From the Bowels of a Beast

In the foggy hills of the northern Philippines, committed and courageous harvesters reach into the unlikeliest of places to produce some of the world’s most coveted coffee.

From the Bowels of a Beast

Civets—furry, weasel-like creatures with pointy noses and a love of frolicking over rocks and up and down trees—have long been valued for their excretions. African civets were the original source of perfume musk, scraped from the skin of living civets or squeezed from the glands of dead ones. In India today, as in ages past, the oil extracted from pieces of their meat is still used as an indigenous cure for scabies. In Southeast Asia, civets shit gold.

A dried civet stuffed with straw. (Photos courtesy Aurora Almendral)
A dried civet stuffed with straw. (Photos courtesy Aurora Almendral)

More precisely, on a gram-per-gram basis, the coffee beans found in civet shit are worth roughly twice that of silver.

It is literally shit–it comes out brown and in a tubular shape. Its texture and contents vary depending on what the civet may have been eating. Like any shit, we could be flushing it down the toilet or cursing every time we step in it. We could choose to find it dirty and worthless. But, no. When it comes from a civet, we prize it.

At Dean and Deluca in Manhattan, fifty grams of civet coffee goes for $60. For the equivalent price of a kilo of the coffee, about two pounds, you could get a Marsèll bi-fold, crocodile skin wallet with a leather interior, a snap-close coin compartment, two billfold pockets and six card slots. Or a pair of hot pink, four-inch Christian Louboutin patent leather heels covered in tonal spikes.

Drink it - it's shit. (No, really.)

There is no practical reason to drink civet coffee. The caffeine won’t give you special powers of productivity. It won’t clear your digestive tract. It’s a plain and simple luxury.

I decided to go find out what makes their shit so special.

Coffee grows where it’s cold and high, places like the bucolic mountaintop village of Sagada, fourteen hours north of Manila. To get there, I took a bus to Baguio, the largest city in the Cordilliera mountain range, where I spent the night in a grimy roadside traveler’s hotel. Waking up early the next morning, I caught another, older bus, and took a nauseating, air-condition-less ride up an exceedingly steep and winding mountain range.

Sagada, a mountain province in the Philippines.
Sagada, a mountain province in the Philippines.

The view through the window was frightening and spectacular. Pine trees disappeared into the clouds. The side of the mountain plummeted. Houses were fixed to the earth in some places and, in others, floated above it on stilts. It is a place where villagers farm cabbage and corn out of carved-out mountain terraces and the world looks like an old topographical map.

After I got to town I still had to takean hourlong hike through a muddy jungle to get to the coffee plantation, with much sweating and stripping off of layers that had earlier on seemed so sensible in the thick morning fog. My guides, two native Igorot named Lambert and Masli, scampered up and down the wet slopes foraging ferns for dinner. I trailed behind them, more than once slipping onto my ass.

Up on the slope, nestled between towering limestone cliffs and a small rushing river, we found a scattering of coffee trees. There wasn’t the ordered tidiness of other agriculture. Low and shiny, with elegant leaves, they were dispersed through the jungle growth, shaded by wide-leafed banana trees. Turquoise and black butterflies flitted about.

Masli, my guide, at the entrance to the coffee farm.
Masli, my guide, at the entrance to the coffee farm.

This is paradise to the civet: virgin growth jungle with food to eat and a limestone jungle gym. I hoped to look up and see the bushy shadow of one of them, darting up the side of a cliff and into a little cave. Maybe it would peek out and wiggle its little nose before curling up for a nap against the cave wall, snout tucked into compact paws.

But that was never going to happen. In the five years that my guide Lambert has been harvesting civet droppings, he has never laid eyes on the beast. They’re nocturnal. Shy, he says. They can hear you coming a mile away.

But Lambert has learned a surprising amount about civets. From observing the way they poop, he knows that they are creatures of habit. He knows that civets start frequenting the coffee farm around November, when green coffee berries begin to ripen into bright red grape-sized fruits. He knows that they a pick a path to get there–one they will take for the next several months, leaving a predictable trail of poop in their wake.

Early in the season, civets eat other fruits and meat on the way to the coffee farm. Lambert admits in Tagalog, his third or fourth language, that the smell is “kadiri,” or disgusting. But after a couple of weeks, he says, when the civet has been munching almost exclusively on ripe coffee berries, the odor neutralizes, smelling more like dirt and dry leaves.

Civet coffee.
Civet coffee.

Harvesting civet droppings hasn’t been easy for people like Lambert. When he first started out, his father, a schoolteacher, wasn’t sure there was any money in harvesting coffee. He was understandably skeptical about his son’s plan to go around looking for shit, picking it up and putting it in his backpack.

The job, rather unsurprisingly, is also a surefire way to get teased by friends. But Lambert says he doesn’t care.

“I ignore them,” he says, “because I know the price.”

On a good day, with six hour’s work at the height of the season, Lambert says he is able to harvest a full kilo of civet droppings. Depending on the quality of the product (some poop is better than other poop) and the vicissitudes of coffee market, that kilo could fetch him between 450 and 1,000 pesos—about ten to twenty-five dollars, or two to five times the daily agricultural minimum wage in the mountains.

During the season, it adds nicely to the income of the family. Lambert splits his earnings with his mother, who runs a business selling secondhand clothes, and no one can argue with the money, whatever its origin. His father has come around. Lambert knows he’s been telling other tribesmen to stop hunting and eating civets, because dead civets don’t poop.

This luxury began as a necessity. The first people to drink civet coffee were Indonesian farmers. It’s said that the farmers were forbidden coffee beans by their colonial Dutch plantation owners, so to get their caffeine, they picked off and roasted the beans found in the excreta of their fellow coffee-loving civets.

About twenty years ago, people slowly began to hear about this fascinatingly unsavory drink and the dynamics of novelty, desire and limited supply came together to drive up the price of civet coffee, turning it from a quirky backwoods practice into a delicacy.

Harvesters say the quality of civet coffee starts with the animals’ discerning palette. They only eat coffee berries at their brightest and ripest, when the sugar content is high. The civets’ digestive systems works off the pulp of the berry and ferments the bean. Fermentation by the civets’ stomach acids is the extra step that separates it from conventional coffee production. Connoisseurs say this digestive cycle in the animal’s gut softens the acidity of the coffee and produces a unique flavor (and one not tinged with shit, mind you).

There were still a few dark, late-season berries on the branches when I was at the coffee plantation. I picked one and bit into the flesh. The skin was glossy and mildly grassy. It gave way with a firm snap. Inside there was a thin layer of pulp. Two slippery, light green coffee beans fell out. The sweetness in my mouth was clean, and pleasant. I could see why civets like this.

Masli gathering beans.
Masli gathering beans.

That day, along the edge of the limestone cliff, Lambert and Masli only managed to find a single pile of beans. The storm the night before had washed the slopes clean. The two harvesters meticulously picked at the ground, brushing aside dried leaves and dirt to make sure they found each bean.

Lambert harvests in more than one coffee field at once, and often, especially at the start of the season, before he has deciphered the civets’ pathways, it takes him a few hours to find a pile. “When you see some you really get excited,” he says, “especially if there’s a lot.”

Back when he first started out, Lambert would take any bean he found. He wasn’t able to tell the difference between the good stuff, and the stuff that bats sucked up and spat out. He didn’t know what a good coffee bean was, and what was too small or deformed to roast.

Enter Goad (go-add) Sibayan, the patron saint of civet shit in Sagada, one of the few provinces high enough to grow elegant Arabica beans. Goad taught Lambert (and every other civet shit harvester in the mountain province, for that matter) everything he knows.

Goad is a native Igorot. A mountain of a man in a big shirt, knee-length denim shorts and flip-flops, he sits in a plastic chair in the open-air café he owns in town. Goad’s little boy was hugging his belly, leaning his cheek along the top of the roundness, while Goad stroked his soft hair affectionately.

He told of how he introduced the practice of harvesting civet droppings to Sagada in 2004, after learning about it from a distributor in Manila. He said that when he started out as a harvester, he thought he would one day become a farmer with his own coffee plantation. But that’s not how things worked out.

Goad works in production. He acts as a liaison, connecting the civet coffee in Sagada to the distributor in Manila. He is also tasked with training the collectors and then sorting the fruits of their labor.

Gatherers get paid by weight, so the more they bring in, the fatter their wallet, and since the beans can be scarce, some gatherers succumb to temptations to up the weight by cutting that civet shit with lower-quality stuff –lower quality meaning bat-sucked beans, deformed beans and plain old coffee they’ve plucked and cleaned off themselves.

As part of the inspection process, Goad tells his collectors not to wash off the beans. He wants “visual confirmation,” the sureness that comes with seeing them still lodged in shit. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes the rain, which around these parts can fall hard for hours, washes away all the brown stuff and leaves nothing but loose piles of light green beans. Other times, especially at the height of the season, the civets so gorge themselves on coffee berries that they poop almost pure beans with little other brown material to confirm that it had, indeed, passed through a colon.

Goad brings out a basket of civet droppings that could fetch a couple thousand dollars in the open market, and picks up a clump.

“A small civet shat this out,” Goad says. He can tell by the size of the poop.

He picks up another. “This is from early in the season.” There are all kinds of seeds in it, a few coffee beans and some stuff that looks like it came from a passion fruit. “These are the seeds from the fruit that the civet ate on its way to the coffee plantation.”

Another clump is furry. “This is the shit that comes out when they’ve just eaten a wild chicken.”

He picks up a loose bean and licks it. “That’s how you know if it’s real civet coffee or not.” It’s not the taste of excrement he’s looking for. Normal pulping, and even the sucking of bats, will leave a thin layer of mucilage on the surface of a coffee bean. When wet, the surface of the bean becomes slippery. A previously digested bean is rough. All the sweetness has been scraped off by the civets’ teeth, tongue, stomach acids and intestines.

Goad can also tell by the color. He holds up a fermented civet bean next to a human-picked Arabica one. The one fermented in the belly of a beast is ever so slightly yellower than the pale green of a regular Arabica bean.

Goad goes through a batch of beans in an inch-deep, three-foot wide basket where he can spread them out into a single layer to inspect them. He removes the malformed beans and any and all filler that tricky collectors may have tried to slip in. Then he dumps them in a bucket of water to get rid of all the floaters (no one likes a floater), washes the beans and dries them.

Each coffee bean comes wrapped in a dry, papery hull. In conventional coffee production, this is removed by machine, which inevitably cracks and destroys some of the beans. But because each civet bean is so precious, Goad hulls them by hand, using a long, well-worn wooden pole that looks and works like a six-foot tall pestle.

After the hulling, Goad roasts the beans in the only high-altitude hot air roaster in the Philippines. He explains that for the same reason water boils at a lower temperature in Denver than elsewhere in the U.S., in Sagada (altitude 5,022 feet), coffee beans can roast low and slow for longer periods of time without burning, producing a more aromatic cup.

Raw coffee beans in Goad's roastery.
Raw coffee beans in Goad’s roastery.

Goad is entrepreneurial with a civic mind. He wants his fellow Igorot to modify their perception of farming from dirty work to an honest means to an end: stewarding the land, respectable work. Not drudgery reserved for those who flunked out of trade school or are desperately hungry. All in all, civet coffee provides only a small portion of the coffee that comes through his roaster. Both civets and coffee plants are fickle, and he averages just about 200 kilos a year. Most of his coffee is human harvested. But for Goad, the value of civet coffee lies in its creating financial incentives for land owners to plant Arabica trees and keep agriculture in the region alive. He finds that land owners are more willing to plant coffee if they think civets might decide to move into their farms and poop beans that are three to ten times more profitable than anything they could pluck from a tree.

In the nine years that Goad has been doing this work he’s managed to change the perception of civets from just another wild beast, delicious cooked over a spit and eaten with a cold beer, to a precious regional animal, better alive than dead. Villagers sometimes bring him dead civets, and live civets that they capture, which can be worth up to 300 pesos.

“I don’t tell them this,” he says of the live civets, “but all I do is take them and release them back into the wild.”

The one question Goad gets most often from farmers is the same one I ask him during our meeting, “Bakit mahal?—Why is it expensive?

Goad offers taste as an explanation. The tasting notes that generally apply to civet coffee are 1) smooth, and 2) naturally sweet with little to no bitterness. It is light and bright, not dark and muddy.

Thanks to its decidedly gross provenance, civet coffee has proven great for playing tricks on people. At a coffee conference, Goad once gave someone, an older gentleman, a cup without telling him what it was. Immediately the man knew it was different, calling it “nalamuyot,” a word that means something close to smooth, but defies translation. He liked it, and he went right ahead and asked for another cup.

So some people particularly like the taste. But why the astronomical price?

Civets can’t eat and poop out more than what fits in their bellies. There are only a few places where coffee both grows and the right kind of civets roam. And civet coffee, like other luxuries, can’t be mass-produced. (There are, of course, some producers who have captured civets, caged them, and are force-feeding them coffee berries to control the uncertainty in wild harvesting.)

Like any other luxury, the price of civet coffee is informed by human desires that transcend its tangible form. We want a pair of $700 five-inch Gucci stilettos not because they make us any taller than a five-inch pair from Forever 21, but because the Gucci shoes are more than the measure of the heel.

Everything being accessible means that it’s harder to find anything unexpected. There was a time when cloves and black pepper were so exciting that people were willing to risk death to cross oceans they didn’t even know existed to get their hands on more. Now that the whole world is less than a day’s travel away, to get the same rush, we have to plumb ever-stranger depths. We hope that something as bizarre as a food that was fermented in the digestive tract of a wild animal might produce a flavor beyond the reach of normal cookery. If civet coffee does indeed achieve that, then we must admit the difference to be subtle.

At any rate, part of the price of each cup can be found in the hope for something more intangible–that exploration and discovery can be found in the bowels of a beast.

* * *

Kristofer Delaney is a graphic artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. He hasn’t gone a day without coffee in twenty years.