Growing up in Coorg in southwestern Karnataka, businessman and coffee planter Thamoo Poovaiah often noticed the faeces of civet cats around their plantations.
But it wasnâ€™t till years later that he realised that he had a goldmine on his hands, thanks to the growing demand in the international market for civet coffee.
Coorg Consolidated Commodities (CCC), where Poovaiah is Managing Partner, is now a producer of the most expensive coffee in the world.
Said to have originated in Indonesia, civet coffee consists of coffee beans that civet cats excrete after consuming the fleshy berries. An enzyme present in the nocturnal animals' gut gives the beans an unusual flavour.
"In Coorg, 40% of the district is covered by forests. We have nearly 2,20,000 acres of coffee plantations in the district, which touch either national parks or reserve forests. We also have four types of civet cats here, of which two are herbivorous and depend on seasonal fruits. In the coffee season, they eat berries from the plants and poop out the seeds," explains Poovaiah.
A civet cat.
The coffee, which can reportedly cost as much as Rs 25,000 per kg in the international market, has been in the spotlight for some time for being overpriced, industrialised, cruel. There have also been investigations into how wild animals are often being caged to produce the coffee in order to meet the huge demand.
However, Poovaiah stresses that their procedure of collecting the beans is absolutely cruelty-free.
He estimates that the population of civets in the district is more than 40,000, and says it is fairly easy to spot the areas where they leave their droppings.
"When we go coffee picking, we first clean the undergrowth after which they will be fairly visible. Also, civet cats usually poop on solid surfaces, such as wood or dry stone," he says.
CCC, Poovaiah states, has been trying to educate and encourage more farmers to collect the civet coffee beans from plantations.
Earlier, he says, farmers would pick the civet beans and mix it with the rest of the beans and sell it.
In the process of spreading awareness, an anti-poaching message is also being given out.
"In these regions, people hunt and eat civet cats. They use dogs to identify their nesting spots. Poaching of wild cats is quite common. But if farmers can collect their droppings and make money, why would they kill the animal?" he asks.
The firm buys raw civet coffee beans from small farmers at Rs 2,000 and after it is cleaned, dried, hulled and roasted, it is sold in the market for Rs 5,500 per Kg.
The civet coffee they produce is currently sold under the brand Ainmane in select stores in Coorg.
The high price means that sales donâ€™t rise very high in the local market. But Poovaiah says he has people buying the coffee from his counter regularly. Meanwhile CCC has signed a contract with a company in Dubai for exporting the coffee, and aims to produce three tonnes of it by the next year.
It's not just civet coffee, says Poovaiah, there is a lot about coffee from Coorg that should be much more popular in the wider world.
"When you come to Coorg, you will mostly find coffee from Kerala and other places, but not from the region," rues Poovaiah.
"When you go to a Coffee Day and see their catalogue, you will notice international varieties of coffee, like Costa Rica and Brazilian coffee, and may be just one variety of Chikmagalur Coffee. But do you know Chikmagalur itself produces two to three varieties of some of the finest coffee in the country? So does Coorg," he adds.
Overall, though, the country's coffee consumption has significantly increased since the 1990s, partly due to the proliferation of numerous coffee outlets, says Poovaiah.
"From 40,000 tonnes in 1994, we now have an internal consumption of 1,20,000 tonnes of coffee in the country," he says.
(Images courtesy: Thamoo Poovaiah)