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Coffee at a price difficult to digest

Indonesian kopi luwak can fetch as much as $600 a pound. Its origin is as unsavory as it is rare -- the droppings of wild civets.

July 13, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Bandar 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. They're 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. Humans then separate the greenish-brown beans 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.

A pound of their droppings yields 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.

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