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Rise & Shine: Coffee for Fly Fishing

Walking in the shadows of the great volcanic peaks surrounding the ancient city of Antigua, Guatemala, I stopped to pick a ripe coffee berry. That berry was one of a cluster on a coffee tree, which was one of many on the grounds of a great plantation. Some of the varieties of beans and the subsequent roasts originating from that very estate have won awards the world over.

Later that day, in a centuries-old villa on the property I sipped a blend that had notes reminiscent of hickory smoke, cocoa nibs, and a touch of black currant. The whole scene was about as perfect as a coffee connoisseur could ask for. A delightful cup in a spectacular setting.

***

Stepping over glistening puddles of runoff oil under the neon lights of a gas station in rural New Hampshire, I stopped to avoid getting run over by a dually Ford pickup. Inside I was overwhelmed by the smell of hot dog at 6:00am, which intensified as I realized that the wiener carousel was located next to the coffee urns. There were two options: regular and decaf.

Later that morning, driving down the misty 2-lane highway behind an oil truck, I sipped a drink that had notes reminiscent of coffee… maybe? I was going fishing, and this was the first hot beverage and the first caffeine of the day. A delightful cup in a spectacular setting.

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I’m convinced that the best cup of coffee you can have is the cup of coffee you have when it is the only cup of coffee you can have. I’m hardly an authority, but I’ve been lucky enough to drink some really top-shelf stuff in some amazing places around the world. A lot of it, incidentally, in situations associated with fly fishing.

While some people don’t drink coffee, let’s just assume for arguments’ sake that they are crazy. But seriously, it is a small percentage of the population. And a much narrower margin within the fly fishing community.

Think about it: Early mornings? Cold weather? Middle of nowhere diners? Something a store selling $2 feathers and $800 fishing rods can give away for free? Coffee is an obvious vice of choice.

But there are a lot of different directions you can go with coffee as you incorporate it into your fly fishing routine. No one says that there is only one right answer, but understanding your options can increase your appreciation. Or maybe at least justify your actions.

We’ll take a look at them in descending order:

Fancy

This is hard to really wedge into the fly fishing day. The kind of places that brew your $6 cup of Ethiopian yirgacheffe in a Rube Goldberg-esque system of beakers and vials probably won’t take kindly to your ratty old Columbia shirt. The stuff might taste great, but it is something far afield from the coffee of grandpa and the guys at the shop.

Plus, they only serve their expertly designed infusions in local, hand crafted pottery. That won’t fit in your cup holder.

Homemade

Okay, so this is the most reasonable and economical. You can probably make the best tasting, most bang for your buck thermos of coffee at home. But unless you’re really strapped for cash or for time, this cuts out one of the most important and fun rituals: stopping and buying coffee. You might need gas or the restroom anyway, so indulge yourself.

And the extra energy involved in remembering the travel mug will probably displace recalling to pack some piece of fishing gear. Better to buy coffee at the drive through and remember your wading boots than sip on your home-brew while waiting for the fly shop to open.

Chain

If you’re getting a quick breakfast on the road, then the coffee will probably accompany it. Whether you’re just grabbing something quick to eat while driving or sitting down and having an actual person pour coffee into ceramic, this is living. There are choices and expectations at establishments like this. Some, such as Dunkin’ Donuts (“Dunks,” for those in a 100-mile radius of Bahstan) and Starbucks, actually feature the stuff as their main draw. How novel!

But right here is also a dangerous cross-section of value and quality. Particularly if you go in and have a seat, Betty will just keep on pouring and pouring and pouring. You aren’t even thinking about being in chest waders an hour from now, because it is just going down so easy. You might even ask for a to-go cup! Well, “to go” is right.

Gas Station

Here is the sweet spot. Maybe you’ve found some golden goose that is tucked off the side of the highway. (I can think of at least one: A Mid Atlantic company whose name rhymes with “eats.”) But chances are you’re stopping because, well, you’ve just got to stop. It is time. You’ve been on the road long enough and something inside of you has to pull over. Like a steelhead turning up into its natal tributary, you throw your blinker on and drift off the interstate.

What you encounter is somewhere between 10 minutes and 10 hours old. The presentation is, how shall we say, subtle.  The temperature is hot enough that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t think you were being litigious if you sued for burns. And it tastes like hot brown coffee.

And that is good enough. We’re not here to drink what has won gold medals from people that slurp lukewarm café from curly little spoons, swish it around, and then spit into a vase. We’re here for something hot, and something that will wake us up. If it tastes good, that’s a bonus.

Camp

Now you’re just showing off. You stop fishing to get out your little stove, your little fuel, and your little kettle. You work while explaining how this burner will boil a pot of water in less than a minute but only weights three ounces. I had my styrofoam cup of coffee-flavored product hours ago, but here you are gently tapping tablespoons of something you ground at home into a pot on the side of the stream.

I can smell it.

And it smells good.

“Yeah, this guy will brew about three cups. Want some?” You ask.

I’m here to fish. Not to sit and have a tea party. “Well, I’ll try some.”

Holy cow that is good. And man, having it on the stream? This is, like, really cool. I bet I could fit one of those little stoves in my pack. If not, I can always use another pack. I really like coffee, and this would probably save me money in the long run.

After all, the best cup of coffee you can have is the cup of coffee you have when it is the only cup of coffee you can have. And out here, this is the only cup of coffee I can have.

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