Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Straight Poop on Asian Coffee

One of the first Western brand names to push its way into Southeast Asia was Nescafe.  The Nestle company had, to its lasting discredit, invaded Asia in the late 1930s and early 1940s, persuading Asian mothers to feed their babies the easy and less nourishing way -- with Nestle baby formula.

Nescafe was their second major product in Asia.

Nescafe, of course, is also the easy way.  Spoon the glop into the cup, add hot water, stir. Voila! A cup of terrible coffee in less time than it takes to say, "A cup of terrible coffee."

When Nescafe barged into the market, it displaced a thriving tradition of freshly-roasted, locally grown coffee.  Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia all grew coffee, and Indonesia was globally famous for it.  In all those countries but Indonesia, local coffee production took a major bath.

But only at the low end.  On the very highest end, demand remained steady for a variant that Nestle, in their sober, soul-shriveling Swiss suits and ties, couldn't have imagined if they'd been given the rest of the century to brainstorm.

It's called "The Weasel."

This is a civet cat.  Civets live all over Southeast Asia - there are probably a dozen species.  (The one above is the Indonesian palm civet.)  Civets have been famous in some circles for years because the musk they secrete from their perineal gland (that's the gland right at the exit door, the same ones dogs sniff when they're saying hello) was an essential stabilizing base for perfumes.  In fact, demand was so high that some civets became endangered, so perfumers stopped killing civets to harvest the glands and instead they now hire people to, ummm, scrape the, uh, stuff from the back end of a living civet.  And you think you've got a bad job.

So remember, the fanciest perfume in the world contains butt-juice from a civet cat.  

But this is about coffee.

The coffee bean matures inside the coffee berry, which is, as the name suggests, a bit of fruit surrounding a large, hard seed.  In normal coffee harvesting, the berries are dried and the fruit stripped away to reveal the bean, which is then dried and, eventually, roasted and ground.

But lots of coffee berries fall off the trees before they're harvested, and a great many of them are eaten by civets.  Civets are the beatniks of the animal world; what they really want is some good espresso, a set of bongos, and a beret, and they can do without the bongos and the berets.  So they eat the berries and then stay up all night talking, and then eat some more the next day.  And, nature being what it is, sooner or later, the ground is littered with a distinctive, ummmm, spoor.

Yes, that's what it looks like.  Coffee growers in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand individually (a) noticed that the beans passed through the civet's, errr, digestive system more or less whole, and (b) wondered what the coffee might taste like.  Yes, they did, they really did.  Independently of each other.  So they cleaned it up and roasted it and tasted it.

And, you're probably asking, "What does it taste like?"  It tastes sensational.  And why?  Well, it says here, "Research [shows] that the civet's endogenous digestive secretions seep into the beans, carrying proteolytic enzymes which break down the beans' proteins, yielding shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Since the flavor of coffee owes much to its proteins, there is a hypothesis that this shift in the numbers and kinds of proteins in beans after being swallowed by civets brings forth their unique flavor. Moreover, while inside a civet the beans begin to germinate by malting which also lowers their bitterness."

The resulting brew is called "Chon" (weasel) in Vietnam, "Kopi Luwak" in much of Indonesia, and something I can't think of in Thailand.  It is the -- get ready -- most expensive coffee in the world.  A single cup can run you US $35 and up, leaving Blue Mountain in the shade.  No matter how many civets you've got, they can only pass so many coffee beans.  The total annual crop in Thailand is about three tons and they estimate they could sell 300 tons, so it does get a bit pricey.

And I've drunk it (but not at those prices), and it's terrific.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. I knew there was a reason why I stopped drinking coffee. Please don't tell me any secrets about wine and 7-Up.

  2. After being informed of the process, you made a decision to drink this coffee? Why? Rose drinks Nescafe by the pound (it seems). You didn't make her drink drink the production of a civet cat. I know it might be out of her price range as a daily habit, but you didn't even make Poke give it to her as a birthday gift, leading this reader of books and blog to conclude that Poke has more refined sensibilities that his creator.

    Maybe Columbian coffee isn't in the same league for connoisseurs but I trust Juan Valdez not to give me any nasty surprises in the 1/2 gallon or so I drink each day.

    Jeff, when I read the descriptions of some of the things that one can discern in the taste of some wines, I have to wonder where the grape fits in.

  3. Very informative-ahem-and interesting. Did you hear about the study that said that women who drink coffee are less depressed than when they don't. There was also a study done that blood pressure goes down up to fifty points when folks walk into a coffee shop; it's the smell. I can attest to laughing when I read this-clearly, the best medicine. Oh dear, I better stop right now.

  4. The truth is, The Weasel (made by the Vietnamese coffee company Trung Nguyen) is one of the best coffees I ever drank, literally unique in flavor. It's like a really good, very dark roast that's somehow been married to an intense, sort of cherry-scented pipe tobacco. About eight or ten different flavors in all, and all of them good. It's also got more caffeine than Colombia -- I wrote for about nine hours on the strength of two cups.

    And the thing about the grape is it can fit in anywhere, and you don't know where it's been, as my mother used to say. With this coffee, you know exactly where it's been.

    I'm glad Beth referenced Rose's addiction to Nescafe -- until Starbuck's moved into the country, that was about all anyone drank there.

    And Lil, always good to know I made you laugh.