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Scientists use microbes to pre-digest fancy coffee

Civets may be out of the job -- and that's a good thing. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Making civet coffee usually requires -- well, a bunch of civets. But the founders of a new company called Afineur are trying to cut the critters out of the equation for their own good, Wired reports.

The luxury beverage, which costs around $80 a cup, uses beans that have been eaten, digested, and expelled by the musky animals, which look a bit like a cross between a cat and a mongoose and live mostly in southeast Asia. This process makes the coffee less acidic and gives it a unique flavor profile.

Supposedly. I wouldn't know, because I can't afford civet poop.

These poor civets have had a rough time of it: In addition to producing tasty and highly sought after coffee in their guts, they also make a musk that's quite the commodity in the perfume world. Unsurprisingly, that means a lot of the creatures are raised in factory-farm-like conditions. In many cases, civets are force-fed an unhealthy diet made up almost entirely of coffee beans.

But how to get that civet-esque taste without harming any civets, now that demand is too high to just traipse around looking for naturally digested beans? Simple: Just try to digest the coffee in a lab.

Co-founder Camille Delebecque, a synthetic biologist, is keeping mum on which microbes he and food scientist Sophie Deterre are using to replicate a civet gut. But while they haven't taken the microbes directly from a civet -- or even tried to copy exactly what goes on in the gut flora of the animal -- they're using bacteria to ferment the beans in a way that mimics the taste of the delicacy. And in theory, producers of coffee could use different cocktails of bacteria to change bean taste in all sorts of ways.

Read more (including some feedback from a taste test) at Wired.