Monday, April 11, 2011
COLUMN: Kopi Luwak
In these years that I've been fortuitous enough to call the Moline Dispatch Publishing Co. my home, I've only managed to accrue one major complaint about working in the newspaper industry:
All the dang news.
Don't get me wrong -- I like to be a well-informed person, and there's none better at the information game than newspaper folk. Every day, I walk in to the center of a global information hub. Well, okay, I walk to a dimly-lit corner cubicle a flight up from the hub, but still. At the press of a button, I have access to local and national news events pretty much as they occur. But occasionally there CAN be such a thing as too much news.
Specifically, I hate health stories. Sometimes, it's simply better to be happy and naive than informed and freaked out. Every time I look down, there's some new study informing us that something we do, own, and/or eat is, in fact, a silent killer of deadly deadliness. That is, until the NEXT study comes out a few months later refuting the previous study and informing us that what we previously thought to be a silent killer is, in fact, a miracle drug that will let us live forever.
Just a few years ago, scientists told us that aspirin was bad on the stomach and should only be taken sparingly. Now it's bad on the stomach but good for pretty much every other ounce of your body. Dark chocolate used to be a guilty delicacy; now it's a recommended addition to your diet. You practically need a scorecard to keep track. And now it's happening to coffee.
We all know the hazards of coffee, right? It stains your teeth, stinks up your breath, and keeps you wired on caffeine. But just this week, a new study passed by my desk. Scientists have now discovered that coffee also prevents cancer, minimizes inflammation, deters diabetes, and might just stave off Alzheimer's. So drink up, everybody!
At least that's what was on my mind when I found myself at my parents' house the other day. My mom owns one of those fancy new single-cup coffeemakers, and let me tell you, it is an absolute breakthrough in overpricing. Actually, it makes some pretty good coffee -- if you can afford the little one-shot packets of coffee that it requires. But if there's a way to screw it up, I'll find it. And I found it.
I wasn't aware of one little fact. When you stick the little coffee packet into the machine, the machine pokes a hole in it and then brews the water through thusly. No one explained that to me, which explains why I ripped the packet open before putting it into the machine. This, it turns out, is ill-advised.
My coffee came out black as midnight on a moonless night, slightly soupy, and topped with floating coffee grounds. It was pretty much coffeepocalypse. I wouldn't touch the end result; my mom, however, was braver.
"Bleh!" she said after a timid sip. "This coffee tastes like poop!"
But as I was about to find out, perhaps that wasn't me being an idiot so much as a trend-setting gourmet.
In my quest for non-stop knowledge and entertainment, one of my weekly rituals is Hollywood Babble-On, a free weekly podcast available on iTunes. It's one of the funniest hours you will ever hear, and, if you can handle the raunchy language, I can't recommend the show enough. Thanks to a recent episode, I learned about Kopi Luwak.
It is among the rarest and most expensive coffees in the world. In America, a cup of the stuff could run you around $100. It's said to be among the richest, smoothest, and most robust coffees ever made. But it's the "how it's made" part that's completely terrifying. Kopi Luwak begins its life as coffee cherries growing in Indonesia. For years, Indonesian coffee farmers have been plagued by cute little animals called civets. These adorable bug-eyed mammals (who are, incidentally, also adorably responsible for the global outbreak of the SARS virus) enjoy snacking on coffee berries.
There's just one problem. Their little civet bodies aren't fully equipped to digest and process the coffee cherries. Ergo, they pass right on through. Like the children's book says, "Everybody Poops" -- up to and including the Asian Palm Civet. It's nature, it's life, and we're adults and can handle it.
What I CAN'T handle, though, is the deranged fellow who must have been walking along one day, came upon some civet droppings, and thought to himself, "I bet this would make a MEAN cup of joe." That's right -- the civet droppings are harvested, the coffee beans are extracted (I'll leave that to the imagination,) and the end result is Kopi Luwak (translation: any two words that sound better than 'civet poop.')
Apparantly there's acids and enzymes within the innards of the civet that gives Kopi Luwak that mmm-so-good taste that you just can't get from Juan Valdez and his boring previously-undigested coffee. And since the entire population of Asian Palm Civets can only (ahem) "produce" 1000 pounds of Kopi Luwak every year, one pound of the stuff can pull in thousands of dollars, which would, were this not a family paper, cause me to write a joke involving the word "shineola."
There's good news on the horizon, though! Up-and-coming researchers at the University of Florida have developed a process wherein they can take regular old coffee beans and treat them with the same acids and enzymes found inside the digestive tract of the civet, supposedly replicating the taste of Kopi Luwak at a much more affordable price. So to sum up: the economy is faltering, gas prices are soaring, and we can't figure out how to pay government workers without entire states descending into near anarchy... yet a crack team of scientists have spent countless time, money, and resources to successfully create the world's first artificial butt, which we then use to pass stuff through to see how it tastes. And to think, some people think our generation doesn't know its priorities.
So I say, if civets are capable of "producing" the world's best coffee, why stop there? Now that we've got an artificial method of "production," let's just start feeding all kinds of food through the Fake Buttinator 2000 and see what happens. Why stop with coffee? Let's give ice cream a shot, or maybe peanut butter!
At the end of the day, I guess a LOT of stuff we put in our mouths is pretty gross. If you really stop and think about it, milk is pretty gross. Eggs are pretty gross. Bacon is pretty gross. Yet that's how I started my day today. But we have to draw the line somewhere, and my somewhere is that I simply will not eat any food that's seen both ends of an Asian Palm Civet -- not even if we publish an article tomorrow saying it's the healthiest food on Earth.