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The civet coffee hype
The beans are picked from the poop of the Asian palm civet, washed, dried and sold as civet coffee beans. The price will make your eyes pop.
Chiang Mai, 2020. My daughter, Alex, and I went on a guided cafe hopping experience. We were in a songthaew going from one cafe to the next, there was a bit of noonday traffic, and the tour guide and I started exchanging notes about coffee production and consumption in our respective countries.
Our tour guide remarked that the Philippines produces very good coffee. I proudly agreed. You even produce civet coffee, he said with a smile (Thailand does not produce civet coffee). Yes, I said, although civet coffee is really nothing to get excited about.
It’s just hype, I told our tour guide. Overpriced and overmarketed hype, in fact, considering that the cheapest civet coffee beans are sold today at US$160 per pound and superior ones at around US$600 or even higher.
What exactly is civet coffee?
For the uninitiated, the Philippines’ coffee alamid — kopi luwak in Indonesia and kafé-laku in East Timor — is known by the rest of the world as civet coffee.
The Asian palm civet, also known as the toddy cat, is a nocturnal omnivore found in Southeast Asia and China. It feeds on small animals as well as fruits and coffee berries. When it eats coffee berries, the beans remain only partially digested.
The beans are picked from its poop, washed, dried and sold as civet coffee beans. The theory is that the enzymes in the civet’s stomach do things to the coffee beans to give them a unique and incomparable flavor.
The coffee cherry fruit is sweet and is completely digested by the Luwak but the beans are excreted in their feces. This internal fermentation and action by different digestive enzymes add a unique flavor to the beans which has been described as earthy, musty, syrupy, smooth, and rich with both jungle and chocolate undertones.
Who discovered coffee beans in civet poop?
Food history has taught us that many delicacies were created from throwaways. Pho, for instance, was cooked with bones and scraps that the French colonizers of Vietnam wouldn’t touch. The Filipino modern-day sisig was concocted by a cook who collected unwanted pig heads from the commissary of the old Clark Air Base in Angeles City.
Civet coffee follows the same pattern.
Until the Japanese drove out the Dutch during World War II, the Dutch lorded over Indonesia. They owned coffee plantations where the Indonesians toiled but were not allowed to take any of the coffee beans for themselves. The workers encountered civet poop in the fields and discovered coffee beans in the poop. They started collecting the beans, washed them, roasted them and brewed them for their own enjoyment. And civet coffee was born.
Is civet coffee any good?
Several years ago, my brother and his family visited, and brought a jar of civet coffee beans. I tore the packaging, opened the jar and the first thing I noticed was the glossy exterior of the coffee beans as though they were coated with oil.
After dinner, I dumped half of the contents of the jar into the grinder and processed the beans to a coarse grind. The aroma was decidedly fruity and sweet. The ground civet coffee beans went into the coffee machine and, several minutes later, I was excitedly serving civet coffee to everyone who cared for a cup.
But it turned out to be an underwhelming experience, albeit an interesting one. For coffee drinkers like me who prefer a full-flavored brew, civet coffee can either be a curious experience or a sorry disappointment. Civet coffee is mild, nutty, chocolatey and sweet. It doesn’t give you a jolt the way more full bodied coffee does.
Personally, I still prefer the boldness of Benguet coffee that’s grown in the mountains of northern Philippines. But the best — the ultimate — coffee I have ever had came from East Timor.
But is civet coffee worth trying even if only out of curiosity?
Well, why ever not? BUT. You might want to check the source of the civet coffee beans. While there are still civet coffee producers who search and gather civet poop the old way, letting the civets roam free in their natural habitat and gathering only the feces that they leave in their wake, others have different ideas.
Because demand is high and supply is low, they have abandoned foraging for civet poop. Instead, they have resorted to hunting, trapping and caging civets (they are wild animals), and feeding them coffee beans exclusively.
Some of the civets were very thin, from being fed a restricted diet of only coffee cherries—the fruit that surrounds the coffee bean. Some were obese, from never being able to move around freely. And some were jacked up on caffeine…
Source: “The Disturbing Secret Behind the World’s Most Expensive Coffee” from The National Geographic
Do we buy and consume civet coffee at home?
Except for that time when my brother gave us a jar of civet coffee beans, no. We weren’t impressed with the flavor to begin with.