Friday, 14th December 2018

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Civet coffee – do you know where that coffee’s been?

Posted on 06. Apr, 2017 by in Curious Travel

Captive civet and ripe coffee fruits. Central Highlands, Vietnam.

 

YOU KNOW WHERE THAT COFFEE’S BEEN?
Searching for the perfect fecalicious civet coffee.

BUON MA THUOT, Vietnam

Oysters. Termites. Camembert. Snake blood. Brains. Broccoli.

On the long list of strange things that people voluntarily ingest, one might add civet coffee.

Civet coffee, called café chon in Vietnam and kopi luwak in Indonesia, is probably the only popular foodstuff which is consumed by people simply because it has passed through the digestive system of a wild animal.

It is also one of the world’s most expensive delicacies; in 2008 upscale John Lewis department store in London made the evening “you’ll-love-this-next-story” newscasts when it charged $100 for a cup of the brew.

I went to Vietnam and Indonesia to taste civet coffee, made moderately-well known when it appeared on Jack Nicholson’s and Morgan Freeman’s “bucket list” in the movie of the same name.

My journey isn’t all that strange, actually.

First, I love coffee, and admit to being a coffee snob.  I never drink dishwater American coffee, but relish a strong, small Italian espresso, straight up, no milk or sugar, always in a ceramic cup, never in paper or plastic.

Second, I like to eat strange things and am not squeamish. I’m not a gurgitator in the sense of Takeru Kobayashi or Joey Chestnut or Sonya Thomas, folks who compete to see who can eat the most of something in a limited period of time.  I’m a selective ingester who enjoys experimenting.  That has led me to enjoy foie gras, frogs and horse in France and chewy goat testicles in Java.  Python, eaten in Borneo, tastes a bit like chicken, crocodile tastes like turtle, fermented Mongolian mare’s milk called kumis tastes simply horrible. In Sulawesi, dog is gamy and fruit bat is like honey-marinated wild boar.  And balut in the Philippines, a duck-egg with embryo, is completely yucky, but said to help male potency.  I’ve tucked into monkey in the Central African Republic; ants in Laos; beetles, grasshoppers and scorpions in Thailand.  In Vietnam my son and I ploughed through a nine-course cobra meal, which included the heart, blood, skin, flesh and penis.

Civet coffee would be a piece of cake.

Except.

Except I was fully aware of the method by which civet coffee is produced.

* * *

The life cycle of this beverage is the easy-target of sophomoric body-waste jokes.

Start with the wild Asian palm civet, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, a fairly common, attractive, raccoon-like, omnivorous, cat-sized animal with a pointy snout and a bushy tail.

The civet (sometimes mistakenly described as a “weasel” and often incorrectly called a “cat”) likes the taste of ripe coffee berries, the cherry-sized fruit that contains the seed — what we call the coffee bean.  According to the legend, which has almost certainly been enhanced by the marketing departments of the numerous companies producing civet coffee, the civet only selects the ripest, juiciest fruits.  The critter nibbles away the coffee-berry flesh (which tastes vaguely like cherries, actually) and swallows the seed.  Then the gustatory transformation takes place — the civet’s digestive enzymes impart a rich, chocolaty essence to the coffee while softening the hard edges.  A day later the flavor-enhanced seeds emerge as civet-coffee-feces, shaped like a skinny pine cone and resembling a roughly-made peanut-coated chocolate bar.  The seeds are collected, cleaned, roasted and sold for ridiculous amounts of money.

They resulting brew is said to taste terrific.

* * *

I was invited to try civet coffee in the middle-class home of  Mai Van Kien, in the town of Buon Ma Thuot in the Cemtral Highlands of Vietnam.  Kien, a coffee trader and farmer, is one of the happiest and most vigorous 80-year-olds I’ve met.  “This will taste great,” he suggested pouring hot water into the ubiquitous Vietnamese coffee filter device that has been likened to a “top-hat” and technically described as a “tin coffee thingy.”

I tasted a brew that was strong, earthy, flavorful, nutty, and round.  Kien, who fought with South Vietnamese forces in what in Vietnam is called “the American war”, was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese victors for a year after the conflict for re-education. Today he is at peace, and sat with Nguyen Thi My,  his 70-something wife, laughing and never moving far from each other, one of the happiest and most touchy-feely couples I’ve seen.  His house was filled with well-tended-potted plants, framed family photos, an aquarium and a big TV. On the front porch, next to coffee drying on the ground, stood a motorcycle.  His secret for his “wealthy life?”  “Loyal marriage, eat lots of vegetables, get to sleep on time, be careful.”  Coffee didn’t fit into his recipe for happiness though; when I visited, Kien and his wife drank tea.

But the problem with drinking coffee with Kien is that small scale coffee producers like him, as well as the big Vietnamese manufacturers, regularly add flavorings to their coffee.  Was that chocolate essence I tasted the result of the civet’s gut juices working their magic or was it added by the person roasting the beans over a cocoa-wood fire?  What about the slight buttery aftertaste?  The peppery tang? The sweetness — natural or a touch of sugar? And is that a hint of red wine?

Some large Vietnamese coffee factories go beyond flavoring and have become civet coffee alchemists.  Huge Vietnamese coffee company Trung Nguyen manufactures an artificially-enhanced brew which they describe as “produced by an enzyme treatment process that mimics the changes produced in the coffee beans by the civet and which releases a whole spectrum of flavors that normally lie dormant.”  Their “weasel-enzyme” technique is secret and has the benefit, Ma Son Tung, the company’s market development manager notes, “of not requiring any involvement from the animals.”

* * *

And that’s the problem I faced.  Lots of people will offer you civet coffee.  Is it genuine? Has it been enhanced?  But faux-civet coffee wasn’t my goal. I sought the real deal. I needed a control sample, a somewhat-scientific taste test in which I could compare civet coffee with “normal” coffee made with beans from the same plantation, with both samples prepared in the same way.  A double-blind experiement.

I asked my friend Dang Xuan Vu for help.

Dang Xuan Vu was my guide during my search for the last elephant hunter in Vietnam, tolerating my quirks and answering endless questions.  He understood my dilemma with tasting civet coffee in isolation.  The brew might taste sweet, soft, round, full, chocolately or a hundred other wine-like adjectives.  But is it sweeter, softer, rounder, fuller, and chocolatier than normally-produced coffee that has never seen the inside of a civet’s gut?

Vu, whose family owns a 3½  hectare coffee plantation in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, mailed me two vacuum sealed packets of coffee. The first was “normal” Robusta , the cheap rustic coffee grown locally.  The second, roasted and ground in exactly the same way, was Robusta civet coffee.

I prepared both samples the same way, in a French press, and served the coffee to guests at a dinner party in Bangkok.  Almost unanimously, my friends and I preferred the civet coffee, using phrases like “rounder,” “sweeter,” “drinkable” to describe the taste. That doesn’t mean that they would have preferred civet coffee to, say an Illy espresso, but they did prefer civet coffee to the “normal” brew.

* * *

While I was imbibing civet coffee I had a nagging question.

Who was the first person to have the audacity to go to the trouble of making and drinking civet coffee?

None of the farmers I spoke with in Vietnam or Indonesia could cite long-standing cultural use of civet coffee.  Dang Xuan Vu, whose family has grown coffee for generations, said “yes, the old folks said that weasel coffee is the best, but up until recently we had never tried it.” Some farmers say café chon is excretory ecstasy; other farmers won’t touch the stuff, reflecting the view of a farmer I met in Vietnam who disdains it because it’s “made from poo.”

Dang Xuan Vu has a plausible explanation.  He suggests French or Dutch colonial plantation owners forbade their Vietnamese and Indonesian workers from drinking the valuable coffee they harvested, so the poor farmers had no option but to clean and roast the unwanted feces-enrobed beans that had been excreted by the civet.  Word got back to the European masters that this was a good brew and then the marketing folks took over.

But still, who might have been Civet Coffee Drinker One?  Was he or she a lateral-thinking peasant hero who genuinely bought into the idea that civets only select the finest coffee berries?  Or just some desperate, curious, anti-establishment goof-off who said “what the hell?”

Of course there’s a lot of cultural relativism in considering what constitutes acceptable food.  The French eat horse, Americans never touch the stuff.  Many Europeans relish fresh oysters, many Asians gag at the slimy mollusk.  Lots of Southeast Asians love sticky and stinky durian, while Westerners won’t approach a fruit that smells like eating strawberries and cream in a badly-maintained public toilet. Is it texture? Taste? A cultural concept of what food is?

My self-inflicted food prohibitions are based less on taste-appeal and more on conservation right-mindedness.  I try to boycott Chinese restaurants which serve shark’s fin and coral reef fish.  I’ve refused to eat bear.  Chimpanzee is a no-no.  Birds’ nests though, made from the saliva of swiftlets, is ok (but tasteless).

I find people’s illogical fears of all kinds fascinating.  One friend hates crowds.  Another hates solitude.  My wife can pretty much deal with house mice, but gets goofy when confronted by a spider or snake.

I don’t know why I’m relatively immune to funny foods.  Actually, I’m relatively immune to many fears. I can speak in public, climb tall towers and hike on rocky ledges, scuba dive, rescue a mouse from our cat’s grasp, and liberate spiders with nary a concern.  Yet in a restaurant I prefer to sit with my back against the wall.

* * *

Civets have their own problems — civet coffee might disappear because the civets themselves are disappearing.

The Asian palm civet, while commonly found in forests and rural areas in South and Southeast Asia, is a protected species in Vietnam.  The animal is becoming scarce in some areas, ironically a victim of farmers cutting down forests to plant coffee. The other problem is that civets are pests and eat chickens and ducks, so farmers often have little compunction about shooting the critters.  There’s an animal rights issue too — wild civet dung is awfully hard to find and Indonesian and Vietnamese entrepreneurs keep wild-caught civets in cramped and dirty cages and force feed them coffee cherries. And the coup de civet is that the flesh tastes pretty good.  It is said to taste terrific when roasted by farmers in a thatched roof farmhouse. And it is said to taste even better when fried with garlic and lemongrass at the Binh Minh restaurant in Dak Mil, some 70-kilometers outside Buon Ma Thuot, in the heart of the Central Highlands coffee growing region. The owner, a taciturn Chinese-Vietnamese businessman, admitted he fries several dozen animals a week.  But he clammed up when we asked too many questions — after all, civets are protected in Vietnam and he fully realizes his business is illegal.  Nevertheless, civet’s on the menu, costing roughly seven-times pork, selling for about $5 per plate.

* * *

I managed two blind tastings.

The first, in Ho Chi Minh City, was put together by friends in the coffee business, with Arabica coffee from the same Central Highlands farm, the only difference being one sample was café chon, one was “normal” coffee.  Both were roasted and prepared in the same way.

I found it easy to distinguish between the two samples, with the café chon being richer in flavor and less stringent.

For an even more sophisticated tasting I flew to Medan, North Sumatra, a dingy, ramshackle city of two million which hadn’t changed much in the 30 years since I had first visited.  Half an hour out of town I was welcomed to the head office of P.T. Coffindo, which prides itself as providing kopi luwak made only from wild civets who live in the coffee plantations, not in cages.

They agreed to set up a comparative tasting of kopi luwak (which in Indonesian means “coffee-civet”) and “normal” coffee.

Herry Setiawan is a certified coffee taster working with Coffindo; one diploma hanging on the wall of his glass-enclosed tasting room identifies him as a “star cupper,” which means he is qualified to judge international coffee competitions.  Like his counterparts in the fields of wine and chocolate production, his palate and sense of smell are highly sensitive organs.

Using jargon reminiscent of wine tasting, Setiawan suggested I pay attention to “body, acidity, sweetness, flavor, color and aroma.”

Setiawan set out several small bowls, half filled with normal coffee, half with kopi luwak.  All the samples were high quality Arabica from the same plantation in Aceh, North Sumatra.

First we examined and sniffed the dry coffee that Herry Setiawan had just roasted and ground.  Already I could detect a difference — the normal coffee was earthy, had an after-the-rain freshness and tones of nuttiness and milk chocolate.  The kopi luwak, on the other hand, had distinct notes of dark chocolate, caramel and something I couldn’t quite identify. “Forest flowers?” Setiawan suggested.

He then added mineral water that had boiled and allowed to cool to 93°C — he was very specific about the temperature. Setiawan slowly stirred the brew and sniffed the back of the spoon.  The aroma was enhanced by the addition of hot water, and in the kopi luwak I smelled a note of something unexpected. “Green tea?” I asked.  “Good nose,”  Setiawan said.

Then came the tasting.  Setiawan showed me  how to half-fill the spoon, loudly slurp it into the mouth with a good intake of air, swish it around the tongue and spit it into a red plastic pail.  The normal coffee was nutty and earthy, very fresh.  The kopi luwak, on the other hand, had distinct notes of chocolate, caramel, and flowers. It was stronger, rounder.

But it was dishwater-weak and undrinkable as a beverage.

Although kopi luwak and café chon account for a small percentage of coffee production in Indonesia and Vietnam, the mark-ups are phenomenal.  P.T. Coffindo sells a kilogram of roasted kopi luwak beans for around $800, about 40 times the price of their “normal” Arabica.  But the market is getting crowded and I wonder how much demand there really is. Maybe the marketing folks should be more adventurous with their branding – I wonder whether a product called “Excretory Ecstasy” or “Fecal Fabulous” or “Dung Delicious” would boost sales.

I’ll continue to search for the perfect fecalicious kopi luwak.  But sometimes I feel the need to expand my gustatory horizons and take on new challenges. My Australian friends swear that I’ll love Vegemite.

______________

Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted at his website: www.sochaczewski.com

This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new five-book series Curious Encounters of the Human Kind. Available on Amazon.com