Coffee at a price difficult to digest

Times Staff Writer

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.

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.


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.