Anyone for a cup of poop coffee? Kopi Luwak or civet coffee is precisely that. Though you may turn your nose up in derision, there are people willing to pay $600 for a kilogram of this precious coffee. It all began with cute little ferrety creatures called palm civets or Luwak, who chewed on coffee berries, digested them and then excreted the undigested beans. These beans were then washed, roasted and ground to form the world’s most expensive coffee. Coffee connoisseurs swear by this unique drink for its subtle taste and nutty aroma. Even if you haven’t savoured a steaming hot cup of this priceless luxury, you may have heard of it thanks to the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer, The Bucket List. Though it is common knowledge that Kopi Luwak, or Kapi Alamid as it is called in the Philippines, is indigenous to the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi in the Indonesian archipelago, not many are aware that this rare coffee is found in India as well, though here it goes by the name of Kari Bek.
In the lush green Biligiri Rangaswamy Hills, some 90 km from Mysore, lies the world of Kari Bek. Here, one can find TR Ganesh, a lean and cheery gentleman who has the distinction of being the only person in India to produce civet coffee. As he sits on the porch of his large, airy house, nestled within a 22-acre organic coffee estate, he talks about his fondness for this unique coffee. “I first read about Kopi Luwak in the 1976 issue of the National Geographic. At that time, I had a small business in Bangalore,” he says. Ganesh moved to BR Hills in 1991 and decided to grow coffee.As the plantation started yielding crop, he began to notice coffee beans strangely lumped together, lying under the coffee plants. “I still remember that day in 1995 when I first came across beans excreted by civets. As soon as I saw the lumps, the Nat Geo article sprang to my mind. As I sat up in the night, I could see civets wandering about the plantation,” reminisces Ganesh. He immediately washed the coffee beans and ground them. “I am not a connoisseur, but that was one great cup of coffee,” he grins.
As he began observing the civets on a regular basis, he realised that the animals had a fetish for only the finest and sweetest of the berries. Considered close cousins of the mongoose, these mammals stand on their hind legs to reach the best fruit. After chewing on the fruity layer, the civets swallow the berry, which then get concentrated, cleansed and processed as it passes through their digestive tracts. “The beans are then excreted under the same tree under which they ate. So all I need to do is go around popping the poop in the basket, for roasting later,” Ganesh smiles. The process that takes place in the civet’s stomach saves Ganesh five days of processing. With nearly 5 kg collected in a season, enough for 200 cups, Ganesh gets a significant amount of coffee. “Even abroad, the maximum yield has only been up to 20 to 30 kg. In a year, merely 450 kg of civet coffee makes it to the market from all over the world. It’s because it is so fine and rare that civet coffee costs a bomb, with prices going up to $600 a kilogram,” explains Ganesh.
The Kari Bek beans are lightly roasted so as not to destroy the intricate flavours. “These flavours come about as a result of the reaction of the beans with the enzymes inside the civet’s stomach,” says Dr Jayarama, director of Central Coffee Research Institute (CCRI), based in Chikmagalur. Savouring a cup of Kari Bek is an experience, one that you are not likely to forget soon. The coffee has a complex aroma, without the bitterness that one usually associates with rich coffees. And the slower you drink, the better it is. The pleasant, earthy flavour distinguishes Kari Bek from every other coffee. The smooth finish carries with it a nutty aftertaste that feels extremely light on the palate.
The final endorsement comes from Sunalini Menon, India’s first woman coffee taster and CEO of Coffee Lab Pvt Ltd, “Ganeshmama had come to my lab for evaluation. His Kari Bek beans are extremely mature, which lends them a good taste. The coffee is being grown at just the right altitude with excellent processing equipment in place. Overall, very good coffee.”
Though coffee connoisseurs and experts swear by his coffee, Ganesh’s family and some friends still feel a bit icky about drinking civet poop. “My sisters have simply refused to touch it; they feel it will smell of the poo,” he laughs. While he has been sharing the coffee on a non-commercial basis with everyone he knows, Ganesh hasn’t got a favourable response from American agents yet. “After Japan, the US is the biggest buyer of Kopi Luwak. However, they don’t trust Indians. They feel we’ll palm off regular coffee in place of civet coffee,” says Ganesh.
Climate change, too, has played havoc with the production of Kari Bek. While earlier, coffee plants would bloom in February and March, for the last three years, it has begun to bloom in November. “The civets arrive on the plantation only in December. Early blooming means the beans are gone by the time the animals come. So there has been little or no Kari Bek in the last three years,” rues Ganesh. He is hopeful that the harvest cycle will get back to normal so that the civets can be reunited with the coffee berries.
While India is still waking to the presence of Kari Bek, scientists at CCRI have gone a step ahead—they’re developing monkey coffee. Just like the civets, monkeys, too, eat only high quality coffee berries. However, instead of swallowing the berry, they simply chew on the fruity layer and spit the bean out. “The enzymes present in their saliva act on the beans and give them a good taste. We have found that the beans spat out by female monkeys have a better flavour than the ones thrown out by the males. We are still trying to figure out the reactions that take place within the bean. This is only the second year of research,” explains Dr Jayarama.
Until the time scientists discover newer flavours of coffee in bird poop or deer excreta, let us raise a toast to the finest existing coffee in India today, the Kari Bek. After all, as someone said, a satisfying morning cup of the finest coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.