Connoisseurs of Tea are known to pay sky high prices for high quality natural products grown in high ranges like Darjeeling because the flavor obtained from such sources are unique. There are reports that such tea leaves cost 100-500 % more compared to their counterparts from the plains. The reason for such variation in prices is attributed to the cocktail of delicate aroma developed at high altitudes. But can one imagine such a situation with regard to coffee beans? Apparently there seems to be a limited trade in high value coffee beans "produced" in some Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia that can command prices as high as USD 2500 PER kg compared to less than $ 5 per kg for normal coffee, consumed world over! What is the "magic" involved in making such high priced coffee products from the very same varieties like Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa etc?
As many of world's inventions are products of accidental events, the so called "civet coffee" known locally as Kopi Luwak, considered a gourmet product, also emerged from the jungles of Indonesia as an accidental discovery by the local population. To day this product is made in the islands of Sumatra, Java, Sulawezi in Indonesian Archipelago, in the Philippines, East Timur and Vietnam though it is known by different names in different countries. One wonders whether the so called connoisseurs of civet coffee would still enjoy the product if they really know the secrets involved in making this product with a halo around it.
Wild coffee plants that grow in certain regions where civet "cats" roam freely are the source from where civet coffee originates. Normal coffee berries are eaten by the animals when they are ripe and fleshy and after digesting the fruit pulp, the seeds are thrown out through the feces in about 36 hours' time which are collected by the locals for further processing. After gathering the beans from the feces, they are washed, sun-dried, lightly roasted, ground and brewed for obtaining an aromatic coffee with less bitterness and mild chocolaty after taste! The series of biological changes that take place in the digestive tract of the animal are due to action of several enzymes on the coffee berries and it is even reported that slight germination and mild Maillard reaction make the final coffee more aromatic and less bitter. Unlike normal coffee which requires admixture with Chicory to impart strength and body to the brewed beverage, civet coffee is reported to give a syrupy product with clean after taste. Why the western tourists who flock the tourist spots in South East Asia and enjoy the treat with civet coffee, with high sensitivity to food borne pathogens, is not concerned of E.coli or any other pathogens than can taint the final product remains a mystery!
Whether animal protectionists would like it or not there are captive civet farms being maintained in some coffee estates with closed boundaries to let the animals allowed to roam free during the nights to eat and defaecate for getting civet coffee of uniform quality. Asian Palm Civet is a small creature weighing hardly about 3 kg with the over all size of about 60 cm and a tail measuring about 45 cm. The anal scent glands secrete a fluid with a musky odor and whether this secretion plays any role in the characteristic traits of Civet coffee is not clear. Commercial considerations, with such high prices being fetched for this coffee, have led to artificial Civet coffee like products made by treating the harvested beans with a cocktail of enzymes that simulate the action in the digestive system in the animal, first pioneered by Vietnam. Civet coffee also goes by names such as Weasel coffee, Fox coffee, Cut chong, Squirrel coffee, Caphe chin etc. Kopi muncak is made from the dung of barking deer similar to civet coffee in some parts of Southeast Asia.
Considering that this highly priced coffee version is produced and consumed in limited quantities it is doubtful whether there is sufficient space for more players in the already crowded field. But for some limited studies by Vietnam on the biochemical aspects of converting fresh coffee berries into Civet coffee, no worth while scientific data exists on this unique bio-processed coffee. The need of the hour is to by-pass the animal and produce similar product with same characteristics and promote the product world wide. A cooperative effort amongst India, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam can put civet coffee on a better scientific and commercial footing in the coming years.