Three ways to make coffee without the grid

If you don’t have the power or equipment needed to make coffee the typical way, you can still get your fix using more primitive methods. Coffee may be superfluous, but some of the techniques and gear used are relevant for other forms of survival cooking, too.

Summary:

  • Although there are lots of fancy methods, the core principle is always the same: mix coffee beans with water so that the water absorbs some of the coffee bean goodness (similar to tea).
  • Cold brewing is simply mixing coarse-ground coffee beans in cold/mild water and letting it sit for 12+ hours, then optionally straining out the coffee particulates.
  • Cowboy coffee uses boiling water instead, which makes the process of infusing the water with coffee goodness go faster.
  • French presses can be a simple and resilient way to produce a smooth cup.
  • If you like to grind your beans, think about how you can power your grinder at home during a power outage. A semi-portable solar panel and battery station would do the trick.
  • Instant coffee packets are a common item in people’s home supplies (great for the FIFO method), car kits, and go-bags, that way they can always get a fix (or barter it!)
  • Avoid coffee-making gear made of glass or other fragile materials.

Beans don’t have to be roasted or ground

Coffee beans in their natural state are greener and harder than the beans you typically see in the store. Most beans are roasted before you buy them, which enhances the flavor and makes the beans easier to grind.

If you happen upon ‘green’ coffee beans, know that you can use them for cold or cowboy brewing, but it will take longer than normal since the bean is harder, and you won’t get the same rich flavor you get from roasted beans.

Green and roasted coffee beans.
Green and roasted coffee beans.

Although it’s preferable to grind coffee beans, which increases the surface area in contact with the water and thus makes steeping work better, you can use whole beans in a worst-case scenario. Or even crush the beans with something like the flat part of your field knife.

If you typically grind your own beans, you may want to consider ways to power your grinder during short power outages, like a battery bank. However, during longer outages (such as winter storms), that may prove to be a poor use of limited power.

Coffee grinder hooked up to a Jackery
Using a Jackery battery bank to power my grinder.

My philosophy with tools is to have a manual equivalent for whatever power tool you have. So it’s a good idea to have a manual coffee grinder as well. I’ve heard good things about the Timemore Chestnut C2 and it’s small enough that you can tuck it away when you don’t need it.

Failing that, it’s good to have some coffee that doesn’t need special tools. You might consider keeping a canister of ground coffee just in case, but what I like to do is keep around some packets of instant coffee, which are easy to prepare. Most instant coffee is terrible, and the really good ones are expensive (and still not as good as fresh ground coffee). I’ve settled on Mount Hagen organic instant coffee, which is perfectly drinkable and not overly expensive.

While coffee is a luxury item in a go-bag, I like to keep a few packs in my cook kit. They add almost no weight and they double as padding to fill up empty space. With my pocket stove and a packet of instant coffee, I can have coffee anywhere in short order.

Cold brew

If you don’t have a heat source, you can still make coffee:

  1. Grind beans into a coarse mix, or you can also use whole beans instead.
  2. A good rule of thumb is one part coffee bean/ground for two parts water (eg. 1.5 cups of grounds with 3 cups of water).
  3. Mix the coffee beans/grounds with water. Use filtered water if you can.
  4. Let it steep for at least 12 hours for grinds, 24 hours for whole beans.
  5. You can then drink as is, but ideally you block or strain out the coffee particulates instead of drinking them.

Some people like cold brewing because the process leaves behind some of the bitter and sour compounds in the bean, making the infused water smoother and sweeter than a typical coffee.

Cowboy coffee

Boiled or “cowboy” coffee has you steep grounds directly in boiling water without any filtration.

Coffee boiler over a fire pit

  1. A finer grind is preferred because, if done right, you won’t have any particulates left behind to strain out and the flavor is smoother. So grind up the beans ahead of time.
  2. Get a fire going and place a pot of (ideally filtered) water over top. A coffee boiler with a spout is ideal, but you can use anything.
  3. Coffee:water ratio is roughly 1:16, such as ¼ cup coffee grounds per 1 quart water.
  4. Once the water is warm, add coffee to the pot.
  5. Let it get to a roiling boil and keep it there for 2-4 minutes. Longer boil = stronger brew. You can reduce the heat if needed to keep it from boiling over.
  6. Take off heat, let it sit for 1-2 minutes.
  7. Pour a small amount (maybe 1 cup) of cool/mild water down the pour spout (if there is one), or around the top of a standard pot. This cool water helps any leftover particulates settle to the bottom and washes away any grounds that might have gotten stuck up near the spout/top.
  8. Drink. If done right, there’s nothing to strain.

Here’s Cowboy Kent showing his style:

Some people like cowboy coffee because the process naturally ends up with less acid in the mix compared to typical methods, which means less indigestion.

French press

Making French press coffee is similar to cowboy coffee, except the boiling water goes into the French press container so you can benefit from the mesh filter.

Most French presses are made of glass, which is a terrible idea. The last time I used a glass French press it shattered in a million pieces spilling hot water everywhere, and that’s definitely not a problem you want to have before you’ve had your morning coffee.

I replaced that glass French press with a Frieling double-walled stainless steel model. It wasn’t cheap, but it will last practically forever. The double-walled construction keeps your coffee hot for a long time. As a plus, it’s so heavy that you could use it for self-defense.

  1. Medium or coarse grind is best.
  2. Coffee:water ratio is roughly 1:8, eg. two tablespoons per cup.
  3. Put coffee grinds in the bottom of the French press container.
  4. Bring water to a roiling boil.
  5. Pour boiling water into the French press. You can gently stir to un-clump the grounds.
  6. Put the lid on. Wait 4 minutes, or adjust based on your preference.
  7. Some people use a spoon to scoop out the clumpy grinds floating at the top.
  8. Slowly press the plunger downward, forcing the mesh screen (and the grinds it catches) down to the bottom.
  9. Pour and drink.
  10. Remember that the hot water is still steeping in the French press, so if you have any leftover drinkable liquid, pour it out into another container to stop the cooking process.

Some people dislike French press coffee because it results in more acidity and bitterness.

Pour-overs and other gadgets

You could use a Melitta single-cup pour-over brewer or an Aeropress. However, both of those methods require disposable filters. You could theoretically make a DIY field filter using mesh cloth, a bandana, etc., but that’s not a method I’ve tried yet. You can buy permanent reusable filters, but I’ve had poor results from them.

Pourover coffee
You can make coffee with a simple pour-over gadget, but they work best with disposable filters.

Also, I found that after a few years of use, the sides of the AeroPress had started to melt, which made me concerned about plastic contamination.

Brewing coffee in an AeroPress
The AeroPress makes great coffee, but requires disposable filters and may cause plastic contamination.

  • 21 Comments

    • Colorado Jones

      Good overview of the various techniques, Josh!  My preferred method for backpacking (or bugouts) is two packets of Starbucks Via mixed with 12 oz of boiling water.  For car camping (or power outages at home), my preference is Dominican-style coffee, using the the US$10 coffee maker we picked up on our last trip to the D.R.  http://allwhowander.weebly.com/mi-vida/la-greca-dominican-coffee-and-morning-mochas  Similar coffee makers can be bought in the U.S.–albeit at a much higher price.  Based on your article, I’ll probably experiment with and add cowboy coffee to my repertoire.

      4 |
    • brownfox-ff

      Good overview.

      Deep down, I know the _real_ best solution is: don’t have a dependence on coffee (or other substances).
      But speaking honestly – having a metal French Press and a propane bbq might be my most realistic preps.

      5 |
      • I try not to be overly dependent on anything, even prescription medication if possible because I know that one day I might have to live without it during a disaster or emergency. 

        It is nice though to have a small supply of some of our favorite goodies though to give a sense of normalcy.

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    • Clark Thompson

      Simple non electric method for grinding beans is to put them between two cast iron skillets of appropriate sizes then press and spin the top one until your desired grind is reached. No need for an expensive hand grinder. 

      4 |
      • Carlotta SusannaStaff Clark Thompson

        Great tip! How long does it usually take you to grind enough beans for a cup?

        2 |
      • Depends on the weight of the upper skillet and how coarse or fine a grind you want… but not a long time. Maybe five minutes for a French press, ten for espresso. At the outside. For a single cup, five minutes tops. 

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    • Dogpatch

      Thank you for another great article Josh.  I wondered if you have ever heard of adding eggshells to the grounds.  I’ve never tried it but have heard that it “settles the grounds”.  I took the liberty of finding an article that explains how it works, hope that’s okay.  Might be a great idea in the case of making cowboy coffee.  https://coffeedorks.com/eggshells-in-coffee/

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      • Josh CentersContributor Dogpatch

        Yes, I’ve done it and it works well. Some people add an entire egg to their coffee, but that’s not my thing.

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      • Carlotta SusannaStaff Dogpatch

        The cowboy method seems really similar to Turkish coffee – had that many times and it’s one of my favorite methods in general. I heard about adding just a splash of cold water, to make the coffee settle, but I seldom had ever any issue with that so I don’t do anything to make the coffee settle.

        In Czechia, we actually use a simplified version (colloquially called Turkish coffee – but obviously not the original), which is just adding the coffee grounds to your cup, pouring boiling water on top of it, stirring, and letting it set. Tips: Use finely ground coffee (as you would with the Cowboy style), and once is settled, don’t stir it anymore so if you want creamer and sugar, you’d add them at the beginning. The coffee has usually a stronger flavor, similar to Turkish (also depending on how much coffee your use). Also yummy.

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    • Scout

      After a week without power due to a derecho, I bought a hand grinder, and it works works great. No need for electricity. 

      4 |
    • Bill Masen

      Coffee, COFFEE,  never mind coffee its TEA that matters the most 🙂  Darned colonials 🙂

      4 |
      • Gideon ParkerStaff Bill Masen

        What’s your go to tea flavors Bill? My wife likes herbal peppermint, Egyptian licorice, and lemon ginger.

        1 |
      • Straight forward Englished blended tea Sir, made piping hot with milk and sugar served in bone China ( or an enamelled military tin mug ) 🙂 

        We have assorted other teas but they are used for medicinal purposes.

        2 |
      • Gideon ParkerStaff Bill Masen

        You know, a discussion on medicinal teas would be an excellent idea on the forum! 

        I’ve always wondered about what tea should I use for a sore throat, nausea, stress, and other things like that. And how does that therapy compare to over the counter medicine like Tylenol or cough syrup. 

        One day our medicine may run out and being able to grow or gather your own herbs and turn it into a tea could be the only way to solve some of our ailments. 

        1 |
      • Chamomile or Lemon with honey for sore throat

        Peppermint for Nausea

        https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/tea-for-anxiety   this lot 🙂

        Honey and lemon for sore throats.

        Many Brits grow herbs in containers on windowsills, or just outside the back door for medicinal or cooking use.

        One item normally found going with teas is honey as its so versatile.

        4 |
      • A word of warning: chamomile allergy, though rare, can cause anaphylaxis. 

        Lemon balm, in the mint family, makes a tea that is a strong sedative as well as having anti-anxiety and anti-viral qualities. From personal experience, it can be soporific.

        A medically reviewed guide to some of the common medicinal herbs can be found here:

        https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1169

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      • Gideon ParkerStaff Clark Thompson

        Clark, thanks for your input. I shared this with my wife who sometimes has trouble sleeping and calming down before bed.

        Bill, my wife actually is feeling pretty nauseous and sick today so I went and made her some peppermint tea. We will see if it helps! 🙂

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    • jim

      Good points and ideas there.but I noticed that you kept mentioning electric item’s that’s great.but yet. I’ve been through enough power outages to know that it helps to keep nonelectric item’s on hand as well. I’ve recently bought a hand cranked coffee bean grinder for that very reason.

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      • MainPugh jim

        Agreed! But to be fair he mentions at the very beginning that it’s a good idea to have a manual coffee grinder as well (and he even gives a suggestion for a manual grinder). Plus, you’d ideally already have a power bank and a solar panel to help with outages anyway.

        My philosophy is the same – when possible always have a non-electric alternative!

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      • Carlotta SusannaStaff MainPugh

        This thread is reminding me that I finally need to get that manual coffee grinder. Coffee is one of my few guilty pleasures (I’d rather give up sugar than coffee) and I’m not planning to give it up anytime soon 😬

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      • jim Carlotta Susanna

        I stopped using sugar in my coffee years ago.and my taste buds say no to all creamers.

        Edit.i must of missed the part about the manual grinder,or don’t recall it.

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