KNOWN IN the world of coffee drinkers as Kopi Luwak, Kafe Balos, or Kape Alamid, civet coffee is probably the most expensive cup of coffee you can find in the menu of coffee shops in the world. In some coffee shops inGenSan, a cup could cost up to Php 300 (about $6). In the US, it could go as high $50 per cup. You must wonder what makes it so expensive.
In the quaint village of Purok 8, Barangay Kinilis, situated halfway to the peak of the majestic Mt. Matutum inPolomolok, South Cotabato, I have discovered what made this famous coffee extraordinary and worth its price. We walked through the process by which the coffee beans become what the B’laans, the local tribe, call Kafe Balos.
For starters, aside from the price, one more fact will keep you thinking twice if you would down a cup or even take a sip of this gourmet coffee: it is derived from the excrements of an animal, the civet cat (Paradoxurus philippinensis). In some parts of the world, this particular coffee is called fox dung coffee or weasel dung coffee, because the civet cat looks like both a fox and a weasel.
Together with our guide, Fred Fredeluces, an agricultural engineer who, for twenty-five years, has been working with the B’laans, we followed the trek to the coffee plantation, where poops of the civet cat can be found. The coffee plantation is located under big trees in the forest where the coffee plants could obtain partial sunlight.
Every morning, the locals would gather the civet poop from the forest ground. We were lucky to find several droppings when we visited the area and to encounter locals who were collecting them. The coffee beans are still intact when they come out of the other end of the gastrointestinal track of the animal. We did not expect to see civet cats because these animals are nocturnal in nature; they come out only at night.
It is said that the civet cats choose only the ripest of the coffee berries, which is why the coffee brewed from its dung has superior taste. True enough, when we examined the coffee beans, they looked just perfect.
The collected droppings are then cleaned and dried. The beans are still covered with hulls, which are then removed before the beans are roasted to brittleness suitable for grinding. In the processing plant, these are done with specialized machines. In the village, however, locals perform these steps manually.
My fellow blogger, Donna, put the power of her muscles to test by pounding the coffee into powder using wooden mortar and pestle. Even at a distance, we could smell the aroma of the coffee, which made us even more eager to taste this much-talked-about brew.
Not long enough, we were able to savor the chocolaty coffee beverage from freshly-roasted and -ground coffee beans.
According to scientific research, civet coffee has superior taste because, inside the civet cats’ digestive system, the beans undergo a chemical reaction similar to wet process or fermentation. The Lactic acid bacteria in the intestines of the civet cat break down the proteins in the coffee beans, lessening the bitterness of the resulting coffee.
A Model of Sustainable Development
Long before the locals knew that the coffee beans from the civet cat’s poop can still be processed into a drink that would one day change their lives, the poor animals are hunted and killed for food and before the area around Mt. Matutum had been declared a protected landscape, the locals allowed loggers to cut down trees with the promise of improving their lives. Before they knew it, they were only tricked by some greedy people.
It is the civet coffee industry gave them a new hope. Without having to catch the civet cat and cut down trees, the locals make a living out of nature’s gift to them.
One of the locals said, “Kung putlon namo ang kahoy, wala na’y puy-an ang balos.” (If we cut down trees, we destroy the homes of the civet cat.)
“This is a good model for sustainable development,” says Sir Fred, referring to how they produce their civet coffee.
They have a set rules in collecting civet cat droppings. Not everyone can just collect the precious poops from the forest floors. Before he can be allowed to, he must plant coffee first. That way, they are increasing the area planted to coffee.
“We started with 70 hectares in 2006, now we have more than 300 hectares,” says Sir Fred.
Because the coffee are planted in select areas in the forest, the local farmers do not have to cut down trees to make way for the coffee plantation. The civet cats are also left in the wild, which is their natural habitat, unlike in some civet coffee producers where the cats are caged. According to Sir Fred, the civet cat population in the area has quadrupled in the past two years.
A kilogram of dried civet cat poop is sold by local farmers at a price of Php 900 (about $20) compared to the beans that are not eaten by the civet cat, which are sold at Php 90 per kilogram.
According to a study, the average household income before was only about Php 900 per month. Today, each household earns a minimum of Php 3,500 every month.
“Sauna, taman grade four lang gyud mga tao diri. Karon, makapa-eskwela na mi sa among sa mga kabataan,” (Before, the highest educational attainment of the people here is only up to grade four. Now, we can support our students’ education.) says another local.
Most importantly, the locals now are very much aware of their role in the protection of the forest and all life forms it supports.
The next time you sip your cup of the delicious Kafe Balos or Kape Alamid, you also help protect the Mt. Matutum protected lanscape and improve the lives of the B’laan coffee farmers.
Definitely, civet coffee is more than just a cup a coffee.