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Plain coffee becoming extinct

Nov. 13, 1997

I have exciting news for anybody who would like to pay a lot of money for coffee that has passed all the way through an animal's digestive tract.

And you just know there are plenty of people who would. Specialty coffees are very popular these days, attracting millions of consumers, every single one of whom is standing in line ahead of me whenever I go to the coffee place at the airport to grab a quick cup on my way to catch a plane. These consumers are always ordering mutant beverages with names like 'mocha-almond-honey-vinaigrette lattespressacino,' beverages that must be made one at a time via a lengthy and complex process involving approximately one coffee bean, three quarts of dairy products and what appears to be a small nuclear reactor.

Meanwhile, back in the line, there is growing impatience among those of us who just want a plain old cup of coffee so that our brains will start working and we can remember what our full names are and why we are catching an airplane. We want to strike the lattespressacino people with our carry-on baggage and scream, 'GET OUT OF OUR WAY, YOU TREND GEEKS, AND LET US HAVE OUR COFFEE!' But of course we couldn't do anything that active until we've had our coffee.

It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity. I bet this kind of thing does not happen to heroin addicts. I bet that when serious heroin addicts go to purchase their heroin, they do not tolerate waiting in line while some dilettante in front of them orders a hazelnut smack-a-cino with cinnamon sprinkles.

The reason some of us need coffee is that it contains caffeine, which makes us alert. Of course it is very important to remember that caffeine is a drug, and, like any drug, it is a lot of fun.

No! Wait! What I meant to say is: Like any drug, caffeine can have serious side effects if we ingest too much. This fact was first noticed in ancient Egypt when a group of workers, who were supposed to be making a birdbath, began drinking Egyptian coffee, which is very strong, and wound up constructing the pyramids.

I myself developed the coffee habit in my early 20s, when, as a 'cub' reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., I had to stay awake while writing phenomenally boring stories about municipal government. I got my coffee from a vending machine that also sold hot chocolate and chicken-noodle soup; all three liquids squirted out of a single tube, and they tasted pretty much the same. But I came to need that coffee, and even today I can do nothing useful before I've had several cups. (I can't do anything useful afterward, either; that's why I'm a columnist.)

But here's my point: This specialty-coffee craze has gone too far. I say this in light of a letter I got recently from alert reader Bo Bishop. He sent me an invitation he received from a local company to a 'private tasting of the highly prized Luwak coffee,' which 'at $300 a pound ... is one of the most expensive drinks in the world.' The invitation states that this coffee is named for the luwak, a 'member of the weasel family' that lives on the Island of Java and eats coffee berries; as the berries pass through the luwak, a 'natural fermentation' takes place, and the berry seeds -- the coffee beans -- come out of the luwak intact. The beans are then gathered, washed, roasted and sold to coffee connoisseurs.

The invitation states: 'We wish to pass along this once in a lifetime opportunity to taste such a rarity.'

Or, as Bo Bishop put it: 'They're selling processed weasel doodoo for $300 a pound.'

I first thought this was a clever hoax designed to ridicule the coffee craze. Tragically, it is not. There really is a Luwak coffee. I know because I bought some from a specialty-coffee company in Atlanta. I paid $37.50 for two ounces of beans. I was expecting the beans to look exotic, considering where they'd been, but they looked like regular coffee beans. In fact, for a moment I was afraid that they were just regular beans, and that I was being ripped off.

Then I thought: What kind of world is this when you worry that people might be ripping you off by selling you coffee that was NOT pooped out by a weasel?

So anyway, I ground the beans up and brewed the coffee and drank some. You know how sometimes, when you're really skeptical about something, but then you finally try it, you discover that it's really good, way better than you would have thought possible? This is not the case with Luwak coffee. Luwak coffee, in my opinion, tastes like somebody washed a dead cat in it.

But I predict it's going to be popular anyway, because it's expensive. One of these days, the people in front of me at the airport coffee place are going to be ordering decaf poopacino. I'm thinking of switching to heroin.

Dave welcomes your comments, complaints, news tips and greetings, no matter how rude! Mail them to: Dave Barry, Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132.

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