July 7, 2011
On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam’s coffee-mad capital, a local friend exhorted me to seek out a cup of ca phe cut chon—what she cryptically referred to as “weasel coffee.”
Having happily consumed a variety of Vietnamese java at cafés across the city, including the sublime ca phe sua da, iced espresso blended with sweetened condensed milk, I was looking forward to another great-tasting experience. Then I Googled ca phe cut chon.
Cut chon is Vietnamese for civet cat dung.
The civet cat, not a cat but a relative of the mongoose, is native to Southeast Asia’s jungles. Sometime after French colonists introduced robusta coffee to Vietnam in the mid-19th century, coffee growers found that beans eaten and excreted by wild civets produced a richer, more mellow drink than those simply harvested from the fields. (The practice began, supposedly, when European colonists wouldn’t share coffee beans with natives, who wanted to try the drink and resourcefully picked the beans out of civet dung.)
Many coffee producers use captive civets today, but the process remains the same. Civets are fed robusta coffee cherries, the coffee plant’s fruit. The civet’s digestive enzymes partially ferment the fruit’s stones—coffee beans—and strip much of their harsh flavors. (Bitter-tasting robusta, arabica’s cheaper, faster-growing cousin, is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Which is why sweetened condensed milk is a constant companion to Vietnamese black coffee.) After a thorough washing, the “dung” beans are roasted and ready for brewing.
All of this sounded a bit unpleasant, but a friend and I mustered up the courage to taste ca phe cut chon one sweltering afternoon at Café Mai, a Hanoi institution famous for its version of the drink. Sitting on a balcony overlooking a motorbike-filled street, we ordered two coffees. Small white cups topped with piping hot metal drip coffee filters arrived at the table. When the coffee was ready, we removed the filters, examined the dark brew and took a sip.
I braced myself for pungent, earthy flavors. Instead, the coffee was smooth and rich, all salty caramel and bittersweet chocolate. The sharp bite that I had come to associate with Vietnamese coffee was nonexistent. “It tastes like 99% cacao,” my friend said excitedly.
We lingered over the drinks for a while and then called for the bill—at 55,000 Vietnamese dong, or $2.70, it was more expensive than a typical Hanoi cup, but well worth the difference in flavor.
Only later did I realize that we’d grossly underpaid. It turns out that certified civet-fermented coffee, which is also produced in Indonesia and the Philippines, can sell for up to $600 per pound. At a London department store recently, a single cup cost £50, or $80.
So how does Café Mai keep the price down? They’ve cut civets out of the production process. Using artificial fermenting methods, Café Mai, along with other Vietnamese roasters like Trung Nguyen, have brought the flavor of ca phe cut chon to the masses.
Whether the traditionally fermented coffee truly tastes different, I obviously can’t say. But if you have $600 burning a hole in your wallet, order some and let Food & Think know.
—By Jon Brand, a writer based in Austin, Texas. You can read more of his work at www.jonbrandwrites.com.
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