October 1, 2009 in Outdoors

Instant brew ruins perks of good tales

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Tuesday might steep in infamy as the day the tradition of camp coffee died.

Starbucks, after nearly 20 years of research, has debuted a decent-tasting instant cuppa joe.

Once I controlled my gag reflex and tried a cup – this is not your mother’s Sanka – I felt liberated, fulfilled – and sad.

The news comes as I’m packing a shoe box of coffee-making supplies for elk camp and just after I suffered through a two-day, go-fast, go-light bushwhack backpacking trip that precluded ANY weighty luxuries such as hot drinks.

I was exploring backcountry with Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness chairman Phil Hough, who recently completed an 800-mile leg of the Continental Divide Trail. Phil was going ultra-light on his trail-seasoned legs, so it behooved me to go ultra-lighter just to keep up.

But instead of simply exploring new ground, I could have been savoring Starbucks’ new micro-grounds. Each skinny packet for making an 8-ounce brew weighs just two-tenths of an ounce.

The seeds and pine needles in my socks weighed more than that.

Starbucks has made it possible for go-light hikers to enjoy a morning jump-start, although it may curb the market for companies selling French presses, first-aid kits and other gizmos associated with making camp coffee.

The biggest loser could be the morning ritual itself.

Cowboy coffee has endured the transition from horses to pickup trucks, and it steams me to imagine little foil packets replacing the coffee pot on the camp wood stove or fire.

I shared a fishing camp in the Great Bear Wilderness this summer with old-timers who had a time-tested recipe:

Before going to bed, heat a big pot of water, add a couple of heaping handfuls of grounds (no percolator), bring to a rolling boil for however long it takes to tell a whopper story, then let it set until morning, when the pot will be heated carefully to avoid riling up the grounds.

This was perfect coffee – the taste of which changed each day depending on who’d dumped in the handfuls of coffee, how big his hands are and how many trout, firewood logs and wading socks he had handled that day.

Foil packets will never match a charred enameled one-gallon pot for building legendary camp coffee techniques. The Windmill, for example, is a method nearly perfected by a ranch-hand regular at the pack-in elk camp I shared with several families as a teenager.

The Windmill is a cowboy athletic event requiring a leather glove and a pot with a metal bail that’s usually hot enough to brand the horses by the time the coffee is brewed.

Ron would lift the pot off the fire grate by the bail and swing it as though he were a softball fast-pitcher. The trick – after four or five full circles to centrifuge the grounds to the bottom of the pot – was to stop the swing gently, like a carnival hammer ride settling to a stop.

The legend was born when the metal bail failed in full swing one morning and the pot rocketed precisely through the opening in the big wall tent, past the sizzling bacon on the wood stove, missing the hanging Coleman lantern by inches, steaming past the brow of Jim as he crawled out of his sleeping bag before splattering against the back wall of the tent.

“Coffee is served!” Ron yelled as we admired the new wall decoration, which resembled a ripe and runny cow pie.

There’s nothing like a caffeine frenzy to bring out a camper’s desperate creativity.

My wife, Meredith, and I once got out of the tent early during a car-camping trip near Priest Lake to enjoy the peace before the kids woke and savor brewed fresh-ground coffee on the lakeshore.

That’s when I discovered I’d forgotten the coffee filters.

It would have been easier to break the news that we’d been sentenced to life imprisonment, hard labor and rations limited to bread and water.

“We’ll filter with your bandanna,” Meredith said with a wide-eyed look of urgency.

“But I used it all day yesterday,” I said.

“No problem.”

“I mean, I’ve blown my nose into it.”

“Just be sure the water is boiling.”

The result was a finely balanced blend from both nostrils with soft flavor notes of fish slime, the earthy hint of sweat and the silky-smooth mouth-feel of sunscreen.

You’ll never boil up a brew that memorable from a foil packet.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail richl@spokesman.com.

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