Most normal folks don’t automatically assume there is a connection between coffee and tea, on the one hand, and poop, on the other. But there is. And it begs the question: Who were these pioneers who thought to extract fermented coffee beans from the poop of the Paradoxurus, a small mammal native to Indonesia that resembles a ferret, or to mix used tea leaves with sheep dung as a means of improving their profit margin?
Earlier this year, I visited the Funnel Mill, a high-end coffee and tea shop in Santa Monica, California. I had gone there to interview the owner and understand what led him to open his business. Just as we sat down to start the interview, three of the shop’s best customers arrived and the owner excused himself. These customers had come for a cup each of the shop’s Kopi Luwak coffee, also known as “poop coffee”, from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The coffee got its less-than-appetizing name from the fact that its beans are extracted from the poop of the Paradoxurus, or Luwak, as the Indonesians call it. The Paradoxurus has the uncanny ability to select the best among the ripe coffee beans, which, when digested, undergo fermentation and emerge intact in the animal’s poop. The coffee brewed from these beans is said to be some of the smoothest in the world and at $65 a cup, I would hope so!
But whereas the relationship of poop and coffee is a positive one, the relationship of poop and tea in the annals of history isn’t. In Eighteenth Century England, the government imposed a high tax on tea imports as a means of funding a larger military to support the expansion of the British Empire. This, of course, made the legal price of tea exorbitant. To get as much as they could out of each ounce of tea, merchants stretched the small quantities they had by mixing them with the leaves of willow, elder, and ash trees as well as sawdust, gunpowder, and dried sheep dung. In fact, tea leaves that had already been steeped were sold as pristine tea straight from the plantation. Laws against the adulteration of tea were on the books as early as 1725, but were largely ignored for over a century until 1875, when legislation with more teeth finally halted the practice. Green tea, being less processed, was easier to adulterate and therefore more likely to be combined with all manner of additives, including sheep dung. This undoubtedly gave the tea many Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britons drank a particularly earthy flavor.
So next time you enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, remember that coffee from poop may be a delicacy, but tea is exceedingly more palatable without a scoop of poop.