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The Milk House: Cat scat coffee

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 23 August 2019

I started drinking coffee and milking cows at the age of 12. They probably came hand in hand, if not from the early mornings then as markers of entering an adulthood of sorts. Following the example of my father, I would have the first cup in the house and then bring the second one to the parlor.

At first, I always made sure to put a paper towel over the top of the cup to shield it from manure splatter. Sometimes, however, the paper towel would slip off while I was putting the milkers on. Often – and more so as the years went on – I just didn’t bother with the paper towel.

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Sometimes I found corn at the bottom of the coffee cup, knowing well what that meant.

While it may turn the stomachs of some, the working relationship between animal feces and coffee is an old one. Presently, a cup of coffee made from the beans digested by a wild cat called an Asian palm civet (pronounced siv-it) sells for over $100 per cup, or $500 per pound. The coffee, internationally known as kopi luwak, is mostly produced on the Indonesian archipelago and is purported to be one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Not only does the Asian palm civet select the best coffee cherries to eat, but its digestive enzymes seep into the beans and alter their flavor profile on their way out. Farmers collect the scat, wash the beans in it and roast them in an oven.

The origin of kopi luwak dates back to the colonial days in which the Dutch occupied the islands of Java and Sumatra. The Dutch East India Company established coffee plantations to increase the empire’s export trade and fund their expensive wars. The native farmers desired to make coffee for themselves from the plants they grew but were prohibited by the Dutch. The farmers, however, knew the Asian palm civet snuck into the plantation at night to feed on the coffee cherries and left the beans nearly undigested in their feces. They began cleaning the beans from the droppings and made their own brew from it. The Dutch plantation owners soon heard rumors about this smooth, aromatic coffee, however, and began drinking it themselves.

At first, kopi luwak was only made from the civet droppings found around coffee plantations. This made it exceptionally rare and pricey. Nonetheless, before long, the civets found themselves part of the plantations. Battery farms appeared throughout Southeast Asia, housing thousands of Asian palm civets in small cages and force-feeding them coffee berries. This left a bitter taste in some consumers’ mouths. Some argued the civets on these farms aren’t allowed to choose the best beans, leading to an inferior product. Others just don’t want to eat the poop of a sad civet. Nonetheless, there is currently at least one venture in northern Sumatra that is paying farmers to collect the scat of wild civets as opposed to keeping them in cages. Apparently the appearance of the feces indicates whether the animal has been caged or not, allowing the factory to deter any fraudulent defecation.

Another reason why people are turned off by the idea of slave civets is because kopi luwak tends to be purchased for its novelty, not its taste. The Specialty Coffee Association of America suggests kopi luwak is valued for its story only and that it “just tastes bad.” Some of the most distinguished “cuppers” (coffee taste-testers) conducting blind tests can distinguish the kopi luwak from other kinds of brew, but state there is nothing remarkable about it, claiming that it comes across as thin and without much body. Instead, it’s more about the body of the animal that it passed through and the pleasure of telling your friends you drank cat poo.

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I often didn’t finish the coffee I brought to the parlor. By the end of the week, the pipeline would be lined with half-full cups, presumably pretty heavy with manure at that point. Eventually, my father would give in and dump them out, bringing them all to the house in a calf bucket. Learning about the high demand of coffee produced from cat excrement, however, has gotten me thinking that maybe dumping out those cups wasn’t the best move after all. Perhaps there can be a market in which to promote the unique aromatic flavors of “Parlor Coffee.” Surely there’s someone in a city somewhere who would buy it. And seeing that a cow produces a lot more manure than a small Asian cat, we could be milking a gold mine. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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