Rod’s Ramblings on Coffee

By Rodney Martin in Food

Coffee talk is mostly boring.  You have your opinion about whether it is bitter mud-grist or ambrosial morning elixir or something in between.  You are either addicted to it in some degree or feeling superior in some degree because of your abstinence. You have had the debate about whether or not coffee is a drug.  And you have consumed it or not consumed it to your preference for your whole life, excepting perhaps when you were a child wishing in vain to participate in the coffee-drinking privileges of adulthood.

To find something interesting to say about coffee, consider the southeast Asian critter that is known as the Asian palm civet, or luwak, (or, if you prefer, Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus).  The luwak enjoys as part of its diet the pulpy cherry of the coffee bush. When a luwak consumes a coffee cherry, it will later excrete a coffee bean. This fact was observed by native farmers working on coffee plantations in the Dutch East Indies of the 1800s, who had been banned from picking coffee beans for their own use.  They had not, however, been banned from sifting through civet dung for coffee beans; and, since they spent their interminable days picking coffee beans for wealthy Dutch merchants, it was only natural that curiosity would motivate them to find and clean the beans from the luwak droppings, roast them, and try out this curious drink that so intoxicated the Europeans.

It did not take long for the Dutch merchants to notice that the farmers had found a way to make their own coffee, and the poetic irony is that the merchants found the farmers’ coffee to be tastier than the coffee they were shipping home. In fact, it was so tasty that they were able to fetch a much higher price for the luwak-processed coffee, called kopi luwak. This actually made it economically viable to pay people to crawl through the jungle hunting for coffee beans in piles of civet poop.

Kopi luwak is still processed today, and it can fetch anywhere between $100 and $1400 per pound, depending on how it is harvested.  Unfortunately, kopi luwak beans can be produced more efficiently by forcing captive civets to eat coffee cherries, and the conditions on some farms can be quite inhumane.  The most expensive kopi luwak is harvested humanely in the wild.

Kopi luwak was also the inspiration for the second most expensive coffee in the world.  There is a herd of about 20 elephants at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, an elephant refuge in northern Thailand, and an enterprising soul has arranged to have coffee cherries fed to the elephants as part of their diet.  Most of the coffee seeds are of course utterly destroyed by the elephants’ chewing and digesting, but the Black Ivory Coffee Co. Ltd. bravely digs through the elephant feces found on the grounds of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and saves any beans that remain intact.  They can then sell a pound of Black Ivory Coffee for around $500.

The science behind both of these coffees is that digestive enzymes in the animals’ guts break down certain proteins in the coffee bean. This results in a more complex flavour and reduced bitterness in the final coffee product.

But it has become urgent now to ask this question:  what does it mean when a favourite drink the world over must be refined by an animal’s excretory system in order to reach its culmination?