Who: Me Linh Coffee Garden
What: Coffee and weasel coffee
Where: Da Lat, Vietnam
Weasel coffee, kopi luwak, ca phe chon. Whatever you call it, let's not mince words: we're talking about brewed poop, coffee that travels through an Asian palm civet's digestive tract and then into your mug, for the price of up to $700 per kilogram.
If you've ever been curious about weasel coffee, or if this is your first time hearing about it, here's how this coffee is made, and why it costs so much.
How Weasels Make Coffee
Producing weasel coffee, of course, starts with a ripe red coffee berry (you can read more about how coffee is grown here). The berries are about the size of small grapes, and each houses one coffee bean. Once the berries have been harvested, they're fed to the weasels at a rate of 5kg per day during the harvest season. Me Linh's 15 weasels choose which berries to eat and which to pass over, which means they select the ripest and sweetest coffee beans.
As the weasels process the fruit, digestive acids and enzymes in their stomachs that the coffee beans meet along the way set off a chemical reaction, freeing amino acids in the bean. This is the step that creates the supposedly smooth, rich taste of weasel coffee. According to Me Linh Coffee Garden in Da Lat, Vietnam, weasels produce a less caffeinated brew with a deeper, lightly bitter taste.
When the, er, digestive process ends, those 5kg of coffee berries is 1.5kg of poop. The beans are carefully washed and then dried for three days in the sun, just like regular coffee. Then, they're ready for roasting, bagging, and selling.
Me Linh's 15 weasels produce 135kg of poop, and Me Linh buys another 200kg from neighboring households. This 335kg of poop becomes 230kg of weasel coffee, a year's supply.
Moka weasel coffee beans sell for 400,000 Vietnamese dong per 100 grams, or about $190 per kilogram. You can also order a cup of strong Vietnamese-style coffee for 60,000 dong, or about $3.
The Controversy Around Weasel Coffee
The high price of weasel coffee can't be measured only in dong and dollars. Where there's profit, there's an industry that prizes efficiency. Worldwide, tens of thousands of civets are used to make weasel coffee, and not all live like the civets at Me Linh, which have bigger cages and are also fed banana to give them more nutrients. Many coffee-producing civets are wild animals forced to live in tiny, dark cages without contact with other civets or anything other than coffee beans to eat. If you're thinking of buying weasel coffee for the coffee connoisseur in your life, do your research first, says Me Linh.
4 Questions for Phuong at Me Linh
1. What makes weasel coffee taste better than regular coffee, and why do you think people are willing to pay so much?
Weasel coffee is special because the weasels will select the best, ripest and sweetest coffee beans to eat. There are special acid and enzyme chemicals in their stomach which will be absorbed in the beans and make them less caffeinated, with a deeper and lightly bitter taste. To choose the better weasel coffee, choose good brands in association with tasting to see.
2. How many weasels do you have, and how much coffee do they produce?
We have 15 weasels we're raising and feeding in a family structure. Every day we feed them 5kg of ripe coffee beans (day and night) and the next morning, we will get 1.5kg of their poop. During three months of harvesting coffee beans, we produce 135kg of weasel poop. We also buy 200kg more poop from other households in neighboring areas during those three months. With 335kg of poop, we produce 230kg of weasel coffee beans, which we will sell in one year.
3. What's the process for growing coffee, and how do you help it grow?
It takes three years to get coffee fruits. The harvest is during October, November, December. To get a productive harvest, the coffee trees need to be adequately irrigated. Their branches should be cut regularly. The land around the tree roots should be dug deeply enough to hold onto water and fertilizer. An NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) fertilizer will be used three times per year. After the harvest, green fertilizer from animals will be used too. It is also necessary to use anti-pest and insect solutions.
4. Do you drink coffee?
I like to drink coffee very much.
I tried a cup of weasel coffee at Me Linh, served Vietnamese style: in a drip filter, strong and black. I'm hardly a gourmand, but I do love coffee. It may have been the beautiful view, the quality of the beans, the weasels, or all of it, but it was truly good coffee.
Would you ever try weasel coffee?
Thanks, Phuong and Me Linh!
This article has received strong reactions and created a productive conversation about the controversial practice of farming Asian palm civets for coffee. My intention was to provide information about this process, including its cruel elements, and allow the reader to form his or her own opinion. Honestly, I'm glad The Kitchn has such well-informed, level-headed readers, because yes, in many places, in particular Indonesia, civets are captured from the wild, put in tiny cages by themselves, and force fed coffee berries.
However, Me Linh is not a big operation. They have only 15 civets who live with other civets in relatively large cages. They don't force feed their civets, and they don't feed them just coffee berries. I won't argue that weasel coffee is a traditional food and should get a free pass, because it's not - it's a fad. But as far as weasel coffee farms go, they're definitely not the worst. I asked them how they ensure their animals are treated humanely, and they chose not to respond to that question (along with a few more), but their income is not large, and they have an incentive to protect their civets. I think this is a good place to visit to weigh the negative consequences to the civets.
There's also the fact that animals are just thought of differently in Vietnam than in most Western countries. A shop down the street from me in Hanoi rents out a cat to chase mice. My neighbors have a few chickens that roam free on the cement alleyway back to their house. People walk their pet dogs past the whole spitted roast dog at a big restaurant by the lake. It's a different mindset, and while that wouldn't excuse cruelty, wherever you may perceive it, it can help explain it. - Lisa Pepin