Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary (or in this case, wealthy) People by Ordinary People, #42.
Introduction to animal-processed coffee
Our previous experience with kopi luwak — coffee beans processed through the digestive system of civets — was not a pleasant one. You can read the ins and outs of kopi luwak in the original post, but basically the beans are gathered from the poop of a mongoose relative known as a civet cat, usually the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). Due to the relative scarcity of civet-processed beans, the labor theoretically involved in gathering the poop, and the substantial novelty factor, kopi luwak demands very high prices and is often billed as the most expensive coffee in the world. Civets are native to southeast Asia, and low quality robusta beans are often a major component of kopi luwak coffee.
In my review, I surmised that it was impossible to determine if kopi luwak coffee was sustainably grown because in order to maintain volume, beans could have been gathered from any type of coffee farm, including sun coffee, especially because so much of it is cheap robusta. I’ve also come to learn another way volume is maintained is to keep civets in captivity and feed them coffee cherries. You can view videos that show civets in cages, then people supposedly harvesting civet dung off the forest floor. Likewise, this web site indicates the civets are raised on a farm. This practice is nothing new, as civets are raised for fur, musk, and food in many areas; these animals are usually caged. I have also heard that civets may be penned in a particular area where they can forage for coffee. So not only do you not know where the beans come from, there may also be animal welfare issues, as farm conditions cannot be verified.
Thai wild civet coffee
Enter Doi Chaang Coffee Company. We have reviewed Thailand’s Doi Chaang coffee before, and in that post I outlined the story behind this innovative partnership (more detail here by Canadian partner John Darch). The driving force behind the success of the Thai coffee venture is Wicha Promyong (left), a former entrepreneur from southern Thailand who “adopted ” the Akha hill tribe families in the Chiang Rai region and helped them organize and improve and market their coffee. Do not be fooled by this humble-looking man in traditional garb — he is no country bumpkin!
Recently, Wicha read about kopi luwak: the outrageous prices, the questionable quality. He asked the Doi Chaang farmers if they had observed civets in their coffee farms and seen their bean-laden scat. Sure enough — civets were present (Asian Palm Civet and Masked Palm Civet, Paguma larvata), and leaving their potentially-precious nuggets on the ground. Wicha recognized two important aspects of this situation: the civets were wild, and they were consuming all-organic, all-arabica coffee (caturra, catimor, and catuai varieties). He approached the Canadian partners, who were initially reluctant to roast the coffee and get on the bandwagon. However, they went ahead and invited various VIPs to taste the coffee — and the comments were very positive. And so here we are, another country heard from in the animal-processed coffee arena.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Doi Chaang Wild Civet coffee is that it will be sorted into two types: digested and regurgitated. It’s not unusual for animals or birds to immediately regurgitate large seeds from fruit they have just eaten rather than have all the bulk pass through their systems before they can continue to feed.
It is the digestive process of the civet that supposedly creates the unique flavor profile of kopi luwak and similar coffees. Since the regurgitated beans will not have gone through the digestive process or been exposed to digestive enzymes for any appreciable amount of time, it’s hard to imagine that the regurgitated type will have any detectable flavor difference than normally (by humans) harvested and processed beans. Of note, however, is that the “spit” coffee has traditionally been tossed in with the defecated type by kopi luwak purveyors, functionally acting as filler.
Doi Chaang will not mix the two types. This was originally described to me by Doi Chaang as “separated between the spit and swallow.” And I have decided to include those terms here as it will undoubtedly bring all sorts of new readers to Coffee & Conservation. But I digress.
Now to the $64,000 $500/pound question: how does it taste?
First, the beans were beautiful, of uniform size and shape, without pieces or defects, unlike the hodge-podge we saw in our sampling of kopi luwak. Doi Chaang’s roaster Shawn McDonald used a light hand with these beans and the fragrance was similar to the Doi Chaang peaberry, which we tried beforehand for comparison.
Our group — nearly all of whom suffered through the kopi luwak tasting — were unanimous: we really liked this coffee. It was sweet with a light chocolate or caramel flavor. Nearly every person commented on the civet coffee’s medium body, which was very rich, smooth, even creamy, a sensation that increased as the cup cooled. “Smooth chocolate” and “honey syrup” were also mentioned. The coffee was well-balanced, and just really pleasant.
Whereas the peaberry and the standard medium roast we reviewed previously did have the distinctive, though muted, Sumatran-like profile of earth and leather, the civet coffee did not. In fact, I would have been hard pressed to guess the
origin of this coffee, and I surely would not have thought it came from the same dark place as kopi luwak.
In the past, I have tried beans from a single farm that were processed in different ways (washed, semi-washed, natural). I found the degree of difference in flavor between washed and semi-washed from that experience to have been greater than the difference between the washed Doi Chaang peaberry and their civet-processed beans. Clearly, there was some difference in the civet coffee, but it was subtle, maybe more in line with the difference in flavors between microlots grown on the same farm.
Everyone who tried both Doi Chaang coffees liked the civet coffee better, hands down, and overwhelmingly agreed the civet coffee was better than the kopi luwak. Since that’s not saying much, note that the final rating of 3.75 motmots (several people gave it 4 motmots) is at the upper range of our usual coffee ratings. Is it worth $500 a pound? It was very good coffee, and I wouldn’t complain if I had paid $25 or so a pound for it. But personally, I don’t expect to ever have a coffee, beverage, or any food item that is worth that price based on flavor alone. But I will say without reservation: for those who feel compelled or interested in having an animal-processed coffee and are willing to pay for the rarity and novelty, this is it.
The Wild Civet coffee will be marketed starting in June at Urban Fare markets in Vancouver, BC, in Pusateri’s in Toronto, and on the Doi Chaang web site. I wasn’t fooling about the approximate price. The annual gathering of the Doi Chaang Wild Civet coffee is not expected to exceed 100 kilos, with only 40 being available this year. Since the only way to increase production without farming the civets is to increase natural habitat, Doi Chaang plans to step up reforestation efforts in the region of the farms. A final, nice, sustainable touch.
Update: Ken Davids at Coffee Review has just written about this coffee.