Coffee was an immensely important beverage in the Wild West. It was drunk by miners, trappers, settlers, farmers, ranchers and of course cowboys at every opportunity. The strong taste suited them, and there was also the boost from the caffeine. It was a true man’s drink – rugged and gritty – which gave courage and rewarded hard work.
Pioneers on the trail needed their daily fix of coffee. If they were in a group they would expect the cookie to have it ready brewed for them when they got up, or if they were a family on their own, they would grind the coffee beans they had brought with them and brew the coffee in a pot on their camp fire.
If the coffee beans were green, there was an extra process. They had to be roasted on a skillet over the fire, very carefully so as to make sure none of them got burnt. Then if there was no mill, they could be crushed using the handle of an axe or a wagon jack.
Cowboys were especially devoted coffee-drinkers. They mostly liked it scalding hot, strong, and black – or barefooted as they called it. Anything weak was viewed with contempt as dehorned bellywash or brown gargle. A 3- to 5-gallon pot was the usual size for a team of 10 to 12 men. Often the old grounds weren’t tipped out of the pot but were added to until there was no room for any more. Sometimes eggshells were put in the pot for 2 main reasons: the first was that they helped keep the grounds at the bottom of the pot, and the second was that they toned down the bitter taste as they were alkaline to the coffee’s acidity. Coffee was a mainstay of every cowboy meal and kept them awake on vigils or between sorties in the night if the cattle were restive during a storm or some other disturbance.
Good coffee was expensive and hard to come by on the frontier, so settlers sometimes used substitutes made from rye, parched corn, bran or okra seeds, just like they used acorns to make ersatz coffee in Europe during World War II. Apart from the inferior taste, these substitutes were all caffeine-free which defeated part of the purpose.
In the 1860s a particularly suitable paper bag began to be manufactured and an efficient coffee roaster was invented by Jabez Burns. Then John and Charles Arbuckle plus two others started a wholesale grocery business which focussed on coffee and made use of these inventions. In addition, John Arbuckle worked out how to glaze coffee beans with an egg and sugar wash so as to seal in the flavour and aroma, thus lengthening the shelf life. The company, now called Arbuckle Brothers, excelled in marketing techniques, using coupons and trading cards to promote their brand. The coupons were each worth one cent and could be redeemed for other goods. Their use was so widespread that they even became a form of currency especially in drought years when there wasn’t much cash around. 80,000 wedding rings were supplied by Arbuckles in just one year.
The cloth sacks that Arbuckle’s coffee was bulk-supplied in had numerous uses, as did the wooden crates, made of sturdy Maine fir, which had many a second life as furniture, shelves, storage bins, chicken coops, babies’ cradles or babies’ coffins. A number joined together even made an extra room on one settler’s cabin.
Arbuckle’s was a household name for decades but in 1889 was challenged by James Folger and his Golden Gate Coffee. He made a virtue of the fact that not only was his coffee pricey, but it also came without gimmicks. In the end, Arbuckle’s declined and eventually disappeared. However it is still remembered by its own claim as ‘the coffee that won the West’.