Excrement Coffee

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Intiaz Chowdhury, VMS Undergrad

It was a warm, sunny day – for the middle of winter. I got off work and made my way to the library. As much as I was loving the walk, I was completely exhausted after a full day of classes and research. I decided I deserved a reward, a coffee with lots of extra sweetener, before starting to study for finals. As I always start my studying sessions with some reading of the news, which is sometimes referred to as procrastination, I started procrastinating, I mean reading the news.

Here is the kicker, as I sipped my coffee, the first story that popped up on my news feed had the title: “Elephant Dung Coffee: World's Most Expensive Brew Is Made with Pooped-Out Beans.” Gag reflex. Deep breath. Continue…Coffee beans are fed to Thai elephants; the beans are naturally refined by the animal’s digestive system and coffee is made out of their excrement. It is called Black Ivory Coffee, and the excrement coffee beans actually cost $1100 per kilogram.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any science on the elephant excrement coffee; I did, however, find out about another type of coffee, which has a striking resemblance to the Black Ivory blend. It is called Kopi Luwak coffee, which is prepared by the passing of coffee beans through the digestive system of civet cats. This civet coffee can actually cost up to 80 to 100 dollars a cup. The civet cat is normally found in Indonesia where it picks and eats the ripest coffee berries; when the beans from the berries pass through the cat’s digestive system, fermentation takes place. During this process, the proteolytic enzymes of the cat’s gut seep into the coffee beans and break down the peptides, which gives the coffee its unique flavor.

Excessive demand for civet coffee has led to severe abuse of the civet cat, which has been heavily publicized by animal rights activists in recent times. Thus, some researchers have taken it upon themselves to figure out the mystery behind civet coffee. They found that in the cat's digestive tract, the coffee beans undergo wet processing due to acidification in the stomach and fermentation due to the natural intestinal flora. A major group of bacteria in the digestive tract of the civet is the lactic acid bacteria, which actively take part in coffee bean fermentation. Scientists are working to replicate these conditions in commercial fermenters, thereby making the process happen outside the cat’s digestive tract.

Microbes can save animals from abuse! This is one lesson I learned from this story; another is that people will pay a whole lot of money for some funky coffee. Although this story made me push my cup aside for a moment, the next morning I was back to it. Coffee. Essential for life.

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.