Let this percolate: Coffee that’s good to the last dropping

I saw an article recently about a rare and exciting variety of coffee. It seems this coffee comes from coffee beans eaten, but not digested, by the palm civet, a nocturnal, fruit-eating cousin of the mongoose that lives in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Civet coffee, or “kopi lumak” as it’s known in Indonesia, sells for as much as $300 per pound in the United States; only about 550 pounds of it are produced worldwide each year. The palm civet is attracted to the ripe red coffee cherries that appear at coffee harvest time. The beans pass undigested through the civet’s digestive system and are deposited on the forest floor in little piles of “sausage-like clumps” where cutting-edge coffee entrepreneurs unencumbered by qualms about handling civet droppings gather them up.

An industrious civet coffee forager can collect up to a kilo of beans a day. The collected, undigested beans are then separated from their host droppings and processed into a coffee that is said to have a “chocolate aroma and a bold and nutty taste.” If I had been paying more attention in school when we studied the metric system, I could tell you how many kilos of civet droppings it takes to make up the 550 pounds of civet coffee produced each year. I bet it’s a lot.

I know what most of you are thinking: this would be a good time to make that switch from coffee to herbal tea. But I’m sure the more epicurious among you are wondering what a roasted palm civet with mango chutney might taste like.

I am wondering how I can parlay this intriguing piece of coffee news into a personally and professionally rewarding culinary enterprise. The first thought that came to my mind was starting a domesticated coffee civet farming operation. More palm civets means more palm civet droppings which means more production and greater profits for me and my palm civet partners.

But there’s s risk in the palm civet farming business. As I learned in college economics, if you manufacture lots of guns when people really want butter, someone with an iron fist or a secret hand will demand your supply of civets and you’ll end up having to eat your widgets. Besides, coffee purists might turn their noses up at coffee made from farm-raised civet droppings, even if they were free-range coffee civets.

Thinking closer to home, I applied the coffee civet principle to more readily, locally available members of the small furry mammal family and wondered if raccoons or rabbits could be induced to eat and expel whole ripe coffee cherries. And if so, why limit ourselves to coffee? If, for example, ferrets could be induced to eat and expel whole cocoa beans, you might be able to establish and then corner a whole new segment of the exotic hot chocolate market. And since we’re talking about great food ideas, how about raising turkeys on a steady diet of raw stuffing mix. Think of the preparation time you’d save on Thanksgiving Day! Or how about a salmon farm where the fish are fed a steady diet of lemon wedges, onions and pepper?

Despite inspiring these excellent culinary opportunities, there remain several troubling aspects to the coffee civet story. For me, the most disturbing question is who was it that first spotted an undigested coffee bean in a civet dropping on the forest floor and immediately thought “special roast” rather than “there’s something I need to avoid stepping in.” What also puzzles me is why a creature like the coffee civet would even eat a ripe coffee cherry in the first place if it knows it cannot digest the thing. Could it be an interspecies act of friendship and solidarity in which the coffee civet is intentionally passing the undigested but flavor-enhanced bean on to a fellow earth dweller, one located higher on the food chain perhaps, but lower on the personal hygiene scale?

Obviously, I still have some questions and details to work out on the whole coffee civet deal before I can hope to turn it into a viable economic enterprise. In the meantime, I’ll be busy trying to figure out how many kilos are in a pound, how many pounds are in a kilo, and what the plural of mongoose is, or are.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This is from his “Classic’s File” written years ago.