Liquid Gold: Civet Poo Coffee

 |  July 29, 2010

The drive is breathtaking at this time of the year and a picturesque hour and a half later, we arrived at Suan Lahu, a coffee plantation on the side of a mountain overlooking the Lahu village below. Jakatae and Manop Jayo, the two brothers who own the plantation, greet us with a grin and invite us into their traditional hut for a chat. As Jakatae bustles around, stoking the fire, pouring water into bamboo cups, and slicing vegetables, and Manop rushes off into the green searching for chilli, lemongrass and other edibles, we settle in for a chat.

Twenty years ago, when the brothers were barely in their teens, Carina Zur Strassen, a Peruvian/German PhD student, lived in the village and worked on her thesis on the change of Lahu lifestyle. Over the years she became friends with many of the villagers, working with Jakatae on numerous community projects – documentary films, photography essays, opening of a village museum – promoting the conservation of nature and culture among Lahu people. Recently, they teamed up, along with Zur Strassen’s friend, Elizabeth Scribner, to create Suan Lahu coffee plantation, farm and community resource centre, offering organic practices training, scholarships, healthcare funds and support to their neighbours. This dynamic cross-cultural partnership aims to market Suan Lahu’s coffee internationally, funnelling proceeds back into community projects and initiatives.

Suan Lahu produces aromatic Arabica which is beautifully packaged and on sale here in Chiang Mai for between 250 and 450 baht per kilo, as well as being exported worldwide. Interested parties are encouraged to visit, and even spend a night, at the farm, to learn of Lahu ways of life and farming practices, to sample the freshly brewed coffee, and to feast on the stunning views.

Not very odd so far is it?

But wait.

Last year Jakatae, on one of his daily rounds of the plantation, came across an interesting pile of, well, poo, and noticed that it was embedded with coffee beans. Feeling that it was a waste of jolly good coffee beans, he scooped it up and cleaned it out. A few weeks later, a coffee expert from Chiang Mai University came for a visit and the pooey coffee beans popped up in conversation. Jakatae and Manop were stunned to find out that they had stumbled upon a gold mine. Civet (poo) coffee is – by far – the most expensive coffee in the world, sought after by gourmands of coffee far and wide, retailing at some boutique and specialist food stores for as giddy a price as 1000 US dollars per kilogram. First discovered in Indonesia, Kopi Luwak (civet coffee) comes from coffee beans which have been excreted by civet cats, which enjoy and digest the coffee berries. Something in the enzymes of the civet cats’ stomachs alters the characteristics of the coffee beans, making them more aromatic, smoother to the taste and eliminates the bitter aftertastes found in most coffee…some go as far as to claim a hint of chocolate in its flavour. The coffee beans, upon passing, are coated by the coffee parchment, and therefore quite hygienic, once roasted and ground.

The Lahu people call the civet cats pawi, and while they are still hunted for food, Jakatae and Manop’s discovery has certainly aided in their protection, at least in this Lahu village. The pawi are also known for their excellent taste, only picking the best of berries, so not only are the beans collected to be sold at premium prices, but also planted in a nursery, guaranteeing only the best in the next generation of Suan Lahu’s Arabica.

Though last year only five kilograms of civet coffee were produced due to its recent discovery, the fact that civet cats, like their cousins, return to the same location to defecate, means that future yields will greatly increase.

Like proud parents, the Jayo brothers trekked us high up into their plantation to proudly point out the rotting remains of last year’s civet loo, after a few minutes of poking and prodding, producing a handful of beans, ready to be cleaned and sold. They have now found nearly a dozen civet loo locations and are looking forward to collecting their gold-mine beans when this year’s berries ripen in a few months time.

Chiang Mai residents can sample this rare treat at a fraction of the price for 100 US dollars per kilogram by contacting Suan Lahu, or for those visiting Citylife’s garden fair in November, cups of Kopi Luwak will be sold for the intrepid.