The Trung Nguyen cafe in Hanoi's central district is arranged like a shrine to fake weasel shit coffee. Trung Nguyen is like the Starbucks of Vietnam: It's the largest domestic coffee brand and its products are distributed in dozens of countries, including the United States. The company commissioned a bunch of chemists to mimic kopi luwak, coffee that's been digested and shit out by little weasel-like creatures called civets. They called the final product Legendee and it's their flagship blend.
Legendee is sold in boxes designed with fake goldish-yellow wood grain, housed beneath a glass counter in the cafe. Each box costs about $50.
When we asked if we could take a photo of the blend, one of the baristas switched on a dramatic light that made it look like a jewelry counter. Another wall featured larger boxes of Legendee that open like briefcases and contain brewing gear. They look like opium kits.
One wall was covered entirely by a Legendee photo-mural featuring an extremely well-dressed Western family walking toward a private plane. Inexplicably, in a separate frame on the bottom half of the advertisement is a grounded helicopter that looks similar to the military choppers that became a symbol of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
All this pomp for some fake weasel shit coffee. How did we get here?
Kopi luwak, according to the most commonly repeated history, was born out of necessity in the 1700s when Dutch colonizers forbid locals on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra to consume their own cash crop.
Civets all take dumps in the same place and the coffee droppings come out looking relatively clean, like a granola bar. As the story goes, the Indonesians cleaned the droppings, roasted the beans, and brewed the first kopi luwak. The digestion process apparently creates a coffee with a smoother, more chocolatey taste.
Simultaneously, kopi luwak developed in the Philippines and in Vietnam, where the civet was considered a pest by local farmers. In Vietnam, according to the murky histories, farmers killed the civet and roasted the digested coffee fruit they found in the civets' flayed intestines.
Some time during the late 1980s or early 1990s, rich Westerners got wind of kopi luwak and, as rich Westerners do, fetishized the exotic brew.
Real kopi luwak is now incredibly expensive, at least $180 per pound, thanks to the cumbersome production process. It's regularly referred to as the most expensive coffee in the world. I interviewed a Santa Monica cafe owner who sold kopi luwak for $90 a cup, often to celebrities whom he refused to name. He eagerly showed me a certificate of authenticity that came with his kopi luwak; fake kopi luwak was flooding the market thanks to the high price tags. He looked paranoid even talking about it. He made the unconfirmable claim that he was the only man in the country selling real kopi luwak.
Here's the problem: Almost no one can tell the difference between the real and fake stuff. A group at Osaka University actually had to develop a chemical process for determining the authenticity of kopi luwak because the tongue so frequently fails.
"To the best of my knowledge, experienced cuppers could determine pure kopi luwak vs. [a] fake one from cupping test but these trained experts are few in number, and it is difficult to determine blended ones with pure ones if it is blended with high-grade coffee with similar sensory profile using cupping test (like a taste test for coffee) alone," said Dr. Sastia Putri, one of the researchers, in an email. "Our approach is able to provide a robust authentication method for discrimination of kopi luwak and regular coffees that are not digested by luwak [civets], and we can accurately determine the blending ratio as well based on the metabolic profile of kopi luwak."
Coffee experts are mixed on whether it even actually tastes good. Lily Kubota, the executive editor of Chronicle, the Specialty Coffee Association of America's publication, slammed the quality in a 2011 article. She cited Rocky Rhodes, a coffee consultant who arranged taste tests, and found that kopi luwak ranked last in a lineup of four. Kubota blamed the media for its rise.
"We want both a good story and a good product (and for the media to stop calling us about it)," she wrote. Neither Kubota nor Rhodes responded to requests for comment on Legendee.
In Vietnam, civet turd coffee distributors are everywhere in the tourist districts. It's even sold in the airports. The distributors' tubs of beans have this universal aesthetic: Large, clear bins with colorful tops, gold or white block lettering, and often cartoon weasels. Everything's printed in English. The prices are almost always so low that it's unlikely the coffee genuinely passed through the anus of a weasel.
When I asked people outside of the tourist district for kopi luwak, civet coffee, weasel coffee, or even chon, the Vietnamese name for it, they'd rarely heard of it.
The Trung Nguyen production facility in Buôn Ma Thuột is now filled with industrial-sized replicas of civet stomachs.
According to Len Brault, owner of Heirloom Coffee, a Massachusetts-based company that's the sole United States distributor of Trung Nguyen, civets have been hunted, for food and by frustrated farmers, into near extinction in Vietnam.
"As the civets were disappearing and showing up in little neighborhood restaurants, Trung Nguyen found itself deluged with tourists," Brault said. "A hundred thousand people were coming into their shops from all around the world every year and demanding civet coffee. Well, what little civet coffee was left in Vietnam was quickly exhausted."
What the company did, he said, was hire a team of German scientists to study the civet's digestive system and mimic that process. The company began openly selling coffee that chemically recreates the flavors of the animals' coffee-filled dumps.
"They scientists said, 'Use these natural enzymes, these food-grade enzymes,'" Brault said. "They're available from chemical supply houses. This is a very clean process. You soak the beans for X number of hours."
Trung Nguyen did not respond to numerous requests for comment. I never got to see the production facilities. The husband and wife team that runs the company are getting divorced and it's allegedly put a slowdown on the supply.
Brault's never seen the production facilities either. One of his business partners spent a week walking around the outside of the building but never managed to get in.
"If you go there, they will walk you all around it," Brault said. "You fly to Vietnam and you think you're going to get to see how they do things, but everything they do is proprietary. The way they package, they the way they create things—you're not going to see anything."
Brault knows how Legendee is made, he said, because for several years he was accidentally placed on an internal email list and received hundreds of pages of proprietary information.
"Unfortunately, the company is managed horribly," Brault said. "People at the top are complete morons. You can quote me on that."
Trung Nguyen recently bought a civet farm, so they're back in the real civet turd coffee game with pounds selling for $580. The University of Florida has been issued a patent for a similar kopi luwak chemical reproduction process and they claim that they're planning to license it. They did not respond to a request for comment.
For now, it's only Trung Nguyen that's successfully mass-produced a transparent recreation of civet turd coffee, sold to tourists who have a thirst, but not the funds, for the exotic brew that was originally a last resort for oppressed Indonesians.