Monday, June 10, 2013

In search of coffee made from Civets' poop

“Did you just drink feces?!” This was the message that flooded my phone just seconds after my story on Civet cat dung coffee aired on national TV. The curiosity was understandable, though. It’s that kind of a feature story that one would expect in a newscast: pictures of lush green forest where the Civets breed, farmers in act of picking up Civet poop, and actual processing of coffee beans. And of course, the video that piqued the curiosity of coffee-savvy Filipinos: myself downing a cup of what is said to be the most expensive coffee in the world, with the corresponding spiels that described what I have just had: “smooth, no bitterness but fruity after taste, delicious!” 

And I mean it when I said it is delicious. When I first tried Civet coffee in Sagada, Mountain Province in Northern Philippines, I thought there’s nothing special about it, taste-wise. My elder brother thought so too when I volunteered to make one for him using a French press. When I interviewed Vie Reyes, a Manila-based coffee advocate, I was told only the avid coffee drinker would know how special this coffee blend is. After a couple of cups, there I found the difference: it’s the fruity flavor not present in more popular coffee concoctions, and that unique flavor whirring in my mouth after a cup-full of this pricey treat.

The Philippines is only among the few sources of this priced/prized commodity. Indonesia’s is called kopi luwak. Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have their own, and maybe even Ethiopia. Indonesia’s Civet coffee industry is already thriving globally, while that of the Philippines is still struggling with very limited supply of home-grown coffee, to begin with. Local supply of Arabica and Robusta couldn’t even satisfy the addiction of the Filipino coffee-drinking crowd, not to mention that its very own bold-flavored, fruity Liberica – said to be exclusively grown in Philippine soil – has yet to wow Western palates used to the gentler, more popular Arabica.

LIBERICA VARIETY of coffee, said to be grown exclusively in the Philippines and commonly known as barako, is easily identifiable with its broader leaves and larger fruit.

Processed, ready to drink Civet coffee is even hard to find in a country invaded by US-based coffee chains. I should say only the adventurous and patient few who are always on the lookout for new eating or hangout places are the ones rewarded with this gem.

I am a coffee lover. “Lover” is more apt as I only down two cups of coffee a day – three max. Journalists like myself are always stereotyped as coffee addicts, but my love affair with coffee is different. I don’t really depend on caffeine as upper. I just love the taste of coffee. I just love talking and sharing stories over coffee. It makes me happy while I’m writing my pieces when I was still a full time reporter for a business daily. My day is already complete whenever I have coffee in the morning. Failure to have coffee – be it brewed or instant -- before lunch time will surely result in a minor head ache in the afternoon, known to my friends as withdrawal symptom. I don’t really drool over it; I’m not an addict.

I was raised in Batangas, a province approximately 80 kilometers south of Metro Manila, which is known for its barako (Liberica) variety of coffee. My late father prohibited me from drinking coffee when I was a kid, though, and I only discovered the wonders of this beverage when I was already 22.

And so it was with much passion that I pursued the story on this unique coffee.

Although the subject of coffee being made up of cat poop is no longer news, its mere mention still elicits a thousand and one questions.

And so in April, I embarked on a journey to Mount Malarayat in Batangas to check out the so-called Alamid Coffee Trail.

The foothills of Mount Malarayat in Lipa City, Batangas is about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Manila. We were accompanied by Reyes and Manolo Montenegro, a farmer who has been picking Civet droppings in the past eight years.

THE START of the Alamid Trail right at the foothills of Mount Malarayat in Lipa City, Batangas.

The way to the breeding ground of Civets – locally known as Alamid -- is relatively easy and not really a difficult trek for seasoned mountaineers but could be challenging for beginners. The view is scenic as the area is actually a mountain range. Photoholics can feast themselves on wildflowers and butterflies before reaching the Civets’ lair.

The breeze is cool and enjoyable, too, a respite from hot and humid Manila.

The trek could last for an hour, depending on the stamina of the climbers.

WITH THEIR HEAVY equipment, my camera crew made it to the breeding ground of Civet cats.
For Montenegro, the climb is a cinch as he goes up to tend to his fields of crops everyday. During coffee season, which could last during October to early May when there’s sufficient heat and rain, is when the Montenegros work double time.

A sign that Civets are close by is when there are already plenty of coffee and palm fruit trees around. 

Civets feed on coffee fruit. During off-season, they munch on palm fruit. That’s why they’re more popularly known as palm civets.

Civets are nocturnal animals, and so chances of seeing one is low to nil. But Reyes and the Montenegros are there to explain the works: Civets choose the ripe coffee fruit; the cats digest only the flesh of the fruit, that’s why they excrete the coffee beans intact; It is in the intestines of the Civet cats that the coffee beans are fermented, thus the unique flavor.

Unpicked coffee beans eventually grow up as coffee trees, which bear fruit after about five years.

During coffee season, farmers could each pick a total of eight kilos of dung a day. They wash the beans many times and have them dried before selling them to traders like Reyes. The beans are roasted and then sold either to exporters or to retailers.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on just to produce the coffee, that’s why a kilo of roasted Civet coffee beans could easily fetch about P22,000 ($523)! A cup of Civet coffee sells for about P250-350 ($6-9) in cafes in the Philippines, way too expensive compared to a three-dollar Starbucks, but still a far cry from $25 a cup in the United States!
CLEANED, SUN-DRIED, and ready for roasting.
Philippine Civet coffee differs from Indonesia’s kopi luwak in the sense that the latter comes from caged cats. Reyes told me that the difference on the taste could be negligible despite the fact that the coffee beans served to caged cats are picked by humans and not naturally selected by the Civets. Only the experts can tell the difference, Reyes said, but here comes the issue on ethical treatment of animals.

Civets are nocturnal animals and putting them in cages could alter their metabolism and behavior, which could eventually take toll on the quality of the beans that they excrete. Sure, the cats are released in the wild after coffee season but their survival is threatened. Think of the Philippine variety as a produce with the “organic” tag on it.

Not too long ago, Reyes and her husband Basil own a coffee shop at the posh Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, which serves Alamid coffee. They also lead a pack of adventurers and weekend warriors to the Alamid Trail, but they’ve decided to focus on wholesale trade.

The trip consists of immersion with the farmers, sight-seeing at the marvelous views of Mount Malarayat, and a feast of local cuisine.

The trips aren’t as regular as before, but the Reyeses aren’t yet to abandon the whole thing given the eco-tourism potential of Mount Malarayat, thanks to the Civet coffee craze.

Tip Sheet:

* Wanna do the Alamid trail? Organize yourselves and ask Vie Reyes of Bote Central ( if she can accompany you. The entire trip could cost about P3,500 ($80) per head. Best time to go is between December to early March.

*  As of this writing, there are three known coffee shops selling Civet coffee or more known locally as Alamid coffee. These are 18 Days Coffee at the Cash & Carry Mall in Makati City and The Frazzled Cook in Mandaluyong City. I was told Bo’s Coffee, which is practically in every major shopping center nationwide, also serves Civet coffee.


Lia Wright said...
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