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Bean there, dung that

13 October 2004

By KURT KLEINER

FOOD scientist Massimo Marcone was beginning to despair. He had been in Ethiopia for almost two weeks in search of the source of the most exotic beverage on the planet, and he still hadn’t found a thing. Then, one hot afternoon in the scrubland outside the town of Abdela, one of his scouts made a discovery – a fresh pile of civet dung. Marcone knelt down, poked around in the dung and found a coffee bean. “For me it was an epiphany,” he says.

The find was the culmination of Marcone’s work on kopi luwak, the rarest and most expensive of all coffees. Kopi luwak is made from coffee beans that have supposedly been eaten and excreted by civets, cat-like creatures that feed on ripe coffee cherries. Marcone had already shown in the lab that kopi luwak beans have a unique chemical profile. Now he had proved that the beans really are eaten and passed by civets.

“There are people who say kopi luwak is an urban legend,” he says. “It’s not. Science has actually proven that it has gone through the gastrointestinal tract of an animal.”

Maybe the sceptics only wish it was a myth. After all, the idea of drinking coffee that has been dug out of animal dung seems unappetising at best. But the coffee is said to have a unique flavour, and so many coffee enthusiasts are anxious to try it that the waiting list stretches for years. With only about 230 kilograms of kopi luwak produced annually, it costs close to $1000 per kilogram – 10 times as much as the next most expensive coffee varieties.

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