The only man in India to produce Kopi Luwak coffee is a lean, cheerie gentleman named Ganesh. I paid a visit to his 22 acre organic coffee estate, situated just outside BR Hills wildlife reserve.
Ganesh is sitting comfortably on the porch of his large airy house, staring out at a lush and well manicured garden, when I arrive. He seems very pleased to see me and invites me to join him. After a while exchanging pleasantries about my visit to India, and his trip to the UK several years ago, he turns to me, peering over the rim of his tinted glasses. 'you know I've photographed about 30 species of birds from here' he says with a passion that only avid twitchers seem to posses 'I've looked them all up on Wikipedia'. 'I've seen leopards, had a troop of elephants barge across the lawn and I've even heard Tigers growl somewhere off in the distance'. This is a man in touch with wildlife and one with a sense of humour - I immediately warm to him. He laughs as he goes on to tell me how the Elephants don't bother him anymore 'I've dug a trench all the way around - 40 feet by 40 feet'.
He waves over to his coffee plants in the distance, as neatly arranged as his garden and spreading as far as I could see. 'it's an average size estate' he says 'but I'm no connessiur' 'I do have a fondness for a very special cup though'. He's referring to Kopi Luwak, more commonly known as 'Civet Cat Coffee' - the most expensive coffee in the world. He pours the steamy black liquid into a delicate bone china cup and offers it to me.
Every December his estate is visited by a hoard of tiny palm civets. Small nocturnal mammals which look like a cross between a weasel and a small cat. They've come for the succulent red coffee fruits, selectively picking the ripest and sweetest, wolfing them down during the night. While the damage is minimal many crop producers might go to the extreme to protect their livelihood from such an invasion, yet for Ganesh, a keen Wildlife watcher, it's actually a treat. Since reading an article in National Geographic about the production of Kopi Luwak in Korea he has simply just let the Civets get on with their nocturnal gorging. On occassion he even catches them in the act and just keeps his distance observing them as they stand on their hind legs to reach the best fruit. 'It's only the fruity outer layer that their interested in' He goes on to tell me how the two coffee beans at the core of each fruit are concentrated, cleaned and processed as they pass through the civets digestive tract, eventually being dumped - usually under a coffee plant for Ganesh to find in the morning. 'All I have to do is go around popping the poop into a basket for roasting later.' he says with a grin.
It's not as disgusting as it might sound. The faeces of the Palm Civet actually resembles a healthy snack bar - packed with grain and little else - solid and compact. 'very little mess' he assures me 'although my sister won't touch it with a barge pole' he says with a laugh. What usually takes Ganesh five days of processing is achieved in one night by the Civet. No wonder he likes it. He usually collects about 5 kgs in a season, enough for about 200 cups. This is a considerable amount when you consider that only 450 kgs ever reach the world market per year, almost all from the far east. It's rareity not only brings in a high market rate - £50 a cup in Selfridges, London - but it also brings a torrent of visitors to Ganeshs door. Every one keen to give it a try. He doesn't sell it but he does enjoy the reaction.
Now it's my chance to try this much prized delicacy. Ganesh has noticed that I've been suspiciously swilling the cup in my hands for a while now. 'Go ahead it's the best cup of coffee you'll ever have' he says confidently. 'is it safe' I reply with a nervous smile looking down into the deep dark swirling liquid, he assures me that he's fighting fit after drinking hundreds of cups. I raise the cup to my nose and take a deep whiff. The aroma is sweet, rich, smooth, the usual biterness of coffee has been replaced with a subtle hint of chocolate. It's nothing spectacular but it is pleasant. As he gestures for me to continue I nervously purse me lips over the edge of the bone china and gulp...
After a moment allowing my taste buds to recoil from the expected onslaught I find them being seduced by the flavour. It is, as it smelt - rich and smooth. To me it tastes a bit nutty. As it swirls around my mouth it enchants my palette. I'm being carried away by the flavour. But then it dawns on me...
I realise that the situation has probably heightened my senses to the subtleties of coffee - the fresh air and warm company. It's not necessarily the coffee itself. Much in the way a wine tasting workshop would focus my taste on the fruitiness of various wines, my palette is momentarily fine tuned to Kopi Luwak - no wonder it tastes so good.
It's tempting to try and hype Kopi Luwak, to describe it as a life changing experience. I now realise that if I didn't know of it's peculiar processing, and if I wasn't concentrating and willing it to provide the ultimate taste sensation, Kopi Luwak probably wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. Nether-the-less Ganesh pours me another cup which I gratefully accept.
If anything Civet Cat Coffee has made me aware of a great crime. That of thoughtless chugging. Coffee is a silent friend always by my side but taken for granted. I thank Ganesh for helping to refuel an appreciation for my caffienated sidekick and as I depart his company I make a silent pledge to try and pay attention to my next cup of smooth roast.
Photographs: Civet Scat by Kalyan Varma
Asian Palm Civet: Wikipedia creative commons