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The World | COLUMN ONE

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

Genuine kopi luwak has been difficult to find in the U.S. for years, said California coffee importer Tom Kilty, who traveled to Indonesia 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.

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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 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 encroaches.

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 civet.

"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 pounded the beans into dark coffee with the 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 through.

He has held out against big-name Indonesian buyers who tried to chisel his price down to a 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.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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