Sampling Weasel Gut Coffee in Vietnam: the World’s Most Unusual Brew

Asia's infamous 'weasel' coffee sold on the streets of Vietnam. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Weasel gut coffee. Yum.

Yes, really from a weasel. Eaten, digested and, well, you know….. And yes, really, really yum. It is thick, rich and has a hint of chocolate flavor.

Frankly, we don’t care whose intestinal tract this stuff may or may not have come from. The cups we had in Hanoi and the ones we have brewed since coming home are the best coffee, hands down, we’ve had in our lives.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You like adventurous eating.
  • You love rich, strong coffee.
  • Good for:  Folks who want to serve something truly unique to their friends.

We were in Vietnam to see what had become of the place since visiting in ’98 (a lot, but that’s for another story) and we got to talking about coffee with a local friend. Inevitably, the talk turned to the weasel stuff. And, of course, we absolutely had to try it.

“This is where I buy all my own coffee,” said Dong.

It was one of those ubiquitous slivers of a shop crammed into hardly any space in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The woman in charge sat us on tiny chairs and disappeared into the back, returning a few minutes later with two cups of thick coffee with a half inch of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. First came the faint hint of chocolate behind the coffee aroma. Then came the taste. An explosion of flavor. We were hooked.

So What Exactly Is Weasel Coffee?

The story goes like this: In the early 18th century the Dutch established coffee plantations in Indonesia. But the Dutch wouldn’t let the locals pick coffee fruits for their own use. Weasels loved the berries and left the beans undigested in their droppings. The Dutch didn’t care what the locals did with weasel glop so, voila, a new coffee was born.

Local women sell fresh vegetables and spices on the streets of the old quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

The beans are thoroughly washed, dried and roasted. And inevitably someone, specifically Canadian food scientist Massimo Carcone at the University of Guelph in Ontario, looked into all of this, figuring out that the digestive enzymes break down the beans’ proteins, resulting in a flavor change  for (at least I  and lots of other folks think) the better. Marcone also wondered about the safety of all this and discovered that after the washing and roasting, levels of harmful organisms were insignificant.

The real stuff is breathtakingly expensive … The New York Times once called it “the world’s most expensive coffee beans.” And, of course, there are imitations, even by a company in Florida, Coffee Primero which peddles its version for $16 a pound. Trung Nguyên Coffee Company  does the same, proudly bragging about how it has duplicated the unique weasel gut taste. But it also sells the real thing for $85 per half pound. And Coffee Alamid  in the Philippines  sells it’s own version for $90 per 100 grams (about 3 1/3 ounces)

The coffee in Vietnam is called “cafe chon,” after the Vietnamese word (chon) for weasel. There, it is priced according to the percentage of weasel coffee, from #1 (80 percent) to #6 (30 percent) or full on chon (100 percent). Should you be in Hanoi, we got our stash from Ca Phe Gia Truyen Kim Lai. Through what has to be an all time coincidence (six degrees of separation and all that), I happened to be visting not only Florida but Gainesville a month after Vietnam. So I called Ken Barr, CEO of Coffee Primero, who graciously spent hours letting me taste his coffee and compare it to a bit of our Viet stuff.

Taste Testing: Real or Fake?

To do this right, you have to make the coffee the Vietnamese way, either using one of their tiny silver cups that are like a single serving French press or an actual French press, where you put the coffee on the bottom of the glass pot, let it steep for a few minutes, then drop a sieved plunger on the grounds. A generous serving of sweetened condensed milk goes on the bottom of your cup before adding the coffee.

Ken actually makes 10 versions of his “cat” coffee — his replication of the weasel brew —  but only sells three of them. His coffee is made with coffee processed by civets (called “cats,”‘ short for “toddy cat,” another name for civet). What I did discover was you have to make his coffee REAL strong but it does come close.

Ken Barr, co owner of Coffee Primero displays green and roasted coffee beans at his processing plant in Gainesville, Florida. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

He also fingered, sniffed then ground my own beans. So did we get the real thing for $20 a pound? At first, he said, most likely not since the beans I bought in Vietnam are of irregular size and include (gasp!) husks … a huge no no.

But then he tasted my coffee and his eyebrows rose.

“Huh! No bitterness,” he said while swirling the brew in his mouth.

So maybe I got Vietnam’s version of weasel rejects? The real stuff but ugly beans not fit for export?

“I think you’re on to something there,” he replied.

Oh heck, who cares. My Viet coffee is still beyond fantastic. I think I hear my French press calling me right now, as a matter of fact.

Practicalities

COFFEE ICE CREAM RECIPE, courtesy Trung Nguyen Coffee Company.

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup + 1 tsp ground weasel coffee

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream.

Using 1/2 cup gound coffee, make coffee with two cups boiling water and let brew at least five minutes. Put entire can of condensed milk into mixing bowl. Add one cup of brewed coffee to the milk in the mixing bowl. Then add half a cup of cream and stir well. Chill the mixture in the refrigerator for two to three hours, then pour into ice cream machine with one extra teaspoon of ground coffee.

If you do not have a machine, add the teaspoonful of ground coffee to the chilled mixture, stir well, then freeze. Remove the bowl from the freezer once every hour and whisk the mixture to prevent ice-crystals forming. You will probably need to do this about 5-6 times. This works nearly as well as using a machine but you’ve got to remember to whisk it!

To serve, soften the ice-cream slightly by putting it in the fridge for 30 minutes (but never refreeze melted ice-cream).

 

About 

Yvette Cardozo has been roaming the globe looking for adventure for ... a while. This has included heli skiing, week long dogsled trips above the Arctic Circle, scuba diving in Antarctica and more mundane stuff, usually involving bicycles. She has written thousands of print articles and is now branching out into online media. She also does pro quality photography and is under contract with Getty Images. Oh yes, and she loves adventurous food ... bring on the fried tarantulas!

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