At $227 a Pound, That Civet-Poop Coffee Better Be Authentic

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 23 2013 10:15 AM

At $227 a Pound, That Civet-Poop Coffee Better Be Authentic

FT-Asian palm civet
A juvenile Asian palm civet

Photo by W. Djatmiko via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, the best coffee in the world comes out of the backend of an Asian palm civet. After the little tree beasts feed on coffee cherries, they jettison the now-processed beans, and locals have learned how to turn these little nuggets it into black gold. The end product is called Kopi Luwak, the Indonesian words for coffee and civet, and the stuff goes for between $150-$227 a pound. I haven’t tried it, but Kopi Luwak is renowned to be so smooth and caramely, you’d think it squirted out of an angel, rather than some cross between a weasel and a raccoon. Anyway, it’s so profitable, rascally entrepreneurs have taken to making counterfeit civet poop coffee.

This, apparently, is a problem. Not because counterfeit Kopi Luwak can harm you or that it’s defrauding starving children somewhere. But because when bucket listers drop their dough on the best of the best, they want to know it’s traveled through the digestive system of a rascally tree cat.

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Now, before you write your senator decrying the global tragedy that is counterfeit, elitist scat-coffee, don’t worry—science is on the case.

Using a complicated form of molecular analysis—“gas chromatography coupled with quadrupole mass spectrometry (GC-Q/MS)-based multimarker profiling”—a team of Japanese and Indonesian researchers believes they have isolated a few markers that distinguish true Kopi Luwak from the posers. For reference, the methods used by authenticity experts leading up to this study included the old-fashioned and unreliable human senses. (Can you imagine relying on sight, smell, and taste to identify proper poop coffee? How barbaric!) 

Analyzing the molecular profiles of true and fake Kopi Luwak meant testing every possible scenario: raw beans, roasted beans, raw/digested, roasted/digested, raw/processed, and roasted/processed. A number of possible markers emerged, but in the end, it was the levels of citric acid that served as a chemical fingerprint of 100 percent civet-voided Kopi Luwak. The analysis even proved sensitive enough to differentiate between pure Kopi Luwak and a 50/50 blend of Kopi Luwak and regular coffee.

So, chalk another one up for science. Unfortunately, this news might be rather bad for civets. As Oliver Milman reported for the Guardian last fall, skyrocketing prices for Kopi Luwak encourage locals to catch civets and keep them in tiny cages where they are force-fed coffee cherries. Civets are only listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but this status could change rapidly as people seek to cash in on this viverrid version of the goose that laid the golden egg.   

It makes you wonder, though … in the world of food authentication by scientific overkill, who do you think signs more autographs—the civet poop coffee guys or the team that identifies counterfeit honey with lasers?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.