In Chiang Mai, Alex and I went on a guided cafe hopping experience. We were in a songthaew going from one cafe to the next, there was a bit of noonday traffic, and the tour guide and I started exchanging notes about coffee production and consumption in our respective countries.
The civet coffee hype
Our tour guide remarked that the Philippines produces very good coffee. I proudly agreed. You even produce civet coffee, he said with a smile (Thailand does not produce civet coffee). Yes, I said, although civet coffee is really nothing to get excited about.
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For the uninitiated, the Philippines’ coffee alamid — kopi luwak in Indonesia and kafé-laku in East Timor — is known by the rest of the world as civet coffee.
The Asian palm civet, also known as the toddy cat, is a nocturnal omnivore found in Southeast Asia and China. It feeds on small animals as well as fruits and coffee berries. When it eats coffee berries, the beans remain only partially digested.
The beans are picked from its droppings, washed, dried and sold as civet coffee beans. The theory is that the enzymes in the civet’s stomach do things to the coffee beans to give them a unique and incomparable flavor.
Several years ago, my brother and his family visited and brought us a present — a jar of civet coffee beans. I tore the seal, opened the jar and the first thing I noticed was the glossy exterior of the coffee beans as though they were coated with oil.
After dinner, I dumped half of the contents of the jar into the grinder and processed the beans to a coarse grind. The aroma was decidedly fruity and sweet. The ground civet coffee beans went into the coffee percolator and, several minutes later, I was excitedly serving civet coffee to everyone who cared for a cup.
But it turned out to be an underwhelming experience, albeit an interesting one. For coffee drinkers like me who prefer a full-flavored brew, civet coffee can either be a curious experience or a sorry disappointment. Civet coffee is mild, nutty, chocolatey and sweet. It doesn’t give you a jolt the way more full bodied coffee does.
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It’s just hype, I told our tour guide. Overpriced and overmarketed hype, in fact, considering that the cheapest civet coffee beans are sold at US$100 per kilogram and “better quality” ones at around US$500. Personally, I still prefer the boldness of Benguet coffee that’s grown in the mountains of northern Philippines and, when we can get it, Vietnamese coffee.
A sad coffee culture in the Philippines
I think I gave the wrong impression that most Filipinos are as finicky as I am about coffee. So I was quick to explain that, unlike Thailand which has elevated coffee drinking to impressive standards, I lamented that, in the Philippines, coffee culture is different.
A minority buys and grinds their coffee beans at home, but the rest either patronize coffee chains with mediocre coffee (hello, Starbucks!) or they buy instant coffee, depending on how much they can spend. The average Filipino, I told him, is especially fond of three-in-one coffee mixes.
It could not have been easy to comprehend how the population of a nation that produces world-class coffee can be happy with Starbucks and three-in-one crap. I said that it’s a by-product of having been colonized by the United States.
The Philippines has been growing coffee since the 1700s when Spanish friars introduced the plant to the country. There was a time when we were the fourth largest coffee exporter in the world. An infestation toward the end of the Spanish colonial period almost put coffee agriculture to a halt.
The next colonizer, the Americans, later introduced a coffee strain that was more resistant to pests but, by that time, coffee growing was geared toward supplying beans to the American instant coffee industry. Take that in context with the unshakeable colonial mentality and the love for everything American, the Philippines became a captive market for American instant coffee, and no true local coffee culture developed.
Thailand never having been colonized by a foreign power, it must have been something for our tour guide to digest.
Thailand is a latecomer in coffee production; Chiang Mai has a thriving local coffee culture
From 1972-1979 The Thai / UN Crop Replacement and Community Development Project was implemented as a pilot project to explore the viability of replacing opium poppy cultivation with a variety of substitute crops and alternative sources of income, combined with related community development activities. It was found that arabica coffee is a cash crop that can be promoted to replace opium in the long run…Source
Thailand did not start exporting coffee until 1976. Yes, that late. And yet, in Chiang Mai, the local coffee culture flourishes.
From micro roasters to gourmet cafes that seem intent on pushing the boundaries endlessly, Chiang Mai has them all. And, as our tour guide liked to emphasize, these are local affairs. Owned and operated by locals, and patronized by locals.
In Chiang Mai, no real coffee lover will ever ask for directions to Starbucks when there are amazing cafes where the dark brew is served in oh, so imaginative ways. It’s a real coffee heaven out there and I loved it.