Getting to the bottom of great coffee

Beans harvested from feces make a rare and costly brew

January 14, 2008|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

As any coffee connoisseur knows, the world's most expensive bean comes from the unlikeliest of places: a cat's behind.

That's right, the beans used to make Kopi Luwak coffee - which sells for upward of $200 a pound - are ingested as cherries by a Southeast Asian cat called the palm civet and harvested from the feline's feces.

Who came up with the idea to do this is anybody's guess. But Thomas and Amy Rhodes, owners of Zeke's Coffee in Lauraville, wanted to give their friends and customers the opportunity to try what's now considered a delicacy: coffee rid of its bitter aftertaste by the civet's stomach enzymes. Each year, only 1,000 pounds are produced worldwide.

Yesterday, Zeke's hosted the year's first of its twice-monthly exotic coffee tastings at the Mill Valley Farmers' Market, located in the old Baltimore Broom Machine Factory building at Sisson and 28th streets, just off the Jones Falls Expressway. In the coming weeks, the tastings will feature Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona coffee. In the spring, there will be a daylong Ethiopian coffee-making ceremony.

But Thomas Rhodes, 40, knows the curiosity factor surrounding yesterday's event will be hard to top.

A hundred people bought $10 advance tickets, which were good for an 8-ounce serving and which sold out a few days before the event. The Rhodeses saved the final 20 servings of their special brew for walk-in farmers' market customers. Those were gone within an hour after the 9 a.m. opening.

The road to the tasting was a bumpy one. Thomas Rhodes started looking for beans online in October. He e-mailed an inquiry to animalcoffee.com, which - according to the Web site - provides Kopi Luwak to the Emmy Awards for celebrity gifts, Warner Brothers movie studios and the royal family of Kuwait.

Thomas Rhodes had trouble persuading the salesman to let him buy beans that he would roast himself at his roastery and retail shop, which supplies coffee to about 30 local businesses. Eventually, he paid $300 for 2 pounds unprocessed ("right out of the rear end"), only to realize he didn't know what to do with it.

"We kept it to show people what it looks like," said Amy Rhodes, 35, who met her husband in 1994 when the two worked in local theater and Thomas Rhodes had a side job at a coffee shop to make ends meet. "We're just gonna keep it sealed up. It'll be our souvenir."

Deeming their first purchase unsuccessful, the couple shelled out another $600 for 3 pounds of the processed beans. They still were not roasted, but this batch was dried, pounded and winnowed.

By last week, the coffee was in hand and tickets to the tasting were selling fast. Then Thomas Rhodes' older sister, to whom he had once donated a kidney, suffered a stroke and died. The Rhodes family, which includes 6-year-old Tessa and 3-year-old Gabriel, was driving to Harrisburg, Pa., immediately after the tasting to attend her funeral today.

But the event went on, complete with chocolate "poop truffles" baked by the pastry chef at the Chameleon Cafe, next door to Zeke's, which opened in 2006 at 3003 Montebello Terrace in Lauraville. Mick Kipp, owner of the Whiskey Island Pirate Shop, which sells specialty foods at the farmers' market, flipped "Kopi Luwak pancakes," with chocolate and butterscotch chips as the droppings and powdered sugar as kitty litter.

Zeke's staff, including Thomas Rhodes' nephew and his girlfriend, handed out buttons showing a cat's paw reaching for toilet paper. And for $5, Amy Rhodes offered to snap commemorative photos of tasters holding their white paper coffee cups and a plastic-encased sample of civet feces, which resembles peanut brittle. Proceeds from the photo sales are going to City Neighbors Charter School, where Tessa is in first grade.

The coffee seemed to be a hit with the tasters. Many who normally take cream and sugar were able to take it black. There was widespread agreement that the Kopi Luwak has no bitter aftertaste, but beyond that, what makes it distinctive was up for debate. Some said it was sweet. Other descriptions included "smooth," "earthy" and "a little nutty." Perhaps the most disturbing: "gamy."

"No one can really put their finger on exactly what it is," Thomas said.

For the most part, tasters didn't seem grossed out by the origin of their beverage.

"I was intrigued by the idea," said Bob Nugent, 55, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning estimator who drove from Edgewood for the occasion. "I absolutely had to come."

"I was intrigued more by the price," added his friend Ken Spoerl, 48, an e-commerce project manager from Bel Air. Nugent and Spoerl bought two of 10 tasting tickets sold to staff and patrons of the Shamrock Coffee Co. in Bel Air, which buys coffee from Zeke's.

Laura Schraven, 33, of Millersville bought one cup for herself, her husband, her mother and two friends to share, so that all could taste it but none would have to drink too much.

"It's really good," she said with a big smile after her first sip. She held the cup out to her mother. "You wanna try it?"

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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