Give ‘em beans? Alimentary my dear Watson…

21Jul12

“…a coffee-lover’s dream. It did not have an acidic taste, which made it smooth, with a nice aftertaste,…It was worth tasting before people judged the product.” “. Keith Neylon, Blue River Dairy Products. on Luwak Coffee.

A surprising economic miracle is percolating away in the deep south. It promises neither coals to Newcastle, nor tea to China but baked beans of a special coffee variety to Borneo and elsewhere in Asia. Luwak coffee has arrived in Invercargill like a Shadbolt from the Blue River Dairy Products Company,  with sheep’s milk to taste courtesy of BRDPC.

Kopi Cat

Kopi luwak, or Indonesian civet coffee, is one of the world’s most expensive coffee brands with prices reaching $440 per kilogram and $63 per cup. It is also understandably a low-production variety of coffee because it is made, as you will know, from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the wild catlike Asian Palm Civet then passed through its digestive tract.

(“Civet” is also used to denote “a yellowish, unctuous substance with a strong musklike odour, obtained from a pouch in the genital region of civets and used in perfumery”, which may partially explain the popularity of Luwak in certain optimistic quarters).

Keith Neylon believes his company is the only New Zealand business that sells luwak. Good luck to him for having a focused marketing approach which has already attracted significant Indonesian capital.

Some people have objections, though. The accommodation for the captured wild civets is no Civitas Dei. They are kept in cramped cages and fed mainly coffee beans, mixed with beef, as they grind out their daily share of the makings of the rather different coffee decoction. They are certainly not treated like their historic cousins.

Heavenly Creatures

The feral civet is cat-like. Cats were of course regarded by the ancient Egyptians as manifestations of the goddess Bast. This Egyptian goddess had many roles, including guaranteeing abundant fecundity.  Most feline gods and goddesses, however, were big cats, mainly lions and lionesses. The Sphinx, one of the earliest works of Egyptian art, has the head of the pharaoh, and the body of a lion, denoting  power and importance.

The cat also featured in Islamic literature. According to legend, the Prophet Muhammad one day awoke at the sound of the call to prayer to discover his cat Muezza sleeping on the sleeve of his robe. Rather than wake her, he cut the sleeve off. When he returned from prayers he received a thank you bow from Muezza.

Because of this example Muslims are encouraged to regard cats as cherished creatures. There are no cat fatwahs. This escatalogically sound story may explain why Indonesia’s top religious body has declared luwak coffee fit for Muslims to drink, to the relief to farmers who can now continue exporting it.*

Elsewhere, those wearing Mormonatically sound divine underwear, (like Mitt Romney?), may also regard it as a divine brew.  The masses?  Let them drink coke.

Google Cat

The cat also features in the modern gospel according to Brin and Page.  Google scientists have built an artificial brain that is able to “learn” like a human brain. It was able to recognise without being told a picture of a cat, one of the regular stars of viral clips uploaded by YouTube members. The computer programme with the intuitive feline feeling is based on a “neural network” of 16,000 processing cores with more than a billion interconnections, each simulating a connection in a human brain.

Back to the past

But, as BluggerMe can exclusively reveal, a bigger story is brewing close to home. Look at some of the serendipitous connections and the latte thickens.

Romney. Sheep milk. The Egyptological role of cats. It is only a small leap to Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury, farmed by my forbears at Mordon in the 1860s, where Roger Duff discovered moa bones in 1939. It is only a small step from sphinxes to sphincters and the theory of constraints, in the case of producing coffee from animal droppings, dictated by the size of the digestive tract.

The key question in marketing is which niche for your product? What is its unique selling proposition?When you compare the civet to, say, the somewhat larger moa you start to get a gut feeling of great potential close to home.  Moa can be a good little earner dead or alive, as the late publican Paddy Freaney and friend Sam Waby averred some years ago after a “sighting” near the Bealey Hotel.

The eleven species of these flightless birds are endemic to New Zealand, so that takes care of the unique bit.  The two biggest, Dinornis giganteus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about 3.6 m in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 230 kg. In other words they were about the same size as Rugby’s Sonny Bill Williams. (“Bill”-there is another avian clue).

Moa were the heroic herbivores in New Zealand’s forest and subalpine ecosystems for thousands of years. Until the arrival of the Māori they were hunted only by the Haast’s Eagle. dying out before European settlement due to over-hunting by Māori and habitat decline.

Ancient Moa Faeces

The recent discovery of ancient moa faeces may help to solve the mystery of the species’ extinction. Landcare Research has used coprolites, or fossilised faeces, to examine the diet of moa in sub-alpine areas*.

Researchers extracted the coprolites in a high-altitude cave in Kahurangi National Park in the northwest corner of the South Island in 2010. Co-author Professor Alan Cooper, of Adelaide University, says radiocarbon dating revealed the coprolites were deposited as long ago as 7000 years, making them the oldest moa coprolites yet found.

Co-author Dr Janet Wilmshurst, of Landcare Research, said the study could help researchers to understand why moa disappeared from the mountainous areas of New Zealand so quickly.

Moa Coprolite Coffee

However, the academics haven’t cottoned on to the economic potential of their find. Moa coprolites leave civet droppings behind in the dust. Selective coprolite excavation would be much better than mining minerals within or without national parks and less likely to get a Green reaction. No intensive land use, no pollution, no economic vagaries like the fickle international dairy products market.

Here is a different way to bridging the economic gap between New Zealand and Australia without following a carbon copy of mineral mining in the Lucky Country. Closer to the surface, coffee derived from the South Island Giant Moa, Dinornis giganteus could be a new age gold mine. By cutting out both the middle man and the middle animal  all the proceeds would stay in the Plucky Country.

Give ’em beans

If we think biggish the ginormous dinornis maximus, whose bones were discovered in Pyramid Valley, could be our economic trump card.

Okay, one drawback is that all moa species are a bit extinct, but surely not beyond a bit of retrospective genetic modification to moa by caffeine information transfer in dead material. This would ensure a sustainable source of moa coffee. After already cracking the DNA code transfer in living material, it’s alimentary my dear Watson, Wilkins and Crick-and a very noble cause.

But before the gold rush begins  we have to be warily aware of international trends in coffee production from animal droppings. For instance, is the elephant in the room the elephant in the room?

Whatever the challenges, homegrown Coprolite Coffee (or CoCo) could be the way to go. Coprolite Lite? Would you like that to go?

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