IT’S NOT UNUSUAL to catch the occasional whiff of pungent seafood in the coffee plantations of Coorg. For some, like Chikmagalur-based coffee gatherer Modit Goudar, it is a smell they’ve been waiting for all year— when the Asian Palm civet cat starts to feast on Arabica beans, a sign that the cherries are ripe for harvest. But these days, the smell also signifies it’s time to start hunting for fallen dry wood and patches of dried leaves, two spots that the cats particularly love to defecate on.
When Goudar finds a fist-sized lump of the cat’s brown sticky droppings, he immediately starts to separate big whitish chunks from it with surprisingly tender care. The chunks are the whole undigested coffee beans that the cats had so discerningly chosen to consume 24-36 hours ago. They are now worth anything between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,500 a kg to Goudar and other plantation workers like him, and worth Rs 8,000 a kg for the Coorg Consolidated Commodities (CCC), a start-up that has decided to convert local cat shit into the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak. It is to be sold exclusively in the Indian market.
“In a year, the maximum civet faeces that can be gathered would be 40 to 50 kg; that is not enough to make exporting the beans profitable for us. The certifications and shipping alone would cost more than the profits we would make. Instead, we decided why not sell Kopi Luwak locally at a cheaper rate than what you would get in the Gulf or the West? Expats as well as Indian coffee enthusiasts would be happy to buy a more affordable, homegrown bean,” explains Narendra Hebbar, one of the founders of CCC.
Presently, the rate for Kopi Luwak coffee in Dubai starts at Rs 30,000 per kg, and in the US, it sells for Rs 25,000 per kg. Other brands of Kopi Luwak coffee that are imported in India sell for around Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a kg. But Hebbar is convinced that there is a market for an Indian version in India, provided the price is right. “We will also set up a café in Coorg [in addition to online retailing] to sell civet cat coffee as well as give customers a chance to taste the brew,” adds Hebbar.
Civet cat coffee was first produced in the forests of Indonesia, where, in the early 18th century, natives learned that a certain species of luwak or civet cat was able to eat coffee and leave whole beans in its droppings. The cat’s digestive system was also fermenting coffee beans overnight, saving them both time and labour. The beans would pass through the gut of the cat, which is very fond of coffee cherries for its juicy pulp, without any contamination or harm but with added notes of chocolate and espresso that turned out to be incredibly appealing to drinkers.
“It is fairly easy to make the coffee. You only have to dry the beans [if the shit is fresh and soft], wash it well and then hand pound it or husk it with machines. It isn’t nearly as easy to collect the beans, though. The reason it’s so expensive is because the quantity is limited and collecting is hard work—on a 20-acre plantation, you’ll find maybe 5-6 kg of usable beans,” says Hebbar. He adds that the season for Kopi Luwak coffee is also short (between October to March). “There are four specifies of civet cats in India, two of them vegetarian and two non-vegetarian. The vegetarian cats eat coffee cherries, but they will only eat ripened ones. Thus, the harvest season for Arabica beans also becomes the harvest season for cat coffee. In addition, changing rainfall patterns can affect the beans ripening period which sometimes the cats end up missing due to their late arrival on the plantation.”
There is also an environmental angle to Hebbar’s business plans. He explains that illegal hunting of civet cats has become increasingly common in the district and he hopes that awareness among planters about the worth of civet poop will help reduce incidents of slaughter. “Even though hunting is banned, unfortunately many continue to kill these cats under the cover of darkness. We are hoping that by offering a good price for the faeces, they will realise the importance of civet cats,” says Hebbar. The coffee that CCC plans to sell this December onwards will be free-range (made from wild and not caged cats), making it both healthier and tastier. “Civet cats know which beans are the best to eat. If you cage them and hand-feed them beans that humans have chosen, the resulting beans will not be the same. It is also cruel and environmentally-incorrect to cage wild cats,” explains Hebbar.
India, one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of coffee, has been rapidly diversifying its product range in recent years. “There is a growing market for Indian coffee abroad not just for regular Robusta and Arabica, but also for different, unique blends,” says Nishant Gurjer, a sixth-generation coffee grower from Chikmagalur, Karnataka. With the introduction of cat poop beans, new single-estate beans and coffee blends that are roasted-to-order, Indian coffee has finally begun to test its limits.