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07-13-2007, 07:24 AM
600-a-pound coffee
Indonesia's kopi luwak is a rare delicacy of peculiar provenance
berries plucked from the droppings of wild civets.
By Paul Watson, Times Staff Writer
6:22 PM PDT, July 12, 2007

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$600 a pound coffeeBANDAR LAMPUNG, Indonesia -- To connoisseurs of
fine coffee, only one is good to the last dropping.

Human hands don't harvest the beans that make this rare brew. It's
plucked by the sharp claws and fangs of wild civets, catlike beasts
with bug eyes and weaselly noses that love their coffee fresh.

They move at night, creeping along the limbs of robusta and hybrid
arabusta trees, sniffing out sweet red coffee cherries and selecting
only the tastiest. After chewing off the fruity exterior, they
swallow the hard innards.

In the animals' stomachs, enzymes in the gastric juices massage the
beans, smoothing off the harsh edges that make coffee bitter and
produce caffeine jitters. The greenish-brown beans are separated from
the rest of the dung, and once a thin outer layer is removed, they
are ready for roasting. The result is a delicacy with a markup so
steep it would make a drug dealer weep.

It's called kopi luwak, from the Indonesian words for coffee and
civet, and by the time it reaches the shelves of swish foreign food
emporiums, devotees fork out as much as $600 for a pound if they
can even find that much. The British royal family is said to enjoy
sipping it. A single cup can sell for $30 at a five-star hotel in
Hong Kong.

To anyone satisfied by a regular cup of joe with the morning
newspaper, it might sound like a lot of hokum. Canadian food
scientist Massimo Marcone thought kopi luwak was just an urban
legend. Then he did some lab work.

He found that a civet's digestive system does indeed remove some of
the caffeine, which explains why a cup of kopi luwak doesn't have the
kick that other strong coffees do. The civet's enzymes also reduce
proteins that make coffee bitter.

Marcone is one of the world's leading experts on foods that make most
people go yuck! He recently wrote a book on the subject. One thing
that really gets his glands salivating is casu frazigu cheese, which
is packed with so many live maggots that it's not only disgusting,
the Italian government outlawed it.

"The rotten cheese has millions of live maggots in it, and it's very
highly prized all through Italy," Marcone said. "It sells under the
counter for about $100 a pound. As you're carrying your bag with the
cheese in it, you can actually hear the maggots hitting the side of
the bag.

"People eat the cheese and maggots altogether. There's nothing in
there that can cause harm."

Days before the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, Marcone
was in Indonesia's Sumatran rain forest, where he collected about 10
pounds of civet droppings laced with coffee beans. He now uses it
as "the gold standard" to rate other kopi luwaks in his lab at the
University of Guelph in Ontario.

Like a forensic scientist reading a bullet's markings, Marcone stares
at kopi luwak under an electron microscope, searching for striations
that tell him that a civet excreted it. His studies found that kopi
luwak drinkers need to be careful to avoid being duped.

"About 42% of all the kopi luwaks that are presently on sale are
either adulterated or complete fakes, unfortunately, " he said.

Real kopi luwak has a top note of rich, dark chocolate, with
secondary notes that are musty and earthy, the scientist said. An
Indonesian coffee lover described the scent as the smell of moist
earth after a rainfall, with hints of vanilla, that teases the palate
for hours after the cup is empty.

Other coffees, such as Jamaican Blue Mountain, may score better on
official cupping tests that judge qualities such as aroma, taste and
fragrance, Marcone said. But they don't come with quite the exotic
cachet of civet brew.

"From the farm gate to the plate, the story is missing for most of
our foods," he said. "Part of eating is not only the nutrition one
gets, but also the communing with others at the table. Kopi luwak has
the advantage of its story."

And as ice breakers go, coffee from civets is certainly special.

Local lore says villagers discovered civet droppings made for a
smooth cup of coffee centuries ago, when they were forced to work on
Dutch plantations and hand over everything they picked to their
colonial masters. Civets provided the only coffee the workers could
scrounge for themselves.

Today, the world's only source for genuine, uncut kopi luwak is
Southeast Asian civets, and most still comes from the ones foraging
in Indonesia's coffee plantations. That limits production to a
craving for coffee cherries, and the digestive abilities, of a
shrinking civet population.

It takes a pound of their droppings to produce less than 5 ounces of
beans. Roasting reduces the quantity by an additional 20%. With just
500 to 1,000 pounds of the real thing coming on the global market
each year, demand quickly drives up the price.

Genuine kopi luwak has been difficult to find in the United States
for years, said California coffee importer Tom Kilty, who traveled to
Indonesia from California in 1989 to find a reliable source. A decade
later, Kilty said, coffee coming from a European supplier didn't look
the same, so the company he was working for stopped selling it, even
though it was going for $120 a pound.

"I am still on the lookout," Kilty said from Redwood City.

The astronomical value of their droppings should be a boon to civets,
whose reputation took a beating in 2003 when civet cats sold in
China's markets were suspected of causing the lethal SARS epidemic.
The animals are eaten as a delicacy in southern China.

In Indonesia, civets are struggling along with much of the country's
wildlife to hold on to their habitat as a growing human population

To farmers scratching out a living harvesting pepper, cacao, coffee
and rubber on an Indonesian mountainside, fresh civet scat lying in
the dirt and dead leaves is hardly worth the bother. The animals also
have a taste for cacao, bananas, papaya and other fruits, which once
digested, are no delicacy.

It's often hard to know what is in the scat. Sometimes even old hands
are fooled by squirrel or bat droppings thrown in for weight.

Even if a farmer does know the animal has chewed at his coffee
cherries, it's just as likely to deposit the valuable droppings on a
neighbor's land.

More aggressive civets also raid families' chickens, and when the
animals grow to more than 100 pounds, baring those claws and fangs,
they scare a lot of people, too. And because civet meat makes good
eating, the way most folks here see it, the only good civet is a dead

"They're a farmer's enemy," said Ponirin Suparlan, 45, a barefoot
farmer who earns $600 a year from rubber and coffee trees, and any
civet droppings he finds. He would rather eat a civet than let it
dine on his crops. "If I find one, I will surely kill it."

Villagers aren't sure how many wild civets are left in the area, but
the population is obviously shrinking because the dung is getting
harder to find each year.

Still, small-time collectors such as Suparlan earn about $3 a kilo,
roughly twice as much as they get for regular coffee. It's peanuts
compared with what foreign buyers earn, often after cutting it with
regular coffee to boost their profits in places such as Taiwan,
Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Dealing in such an expensive delicacy is a cutthroat business. People
who know where to find the dung protect their stakes with the
paranoia of Gold Rush prospectors.

Susanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, moonlights
producing kopi luwak when he's off duty from a government shrimp
hatchery. But he says he has lost almost $15,000 of his savings
trying to make a go of his business.

He and his relatives have processed more than 440 pounds of civet
dung into kopi luwak in three years, enough to be rich by now.
They've done it the old-fashioned way, roasting the beans over wood
fires in clay pans as big as woks. With a log-sized pestle in a stone
mortar, they have pounded the beans into dark coffee with the powdery
texture of cocoa.

But Susanto says he lost a lot of money handing out the world's most
expensive coffee as free samples to potential buyers from Seattle to
Russia and Australia, only to wait for contracts that never came

He has held out against big-name Indonesian buyers who tried to
chisel his price down to a small fraction of what they would make
selling it abroad, hoping for an export deal of his own.

But he has been cheated by so many foreign and Indonesian dealers
that he's on the verge of giving up unless his latest idea starts
paying off.

He agreed to let a reporter see his operation, a nearly two-hour
drive outside the southern Sumatran city of Bandar Lampung, only on
the condition that he keep the location secret.

Susanto thinks the best way to guarantee pure kopi luwak is to farm
it. So he captured 17 civets, locked them up in wire and bamboo
cages, and gave them names such as Claudia, Helga and Romeo.

They are hand-fed ripe coffee cherries along with grapes and other
fruits, and fresh milk. Despite the pampering, a few died in
captivity, and others chewed their way through the wire and escaped
back into the coffee plantations, where they are free to follow their
instincts to the best berries. Only nine remain with Susanto.

He dreams of raising $60,000 to build a kind of nature preserve for
civets, where they could eat coffee cherries to their hearts'
content, depositing choice, certified kopi luwak in exchange for a
nice, safe place to live.

07-13-2007, 07:49 AM
And you thought your job was difficult.

07-13-2007, 12:02 PM
Man thats enough to put a man off his coffee for life!

07-14-2007, 11:57 AM
Thankfully, it's just one specific kind of coffee...

What's interesting is that the thing is happening in Lampung--a Sumatran province--while Ponirin, Suparlan, and Susanto are Javanese peasant names coming from the next island over. Transmigrants, maybe?

07-14-2007, 12:27 PM
:tongue Sure am glad I never liked coffee. Wow...

07-18-2007, 12:24 AM
I dunno - I think civet poo coffee sounds much more appetising than maggoty cheese.

Soccer Mom
07-18-2007, 01:08 AM
Mmmmmmmmm. Coffee.