Mr. Loc is in the business of turning civet dung into profit, a man of the “weasel poop coffee” trade (the bean variety is officially dubbed Kopi Luwak) who raises the weasel-like paradoxurus hermaphroditus, or Asian palm civets, in order to dry out their excrement and extract the undigested coffee beans. He's been doing this for the past seven years and doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.
He began his venture with three civet couples bought from the Bao Loc district in the Lam Dong province. Soon after giving the couples some intimate space, 30 civets were inhabiting Mr. Loc’s farm.
Animal Activist Approved?
If you’re imagining poor, abused civets huddled up and shivering in cages, force-fed coffee berries until they defecate – well, it’s not that kind of horror story, but the civets are in cages (in their natural habitat, they need about 17 sq km for roaming, according to this article). Mr. Loc’s family is, from appearances, functional and kind (as is he) – and nothing like the cannibalistic Sawyers from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if you happened to imagine something like that.
True, civet abuse does exist. And also true, the civets here are in cages.
Palm civets are nocturnal. And because there’s a steady influx of tourists ebbing and flowing on the farm, some civets can wake up grumpy – and thus be prone to biting. To avoid people rushing off to get their tetanus shots, Mr. Loc has them in cages. A few people come along and cry at the sight of the animals, he says. Others want to play with them. So Mr. Loc keeps one out to roam the house at times.
We followed the free civet around, a cute, half-rodent half-weasel creature that had a predilection for smelling and selectively choosing coffee berries.
The place is not a concentration camp, but it’s not paradise either. If you’re sensitive to the matter, you might want to avoid it. If you’re only curious about the coffee, the trip is worth it. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Palm civets feed on insects and coffee berries, and they need both for nutrition. In a sense, they’re coffee berry gourmands, eyeing and sniffing only the cream of the crop.
To ensure the selection isn’t a waste, farmers look for red berries nibbled on by birds, since apparently they have no pesticide. The berries are then washed and given to the civets, who eat about 70% of the buffet if it's well chosen.
The civets feast at night, for two or three nights at a time. Afterwards they are given insects to help with the production of the enzyme that – paradoxically – improves the aroma of the digested bean.
A few days later, Mr. Loc collects the poop and leaves it out to dry in open air (not under the sun) for three days. During this time the civet’s special enzyme does its dance with the beans. They are then dried for 10 days in the sun, roasted and packaged. The finished product can be stored up to a year.
Mr. Loc feeds the civets Arabica, Mocha and Robusta beans. Foreigners prefer a more sour coffee, so Arabica is your ideal bean if you want something closer to what you enjoy sipping at home.
Being that Mr. Loc is in the coffee trade, we figured him something of a lay connoisseur, and sat down with him for a taste of his very own Kopi Luwak ratio.
Coffee bean ratios are a clandestine process in Vietnam. Families and shops around the county have their secret thirds – a bit of this, a bit of that. You walk into any Milano coffee shop in the country and they each have their three milk and non-milk coffee choices labeled simply as options 1, 2 and 3. The ratio is for them alone to know.
Mr. Loc gave us a ratio of three Kopi Luwak varieties. In a nutshell, the Kopi Luwak is subtly richer, a tad roastier and a smidgen smoother. It’s earthier, the bitterness is less harsh and the aroma is softer when compared to a non-Kopi-Luwak equivalent. But this was just our initial impression, and easily might have been the hype altering our perception. Or the ratio was just spot on.
The cup was a tad sour from the Arabica, aromatic from the Mocha, and produced a short-lasting bitterness (from the Robusta) that didn’t linger, leaving a pleasant roasty aftertaste.
Some time ago, experts from Trung Nguyen (they own about 1,000 coffee shops in Vietnam) came down to Mr. Loc’s to enjoy a few cups. It was worth the trip for them, and if you’re even a little enthusiastic about coffee yourself, it’s worth the sip in the midst of your Easy Rider tour. Avoid it if you’re sensitive to the sight of caged civets, though.
Directions from city center: from the Dalat market, go straight on Ba Thang Hai until you hit the intersection with Hoang Van Thu. Turn right here and keep going on Hoang Van Thu for 4 km. You will then see Cam Ly road. Ride about 800 m then turn left onto Road 725. Drive for 30 minutes along the road. You will go through the Ta Nung Pass and see Mr. Loc's coffee farm on the right, with a sign with "Bao On" on it.