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There’s always time for a brew

Image of the June 2022 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
June 2022 Issue

Boiling the billy for a hot drink is a satisfying tramping ritual but for some, one brew is never enough.

When I was at university and tramped with my father, he always brewed up at lunchtime. He’d sit down, pull out his cooker and small billy and make a cup of tea. I never joined in, if anything I was annoyed because of the time it took. I’m not quite sure what my hurry was, but now that I’m older than my father was at the time, I’ve become a convert to lunchtime brews.

To be honest, it’s not only at lunchtime. A morning brew, a lunchtime brew, brewing up once we reach the hut or campsite, or an evening brew – any or all of them is okay. 

There are certain rituals that I follow. I usually take real coffee and make it in the billy and when I have tea it’s always with sugar even though I never have sugar in tea at home. There should be biscuits, Krispies or Gingernuts, and if they run out I dunk my crackers and optimistically call them biscotti. Dessert is usually a chai latte with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate. 

I always make sure I have water in the car. If there’s a long drive at the end of a trip, I’ll make a brew for the journey home.

While I’m not fussy about when to have a brew, I’m particular about picking the best brew spot. Ideally, there’s a rock or a tree trunk at the perfect angle for a backrest and if this isn’t possible then the tramping pack needs to be arranged for maximum support. For supreme comfort, feet are slightly lower than the butt. The cooker is set up so that when the water boils no one needs to move. Preferably it’s out of the wind.

Some sort of view is important: down, up or across a valley, a tarn to sit by, or a mountain to look at. If there are sandflies, the overtrou go on – it’s not worth having a good brew ruined by sandflies. In the rain, an overhanging tree works well to provide a bit of shelter, even if it is drippy. Brews in the rain aren’t as enjoyable as in the sun but are still worth the effort. 

I have friends who also appreciate their brews. Margaret taught me how to make the perfect micro-fire to boil water very quickly (small twigs, and lots of them, between a couple of small rocks to support the billy). Nina and James make a fire and usually have tea, often loose-leaf, made in the billy. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I’ve read about Geoff Spearpoint’s ‘brew bag’ – a small bag of supplies kept at the top of his pack to make a fire and a cuppa. Small birthday candles are his weapon of choice for when fire-lighting conditions are testy. 

Tramping companion Neil moves everywhere in the hills at a fast pace and on very little food, and never has a brew during the day. But he doesn’t omit it completely; breakfast for him is a huge bowl of super-strong hot chocolate with enough calories to keep him going for hours.

You may think I spend a large amount of time lazing around in the hills enjoying hot drinks. But I don’t. As my father knew all those years ago, it’s very quick to pull out the cooker and get a brew going. It’s a tramping ritual I love and the pleasure it adds to any trip far outweighs the small effort involved. 

Perfect grind-free coffee

Perfect grind-free coffee can be made in a billy. After boiling water in a small billy, spoon in the coffee (usually 1-2 tablespoons per person). A crust will form. After a couple of minutes, break the crust and tap the side of the billy a few times. The grinds will sink to the bottom and a thick crema will appear. Wait a little while longer before you pour carefully, leaving the grinds at the bottom. The first pour usually gets all the crema. Use espresso ground coffee for a rich, thick brew.