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Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
January 2017

Stay with the coffee sources you trust

GPix_YourGarden_1-17rowing up, I never drank coffee. It was always too bitter, even with lots of sugar added.

Even when I started traveling to tropical climes, my only interaction with coffee was to use the lowest altitude of coffee plantations as the highest altitude that I could collect plants.

My early experiences in Central America were that coffee was grown at about 6000 feet and higher. Plants collected about 6000 feet wouldn’t survive our hot summers. I couldn’t afford an altimeter, so the coffee line worked just fine for me. And my success at growing the collected plants generally proved out this height limit for Miami.

In our extensive plant collection at the Parrot Jungle, we actually did have one coffee plant for many years. We grew it in a container and took it into our heated nursery during cold spells. It flowered often and produced occasional fruit. I always thought this was an aberration, but then I started seeing coffee growing at lower altitudes.

I also learned that of the multitude of coffee species, the two main commercial species -- Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta -- had a great many differences, including the altitude at which these coffee species are grown.

They also differ in the amount of caffeine they contain, which is perhaps the real reason we start to drink and develop a taste for coffee. Robusta coffee has about twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica. It was used for instant coffee, and this was the reason I first started drinking it. I needed that jolt for the long days at work but didn’t want the lingering burnt-rubber flavor from the cafeteria coffee.

Caffeine is what is known as a secondary metabolic compound in plants; others include the tannins and nicotine. It’s one of those chemicals that repel insects and herbivores and prevent them from eating the plants.

Flavor is of course important, and Arabica coffee has substantially more lipids and sugars, making it easier on the pallet.

The science of coffee-growing, bean selection, roasting, and brewing is fascinating and complex. I now go out of my way to try the local coffee when traveling abroad and bring home the best dark roast I can find. This past year found me in Jamaica, trying the Blue Mountain coffee, and on the big island of Hawaii, checking out the Kona coffee.

I’d been hearing about wild civet coffee for a while and recently had an opportunity to try some. Drinking something that just passed through the body of an animal sounds kind of disgusting, but it is a great way to clean off a seed. I once did a gut-passage study, feeding mynah birds the fruit (figs) of a Ficus altissima. The seeds came out of the birds intact and very clean; I was studying the ants that would secondarily disperse those seeds.

Wild civet coffee, or kopi luwak, hails from Sumatra, which has extensive coffee plantations. The native civets eat the coffee fruit and pass the seeds intact, usually in a clump. The coffee is then brewed from the collected seeds, so I guess someone had the great idea of roasting and brewing this poop.

There’s no guarantee what type of bean this was, or what species of coffee it was, and I cannot opine on the mouth-feel or on any of the other sophisticated taste parameters, but I found the coffee to be rich and sweet.

Having tasted kopi luwak, I heard from an amused friend about the brand Black Ivory Coffee from Thailand, which is made from the droppings of elephants that have consumed coffee beans. So once again I paid a small fortune and this time purchased a small pouch of it. Once again, I’m certainly not qualified to venture into the many taste parameters used to rate coffee -- and who knows what type of coffee this was? -- but the taste was interesting, not as sweet as the civet coffee. This is said to be the most expensive coffee in the world. It makes my regular coffee purchase at a local hipster coffee shop a real bargain.

I like trying new things and this coffee adventure was fun, if not a gastronomic delight. But there is a real issue here. There are allegations that civets especially are force-fed and raised in inhumane conditions. And what about the elephants? I’ve worked with animals in captivity all my adult life and have seen some really appalling living situations for captive animals in my travels.

Should this practice of drinking coffee brewed from animal poop continue? I think not. Until we know with certainty the conditions the animals are kept in and, just as important, where the coffee originates, we should pass on it.

 

Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist, municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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