Tue, Jan 20, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Civet cat coffee `good to the last dropping'

TASTES LIKE...Indonesians relish a drink made from coffee beans eaten, digested and then excreted by the picky animals that have been blamed for causing SARS

AP , JAKARTA

A cup of ``Kopi Luwak'' at a coffee shop in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday. The slightly oily brew is made from half-digested coffee beans.

PHOTO: AP

SARS fears have stopped the Chinese from eating civet cats. But that hasn't turned off others from sipping the strangest of brews -- one they insist is made from coffee beans eaten, partly digested and then excreted by the weasel-like animals.

The story goes like this: Civets live in the foliage of plantations across Southeast Asia. These fussy foragers pick the best and ripest coffee berries. Enzymes in their digestive system break down the flesh of the fruit before the animals expel the bean.

Workers collect beans from the plantation floor, wash away the dung and roast them to produce a unique drink that devotees might say is good to the last dropping.

Skeptics, though, dismiss it all as a weird and unverifiable marketing gimmick.

Still in Indonesia's capital Jakarta, the owner of three fashionable cafes, Agus Susanto, sells what he claims is a mix of regular beans and those that have passed through civets. The blend and the cafes are both called "Kopi Luwak" -- in English: "Civet Coffee."

"Our coffee has a strong taste and an even stronger aroma," Susanto said by telephone from his factory in central Java.

In Vietnam, now the world's second-largest regular coffee grower, a blend supposedly containing some civet beans is produced by the Trung Nguyen company under the "Weasel Coffee" brand.

In the Philippines, the Old Manila Coffee House used to sell a civet brew, but supplies have dwindled over the years, said Ellen Tuason, its finance officer.

"Some of our guests said it was an aphrodisiac. It has a strong coffee smell, but different. There is a distinct odor and flavor," she said.

The beans are also marketed internationally. Several US-based Internet coffee traders claim to offer them for up to US$325 a kilogram, placing it among the world's most expensive beverages.

However, many in Asia's coffee trade doubt whether the beans are truly produced in significant quantities, if at all.

"There are maybe a few bags here, a few bags there, but mostly its just a myth," said Victor Mah, a Singaporean who has been selling coffee from Southeast Asia for more than 25 years.

Others just won't swallow the claims.

"I think it's a big scam," said Mark Hanusz, who has spent eight months traveling Indonesia researching his book about coffee called A Cup of Java.

In the past few weeks, authorities in southern China have exterminated thousands of civet cats on fears that they carry and spread the SARS virus.

The World Health Organization also sees a potential relationship between the furry black-and-white animals and the disease that killed 774 people worldwide last year.

If that link is confirmed, consumer interest in civet coffee could plummet.

But in Jakarta, Susanto isn't worried. He expects to keep selling what he claims is 100 tonnes of civet coffee a month.

"There are many different kinds of civets in this world. The Indonesian ones are different from those in China," he said.

Henry Harmon, an American from Boston, Massachusetts, who owns a chain of coffee shops in Indonesia, said he thinks the drink is for real, though he has no plans to introduce it in his stores.

"It has a nice romantic -- well semi-romantic -- twist to it, but I'd be worried about product liability lawsuits," Harmon said.

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