. And what of the provenance of the bean itself? Columbian or Kenyan? Organic? Shade-grown? French roast or mild? The litany of choices — esthetic, economic, and even environmental — seems endless, and that doesn’t count the elaborate confections available at latter-day coffee-houses like Starbucks.
Once you’re in the backcountry, though, things are different. There’s no Starbucks around the corner and no current bush to power your electric pot. Paddlers who happen to be coffee drinkers have to circumvent these limitations — or do without. Yet even here, agreement is hard to come by. Not long ago I asked a small group of canoeists about their favorite way to make coffee in camp. I should have known better. Within ten minutes tempers were on the boil. There were a couple of points on which everyone agreed, however. The importance of beginning with cold, clean water was one. Call this the Cold Principle. And the second? The Hot Principle, of course: we all deplored the tepid, cheerless cup. Morning coffee simple must be hot to be good, we decided, even in tropical climates. But that was the extent of our consensus.
Why does coffee engender such strong emotions? Perhaps because coffee drinking is an important social ritual. Coffee brewing, therefore, is as much a ritual prologue as a mealtime chore, a secular counterpart to the blessing of the sacraments that precedes communion in many Christian churches. Such rituals can bring even total strangers together, but they can also divide neighbors into warring tribes. Discord and schism follow. History, sadly, provides many painful examples.
These are dark waters, however, and it’s quite possible that I’m reading far too much into the casual give and take of fireside banter. In any case, my own love of coffee goes back to early childhood. It began, oddly enough, with my first taste of coffee ice cream. The intriguing melding of sweet and bitter flavors proved impossible to resist. But ice cream was a rare treat, and soon I was sipping surreptitiously from my parents’ coffee cups. Then, on my tenth birthday, I was allowed a cup of breakfast coffee all my own, and my days as a closet coffee drinker were over. My initiation into the rituals of camp coffee came some years later. Grandad, who’d perfected his campfire skills while guiding “sports” from the city to hidden trout pools in the Adirondack Mountains, filled an enormous blue-enameled percolator with spring water, brought the icy water to a rolling boil, and then casually tossed in a handful of ground coffee. (He’d discarded the percolator’s basket long ago.) This turbid slurry foamed and seethed on the fire until it erupted from the spout like a geyser, at which point Grandad removed the pot from the flames and let it sit for a few minutes to allow the grounds to settle. The resulting brew was thick, strong, and bitter, needing heaping teaspoons of sugar and healthy dollops of condensed milk to gentle it into drinkability. Grandad would hand me a mug, then join me on the riverbank, where we’d listen in silence to the birds’ dawn chorus and watch the steam from our coffee lose itself in the mist rising from the water.
My mother, who also liked her coffee sweet and milky, adapted Grandad’s camp recipe to suit herself, fussing endlessly over the fire to keep a percolator perking. When I began making solo treks into the mountains, however, I left the percolator behind, reverting to the simplicity of boiled coffee. Then I discovered coffee bags, and I was hooked. True, the resulting coffee was as weak as it was pricy, but I could make it one cup at a time and I could leave my big pot at home. I decided the trade-off was worth it. Not long afterward, I tried freeze-dried coffee, hoping to simplify camp life still more. The combination of high price and insipid flavor didn’t encourage further experimentation, though. It was a brew too far. In the end, I went back to my roots, “bilin’ the pot” just like Grandad had done. I’d come full circle. And I was happy.
It didn’t last. The human animal is never content for very long. As I took more interest in what I ate and drank, I filled my home freezer with costly retort packs of pedigree beans, and I purchased a coffee-mill. Sugar was out, as was condensed milk. Its place was taken by real cream. I even got a French press. The downside? Grandad’s camp coffee no longer satisfied. So I turned to tea on the trail. This was a mistake. I like tea. A lot. I drink several cups a day. But not for breakfast. No pot of tea — not even a robust, whole-leaf Assam — can dispel the gray fog of dawn like a cup of coffee. Still, tea earns points for convenience in the backcountry, and for a while I left my habit of coffee drinking behind at each put-in. Then a friend gave me a filter spoon, a sort of do-it-yourself coffee-bag that brewed as you stirred. To be honest, it didn’t make the best cup of coffee, but I didn’t much care. The coffee was better than instant. That was all that mattered. And change was in the air. Lightweight vacuum bottles with drip filters appeared on outfitters’ shelves. Tiny espresso makers showed up in the catalogs, too, right next to small French presses with unbreakable polycarbonate walls. Before long, it was easy to make camp coffee that was every bit as good as you made at home, if not a little bit better. It was morning in the backcountry at last.
Now it’s confession time. I’ve yet to fork over any cash to buy a coffee maker just for camp. While I’m fussy about what I drink at home, I’ve reverted to my roots again. The retort packs of beans with complicated pedigrees are long gone from my freezer. I get by with a Columbian roast from the supermarket. I don’t even own an electric drip pot, and in camp I’ll happily drink instant if it’s all that’s going. Still, I have moments of weakness, moments when the lure of gracious living on the trail threatens my carefully nurtured North Country hardihood. Truth to tell, I’ve got my eye on a stainless-steel coffee press. Sooner or later I suppose I’ll yield to temptation. After that, breakfast at the water’s edge will never be the same. And that’s no jive.