The Horse Meat of the Coffee World

By Corby Kummer
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An article in today's New York Times gives interesting information on kopi luwak, the ridiculously overpriced coffee made of beans that have been through a civet's digestive tract, which supposedly ferments them to a sweet smoothness that drives connosseurs wild, and makes them willing to pay the incredible prices. Here's how the writer, Norimitsu Onishi, describes it:

Costing hundreds of dollars a pound, these beans are found in the droppings of the civet, a nocturnal, furry, long-tailed catlike animal that prowls Southeast Asia's coffee-growing lands for the tastiest, ripest coffee cherries. The civet eventually excretes the hard, indigestible innards of the fruit -- essentially, incipient coffee beans -- though only after they have been fermented in the animal's stomach acids and enzymes to produce a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste. As connoisseurs in the United States, Europe and East Asia have discovered civet coffee in recent years, growing demand is fueling a gold rush in the Philippines and Indonesia, the countries with the largest civet populations.

Seven or so years ago, kopi luwak began appearing in the news as it began being offered by specialty coffee roasters and a very few coffee houses, with a reputation as the caviar of the coffee world, with prices to match. A lot of people called to ask me what it tasted like. So I procured a few samples and ground and brewed them.

The answer: a bland, neutral coffee that tasted as though it had been treated to remove acid, with a distinctly sweet aftertaste. I found it distinctly unpleasant. It reminded me of horse meat, which I've had on numerous occasions in Italy, and which is very much like lean beef or bison but with an almost candied overtone that is somehow disturbing, probably because you know you're eating something your friends and cousins (or you) likes to ride and pet--the shibboleth against eating animals with names.

Horse meat continues to be popular in France and Italy--the very small but elegant town near Parma, Colorno, where I was teaching last week (here's a Wikipedia picture of the ducal summer palace where Slow Food's master's program occupies a number of rooms; here's a picture of the piazza right outside it on a market day, showing how intimately it's connected to the small town that grew up to serve it) has just a few food shops, but there's a macelleria equina, a horse meat butcher's shop, among them. Horse meat is particularly associated with Emilia-Romagna, the region around Parma, though many Italians still associate it with wartime substitutes for unobtainable meats.

I wasn't surprised that in Indonesia, too, it has wartime associations: I can only imagine it as a surrogate when you'd rather have the real thing.

Mr. Widjaja, the Jakarta store owner, said that the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for more than three centuries, and Japanese soldiers, who occupied the country during World War II, were the most die-hard drinkers of civet coffee. But the coffee all but disappeared after the late 1950s, he said, and resurfaced on the market only after its reputation began spreading overseas.

I certainly never wanted to taste it again: it was weird. So categorize me with the Filipino Onishi quotes--ignorant, and intending to remain so.

Alberto Pat-og, 60, a retired school principal, said he did not understand why foreigners were willing to pay so much for a cup of the stuff.

"We are a bit surprised," he said. "A bit perplexed."

His son, Lambert, 20, added, with a big grin, "We are ignorant."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/04/the-horse-meat-of-the-coffee-world/39126/