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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 04:58 GMT 05:58 UK
The Philippines' taste for civet coffee
By Sarah Toms
BBC News, Manila

The droppings in their natural state
Beans for a unique cup of coffee
The Philippines has recently discovered it produces one of the world's most expensive and coveted kinds of coffee.

But it comes from an unusual source - the droppings of a nocturnal, cat-like animal called the palm civet.

Civets, related to the mongoose, are usually seen as pests in the Philippines and hunted for their meat.

But their droppings are worth their weight in gold.

Known locally as alamid, civets are carnivorous but they also have a taste for the sweet, red coffee cherries that contain the beans.

The beans pass through the civet whole after fermenting in the stomach and that's what gives the coffee its unique taste and aroma.

'Best-kept secret'

A group of professional coffee lovers followed the trail of the civet droppings high into the Malarayat mountain range, south of Manila, in search of the exotic beans.

Civet in  a cage
Civets are seen as pests in the Philippines
One of them, Antonio Reyes of the Philippine coffee certifying board, said civet coffee was one of the Philippines' best-kept secrets.

"I heard the old folks in the coffee farming areas have been gathering this coffee for their own consumption. They never told people they had this kind of coffee," he said.

"It goes through some kind of natural processing which you can see from the roasted beans. It's more oily, there's more aroma and it's such a good taste that you can get value for money even if the cost is so high."

Civet coffee is one of the world's most expensive. In the Philippines, only 500 kg are produced a year and the roasted beans sell for more than $115 a kilogram.

Bean hunt

Lusina Montenegro, who collects the beans for a living, led the coffee experts to the civet droppings.

Lusina Montenegro rinsing the beans
Finding and preparing the beans is labour-intensive work
She climbs the mountain in her flip-flops, hunting for the beans in the thick undergrowth.

"Sometimes it's a big civet and then the droppings are also big, but sometimes it's a small one and then the droppings are small," she said.

Ms Montenegro puts the droppings in two containers - for the old ones, which resemble chalky beans, and for the fresh ones, which look like yellow beans in gravy.

She rinses the beans in forest streams and dries them on her patio before they are sold on to Bote Central, a company that exports the beans to Japan.

Niche market

The developers of the brand are a husband and wife team, Vie and Basil Reyes.

The couple was involved in conservation work for the sugar palm and the civets that live among the trees. They made organic vinegar from the palms and started selling the civet coffee alongside it in small bazaars.

Now the coffee has become so successful they are hoping to start brewing up profits in Taiwan and North America.

Mr Reyes of the coffee certifying agency also hopes the struggling local coffee industry can mirror the success Indonesia and Vietnam have enjoyed with their brands of civet coffee.

"I never thought it was also available in the Philippines, so when I first heard of it I thought this is one kind of coffee that we can look at and develop," he said. "If we have the volume then it's good for the niche market."

'Dark chocolate'

Andrew Gross, an Australian roast master, climbed the mountain to find out for himself what the attraction is of coffee that passes through the backside of a furry mammal.

Andrew Gross tasting the coffee
Mr Gross said the coffee had 'some substance'
Just like a wine connoisseur, he slowly slurped the brewed coffee, letting it travel across his tongue for the first time.

Mr Gross said he was surprised at how much he liked it, comparing the taste to fermented plum and dark chocolate with hazelnuts.

"There's obviously some substance to this in terms of what waves I am getting, but beyond the difference in flavours a lot of it has to do with hype and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's fairly rare," he said.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea. But experts here hope coffee lovers will want to treat themselves to something special that might just help perk up the Philippine coffee industry.

See the civets that produce the rare coffee beans

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