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How To > Food > Brewing Coffee on an Open Fire

How to Brew Coffee in the Field

By Vincent A. Petty

Note: this article, written by Vince Petty for the 16th Virginia website, is also useful advice from a civilian standpoint.

Even before the Civil War, coffee was a mainstay in the diets of Americans both north and south. For the Union soldier he was blessed with an abundance of issued coffee, in the form of green beans, roasted beans and ground coffee. The government even went so far as to issue some forms of instant coffee. For the southern soldier there were long periods of time without an issue of real coffee or it was dropped as an issued item all together. However, there were times that soldiers through some means were able to get their hands on coffee, either through trade with the enemy or the very occasional issue. In November 1864, Daniel Gilley of Company F, 16th Virginia wrote to his family, "I started a bag of coffee, a spoon and a cake of soap to you all. Soap is for Father, the coffee is for you all, the spoon you must take care of it." Without actual coffee southerners were quick to develop many substitutes. The brewing of parched or burned peanuts; chicory, toasted corn meal, and sweet potatoes as well as many other possibilities were tried with varying degrees of success or failure.

Brewing Coffee

Brewing a cup of coffee in the field is simple and easy, though it will take a little time and practice to get the hang of it. With this article we will learn how to brew a cup of coffee and to use several substitutes used in the south during the war.

When preparing coffee you will find that there are easily two methods to use to boil coffee, each work well and have their advocates. When in camp and you are not pressed for time I find the best method to boil coffee is to place your coffee boiler right by the fire and rake coals out of the fire up around the cup. Do not place the cup directly on the fire because it will be difficult to balance and may be prone to tipping over. Placing coals around the cup will provide an even heat to boil coffee, rather than directly over the fire (especially a large campfire) which is often uneven and hard to control. You will find that you are also competing with several other individuals for a precious spot on the fire. With such fires the best fuel is hardwood since it usually makes good hot coals that provide good cooking heat. However, when you are on the march and you desire a cup of coffee, you will need a small hot fire fast and the previous rules do not necessarily apply in this situation – your goal is to boil your coffee before orders to march. In this case the fire is usually rather small and you are using the flame to heat the coffee rather than coals. For this fire, small sticks especially of pine or cedar work very well and will give a good hot flame quickly.

The strength or weakness of your coffee is up to you and will be determined by the amount of coffee added to the water; as the war progressed soldier’s coffee tended to get stronger. In the field it is not possible to precisely measure the amount of coffee to be added to the water, however, in general figure one tablespoon of coffee for 6 ounces of water – most army cups are about 24 or more ounces. Another method to measure the amount of coffee to use is to simply fill the bottom of your boiler with about a ¼ inch of coffee. The point at which you add your coffee is also up to you – there are those that like to put water and coffee together then boil and there are those that prefer to boil their water then add the coffee. Either method is perfectly correct. If your preference it to boil then add coffee; bring the water to a boil and then add in your coffee allowing it to continue to boil for about two or three minutes, then remove from the coals and allow to steep. When you have removed the boiler from the heat add some cool water, which will force the grounds to settle to the bottom of the boiler. If you wish you can pour the brewed coffee into a camp cup and strain out the grounds. If you do not want grounds in your coffee, you can simply tie up the coffee in a piece of cotton cloth before adding to your water. Once the coffee is brewed you can add your sweetener (raw sugar, molasses, or honey, etc.). Because milk itself would have been rare in the field or extremely difficult to get a hold of or the Confederate soldier would have had to trade with the Federals for tinned milk it is a good idea to skip the milk all together.

Preparing Your Coffee for Brewing

One very common form for a soldier to receive his coffee issue was as green beans, therefore requiring the beans to be roasted prior to use. Roasting green beans in the field creates a great vignette for living histories, interpretive programs, or just gaining better insight into the lives of soldiers during the war. To roast, place beans in a clean dry skillet or canteen half over a good hot bed of coals, not over direct flame. While the skillet is over the coals continually stir the beans so that they evenly brown throughout. Failing to continually stir beans while roasting will cause them to burn or scorch unevenly. It will not take long to roast beans and should be roasted to an even chocolate brown color. Once roasted allow the beans to cool before use.

Once you have roasted your green beans or if you are already using roasted beans, the beans must then be broken up or ground. The best method is to place the beans in a small bag or tied up in the same piece of cloth that you will boil the coffee in and crush them with the butt of your musket, bayonet socket, or piece of wood. Remember that ground coffee is also authentic and perfectly acceptable.

Coffee Substitutes

During the war southerners found that all too often their access to coffee was severally limited either because of its expense or unavailability. Due to the lack of coffee, southerners soon developed substitutes for coffee, which generally fell into two categories – either filler intended to be cut into coffee to extend the limited quantity on hand or a substitute used in place of real coffee. Receipts for substitutes were published in newspapers throughout the south almost from the start of the war and were usually used in the same manner as real coffee. Following are a few receipts for making and using coffee substitutes common in the south during the Civil War. With each receipt it is best to prepare them at home before an event.

Sweet Potato Coffee – Peel a sweet potato and cut into slices – about 1/8 to 1/4-inch think – and then the slices into cubes. Once peeled and cut the cubes then must be dried, for this, a food dehydrator is perfect or you can place the cubes on a clean baking sheet in a oven set to 150 degrees or simply warm. If drying in an oven turn the cubes over to dry evenly. They cubes will shrink. Once thoroughly dried place the cubes into a clean dry skillet on the stove and roast the sweet potato cubes as you would green coffee to a dark chocolate brown. Once roasted ground up the cubes and use as you would coffee. You may find that with sweet potato coffee you might not need a sweetener.

Beet Coffee – Cut beet into pieces twice the size of a coffee bean. Roast in a clean dry skillet until evenly brown (prior to roasting you can dry the diced beet). Be careful not to burn. Once roasted, dry and hard, grind and use as you would coffee. Sweeten to taste.

English Garden Pea – Using the dry bean, roast and use as you would coffee. Other types of beans and peas will work as well.

Toasted Corn Meal – Toast corn meal in a clean dry skillet until a toasted brown. Combine 1 part toasted corn meal to 1 part ground coffee and use as normal.

Peanut Coffee – Shell raw or roasted peanuts and roast to a chocolate brown. This can be cut into real coffee, one part peanuts to one part coffee (or adjust to taste), or used as a substitute for coffee.


© Article Copyright, Vincent Petty, 1999-2005. May not be reproduced without the permission of the author.