Civet coffee: Good to the last dropping

To the coffee connoisseur, apparently, it is the ultimate brew—right to the very last dropping.

Civet coffee, made from beans excreted by the weasel-like animal, is said to be the most valuable coffee in the world.

Twenty-five grams can sell for more than $150 and despite the price coffee lovers cannot get enough.

For someone who never drank coffee until a few years ago, Filipino environmentalist Vie Reyes is at the forefront of the coffee culture boom, having cornered a niche market with her expensive beans.

The sugar palm civet (paradoxorus Phillipinensis), or alamid in the local language, forages in the mountains and forests around the vast Philippine archipelago.

The nocturnal creature’s staple diet is sugar palm fruit and coffee cherries, which they devour in large quantities. But the animal only digests the pulp of the coffee cherry, so the bean ferments in the digestive system. Once it is excreted, it is collected by Reyes’s trusted gatherers for washing, drying and roasting.

Reyes, and her husband of 23 years, Basil, accidentally stumbled on to civet coffee while doing conservation work on sugar palm trees outside Manila in 2003.

“These nocturnal civets would actually eat the fruit and excrete them all over the ravine,” said the energetic Reyes (44) speaking at her home in suburban Las Pinas city south of Manila where she roasts and packs the exotic beans.

She and Basil did extensive research in rural communities and discovered that civet cat coffee was an old secret among the local folk.

“They were afraid that people wouldn’t buy the coffee if they learned it came from inside the cat.
The locals only collected the droppings for their own consumption,” Reyes said.

Coffee Alamid, as Reyes has branded her brew, is a natural blend of liberica, exelsa, robusta and arabica beans that are found in abundance in the Philippines.

Before roasting, the beans have a sour acidic smell that may turn off the less adventurous, but after being dried and then roasted, they give off a sweet chocolatey aroma. When ground and brewed, they produce a coffee that is strong and earthy thanks to the natural fermentation method.

From initially just collecting the civet droppings from one site outside Manila, the couple now go on long cross-country trips scaling remote mountains and teaching villagers how to gather the precious waste during the coffee season from October to April.

From an initial harvest of only 5kg and an investment of 600 pesos ($12) in 2003, their operation has steadily grown into a multimillion-peso business that now sells its products abroad.

Billed as the “rarest coffee in the world” the commodity is sold by Japan Airlines as a gourmet product on its business class section for $600 for 100 grams and is exported under the Coffee Alamid trademark to China, Taiwan, Australia and the United States.

As a real mark of its gourmet qualifications, it is even sold in one coffee shop in Vienna.

“I didn’t know anything about coffee. We didn’t drink the beverage, not even instant coffee,” Reyes says almost apologetically.

“This whole thing started out as an advocacy for the environment that now puts more than food on our table,” said the a mother of five who has a degree in economics from the prestigious University of the Philippines.

But taking Coffee Alamid to the mainstream was not easy, as it was initially greeted as a novelty item for tourists looking for something unique to take home.

The product was displayed at trade fairs but drew a tepid response while efforts to sell it as an authentic Filipino product failed to generate interest from big coffee shops.

It was not until two years ago, when a small article about the product appeared on the front page of a major daily newspaper, that things started to heat up.

Walk-in clients brought friends and word spread. Soon, foreigners started inquiring and offering them exclusive distributorship.

“We mortgaged our house, spent our savings and sold our cars to keep us going,” said Basil.

“It paid off and we are now devoting our lifetime and two generations of this family to coffee making.” - Sapa-AFP

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