Survival Coffee

Every morning I take the pulse of the planet by brewing a cup of coffee.  As the second most traded commodity on earth, and the number one imported food item in the United States, coffee is a major indicator of how smoothly the world is turning.  Any hints of social collapse will hit coffee faster than either gold or silver, and only oil is traded more heavily than those precious caffeinated beans.

how to survive without coffee

The National Coffee Association suggests there might be some truth in the legend that coffee was discovered in the Ethiopian highlands during the ninth century by a goat herder who noticed that his animals did not sleep well after eating the seeds of a particular plant.  After some human experimentation with the beans, coffee as we know it was born.  By 600 years ago it was off and running as a preferred beverage across the Middle East, and today it is keeping humans up at night all over the world.

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Coffee and Guns

Although coffee is a global phenomenon, the only US state that grows coffee is Hawaii. But when the SHTF, as the saying goes, you can’t get there from here so your survival supply is all there is. Coffee has always been an important barter item, and it’s post-collapse value will skyrocket. Coffee and conflict go hand-in-hand. GI Joe, as in “Cup of Joe” experienced the importance of coffee as a ration during war time. Tea may have launch this country, but coffee and bullets keep it free!

Rarely does a daily hunt begin without a coffee ritual of some sort.  Whether drinking “vitamin C” in a small town cafe, or pouring the black gold from a thermos in a duck hunting blind, coffee and guns are inseparable.  So when society takes a wrong turn and you don’t know who to trust, coffee will still be your friend.

Standing Your Grounds

teotwawki coffee for survival

The point of grinding coffee beans is to break open the bean exposing the flavorful roasted meat inside the seed, and increase the bean’s surface area that can directly contact hot water.  To grind coffee, all you need are coffee beans, and something harder than the beans.  Kitchen or home-sized grain mills will make short order of coffee beans, but more than a few of the prepared folks I know have a hand grinder in the house, whether in storage or on display as an antique.  Hand grinders are like giant pepper mills, which, by the way, can also be coaxed into service as coffee grinders depending on their size and capacity.

The best option is to get a modern hand grinder of which there are so many available that I cannot help but wonder if the manufacturers know something about the future that I don’t.  For the long haul, I’d recommend one of the nicer modern stainless steel grinders rather than either a retro-looking one or a grinder with any part made of glass.

Stone Grinding

A mortar and pestle does a fine job of grinding up beans.  Another method is similar to the maze (corn) grinding tools of the ancients.  The mano, or hand grinder, is a rock with a depression like a bowl in it whereby another smaller rock is used to crush or grind the material placed in the bowl.  Rolling pins also pulverize coffee beans when the two come in contact. Hardly a new idea since stone rolling pins are as ancient as the mano.  And if you have plenty of time on your hands, or some children that need a diversion, imagine all the post-apocalyptic fun you can have crushing individual coffee beans with pliers.

Once you have the fresh grounds, the next step, and only other step is to make the coffee.  Here are several ways to take that next step, some more refined than others, but all are effective and well-tested.

Steeped Coffee

coffee cups for survival

Steeping coffee is a variant of cooking coffee, and is simply letting the coffee grounds sit in hot water for a while.  The French Press is a popular coffee cooking method, but the familiar glass cylinder and matching plunger is hardly necessary. Any pot, cup, or tin can will work fine.  Some outdoor companies are manufacturing combination French Press/coffee mugs where prior to drinking, the plunger handle is depressed forcing all the grounds to the bottom of the mug.  Two cautions from experience; first the filter is about 90% effective meaning a toothy grin while drinking from a “Big Sky Bistro” will likely produce some laughter by those viewing the black grounds wedged in your teeth.  And second, there will be an impressive pile of sludge at the bottom of your cup from which you can still drink.  But don’t. It is nothing more than expended coffee syrup and will provide a rather tragic end to your drinking bliss.

Cowboy Coffee

boiled coffee

Another variation of cooking coffee is popular named Cowboy Coffee, or boiled coffee and requires nothing more than the grounds be boiled in water.  Cowboy Coffee differs from steeped coffee in that steeping has the hot water added to the ground coffee while away from the primary heat source.  Cowboy Coffee is the simplest preparation method, but not the best for flavor due to the higher temperature that the grounds are exposed to for a longer time.  Of course if you are up in the mountains, water boils at a lower temperature than at sea level so the damage to the taste of the coffee is less.  Authentic Cowboy Coffee is little more than a handful of grounds tossed into a pot of boiling water.  Or worse, thrown into the pot prior to boiling. If you want the true experience of Cowboy Coffee you can either drink the nectar, grounds and all, or run the fluid through an old sock to strain out the grounds. The more refined among us might make their Cowboy Coffee by placing the grounds into the sock before dropping it in the pot upping the macho factor. Since Cowboy Coffee is usually more bitter than other brewing methods, a dash of salt is often added to the pot to counteract the excess bitter tasting compounds.

Filtered Brew

coffee beans for survival

Pour-Over coffee, or filtering, requires a filter medium full of grounds, a container below the filter to capture the coffee, and hot water to pour over the grounds. With a little practice, the coffee flavor can be controlled since the fluid flowing out of the filter will change over time as the bean’s essence is depleted. A popular survival accessory is known as a coffee sock. Not to be confused with the actual stocking used in Cowboy Coffee, the coffee sock is more of a reusable cloth strainer with a handle. A note of caution about filters is that the taste of the filter can overpower that of the coffee. If you use non-filter specific paper for your filter, such as paper towels, the bleach taste of the paper can render the coffee undrinkable. But that, of course, depends on your level of desperation. Filtered coffee is also trendy these days for health reasons. When brewed, coffee releases plenty of chemicals, some desired, some not. The longer the coffee sits in hot water, the more of the undesirable molecules leach from the beans into your brew of COF2E2.

Pressure Coffee

espresso for survival

Espresso is the popular name for pressure brewed coffee. The variations of Americano, Latte, and Cappuccino are just post-expresso alterations to the tiny cup of black gold squeezed from the beans by pressurized hot water. Although sounding somewhat complex, pressure-brewed coffee can be accomplished with remarkably simple devices. Moka Pots, or stovetop espresso machines are small two-piece pots where a water reservoir base is topped with a strainer full of tightly packed ground coffee.  A small pot is screwed tightly to the base holding the complete assembly together. As the water in the reservoir reaches boiling temperature, it encounters the resistance of the compacted coffee. The increased challenge posed by the coffee causes the water to heat beyond the traditional boiling point until the pressure is great enough to move through the grounds and up a tube to the top of the pot where it then falls into the collection area of the pot.

The process happens fairly quickly once boiling is reached. Due to the extreme danger of placing what amounts to a coffee pot bomb on your stove, I recommend only professionally made pressure coffee makers with a pressure release valve on the reservoir.  Fabricating your own post-apocalyptic stove top espresso machine out of car parts is just asking for trouble.

The Grim Reality

must have coffee for survival

Regardless of your brewing methods, you must have coffee beans to make coffee. In a post-collapse situation, coffee may be as powerful a barter item as ammo. However coffee does have a shelf-life and unless vacuum packed, it will absorb other flavors as well as lose its own. Freeze dried coffee will last quite a while as well, but in my opinion as a gift card-carrying coffee snob, things will have to really hit the fan before I’ll get excited about the freeze dried stuff.

Roast Your Own

Now all this assumes you have roasted coffee beans in your possession. If you only have green (unroasted) coffee beans, you will need to roast them first.  While more of an art than a procedure, roasting coffee beans can be done using simple tools. With little more than a camp stove and old-school stove-top popcorn maker, coffee beans can be roasted into drinkable condition. Just don’t get your hopes up right away as there are far more ways to destroy your beans then to roast them. Home roasting is best done outdoors due to the smoke, but remember, there are only two main roasting mistakes once you have the right temperature dialed in: not roasting long enough, and roasting for too long. Other than that, its just a game of getting it right for your taste.

One For The Road

Survival has both hard edges and soft ones. As has been discovered through countless investigations of who lives and who dies when the SHTF, a positive attitude plays as much a role as having the right equipment. If one intends to live through the dark times, then one must learn to smell the roses though the smoke. If you don’t then you are already at a serious disadvantage. Instead, prepare to drink up and know when the world starts to crumble, you will preserve one of the finest aspects of modern society: the cup of coffee.

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All Photos by Doc Montana

Written by Doc Montana

Doc honed his survival skills through professional courses, training, and plenty of real-world situations, both intentional and not. Doc lives to mountaineer, rock climb, trail run, hunt, race mountain bikes, ski, hunt, and fish. Doc Montana holds PhD’s in both Science Education and Computer Science and currently teaches at a University in the northern United States. Read his full interview here. Read more of Doc's articles.

20 thoughts on “Survival Coffee”

  1. Excellent article and very good thoughts. If the SHTF, I'm really going to miss having my morning coffee. Coffee is the first thing I pack when heading out to go camping.

  2. Forget all that unnecessary work and equipment, just stock up on FD instant coffee (Folgers for me)! Don't make a mountain out of a molehill, in the end, coffee is a luxury item, especially after SHTF! I personally store about a year's worth, but even though it may be a good barter item, it'll definitely be the last thing I would barter with! Good Luck!

  3. You can buy tons of instant coffee CHEAP in sealed packets and they come in small in boxes . You van buy containers of fresh ground sealed they last for years.

  4. Well, the million dollar question is, how long WILL coffee actually store. We have about 120 pounds of Costco sealed 3 pound bags in large air tight Rubbermaid containers. I noticed that the fresh smell of coffee no longer emits from the bags of coffee during rotation.

    So how long does reasonably packaged coffee store?


    • Your coffee was stale when you bought it, next time buy green coffee. Shelf life is about 3 to 4 years. I bought mine at

      • I buy and store coffee grounds for at least a year as long as it stays sealed. Cans are best but the sealed cans of MH or Folgers work well with the inert gas and top seal too.

      • Actually, there are stories of green coffee beans having been found in pyramids that were extremely old but were roasted anyway. They apparently were still good. It's only after roasting that the bean will begin to deteriorate and the three main reasons a coffee bean will deteriorate is sunlight, moisture and air.

  5. I drink 4 cups every morning at work. I like to treat myself to a more expensive cup from a local coffee shop BUT if things were tight, much less SHTF or survival, coffee would be one of the first things I gave up and not high on the barter list.

  6. Trader Joe's makes excellent freeze dried coffee, in a large glass jar, for about $4. Way better than the supermarket brands.

  7. No mention of a percolating coffee pot. I own two, one is part of a camp set and the other one is a household item stored in a closet. Comes in handy when the electricity is out but the gas stove is working.

  8. excellent post on my favorite subject.. i have busted beans with the steel butt of my rifle a few times, ground them down for cowboy coffee, evcepting i add a bit of rusty horse shoe to take the bitter out or drop in an egg shell and whit of the egg to mellow it, and use a dirty gym sock to filter it through for real stand up and kick yer butt int gear coffee

  9. i wonder if we could plant a coffee tree and grow our own beans..would i have to have a hothouse since coffee is a tropical fruit? how many trees would one have to have to raise a good crop of beans..just wondering

  10. I like cowboy coffee a pinch of salt level scant teaspoon per cup of coffee per drop in an egg boil for 7 minutes
    and you have breakfast if your lucky enough to have smoked bacon a slice or 2 on a stick over the same fire and
    wahoo got to let the coffee to cool / settle a minute you don't want a mouth full of grounds or to remove your lip prints.


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