In my previous post, we set off on our caffeinated caravan by heading to Sumatra, where I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Long Coffee & Roastery and got an insider glimpse at the small farm enterprises that collectively make Indonesia a legendary coffee destination.
In this post, we explore another coffee product that famously finds its home in the Indonesian archipelago: Kopi Luwak (or “luak”). No coffee has a more distinct methodology or cultish intrigue than Kopi Luwak. And with a price tag often surpassing hundreds of dollars per pound, it is often cited as the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world.
Why the fanatic fascination? Let’s find out …
Kopi Luwak’s unique process may, for some coffee enthusiasts, be difficult to digest. The coffee is produced from partially-digested Coffea Arabica beans consumed and subsequently defecated by the Asian palm civet, a small wild jungle cat native to Indonesia and known locally as the Luwak. [Although not technically in the cat family, the palm civet is colloquially referred to as a cat]. Succinctly summarized in emoji terms:
With keen eyesight and sense of smell, this nocturnal feline feasts on the delicious coffee cherries under the cover of night. Mr. Civet is famously a food snob when it comes to diet: only the ripest red cherries will suffice. As the coffee cherries are digested, enzymes in the animal’s intestines naturally ferment the beans, making them less bitter and astringent, while simultaneously reducing caffeine and proteins that can adversely distort flavor. Curiously, while the cherries are fully digested in the process, the coffee beans themselves are not. When the palm civet finds the need for a restroom, coffee producers are lurking with their pooper scoopers. Once plucked from the poo, the beans (still whole) are washed, dried, and roasted.
One natural question arises: what feces-infatuated passerby formulated this hypothesis?!? I perused the history books to find out.
By the Nineteenth Century, the Dutch colonies of Java and Sumatra were bustling with coffee plantations cultivating Arabica beans to satisfy their caffeinated tendencies. The plantation owners strictly prohibited the laborers from harvesting cherries off the Coffea trees for personal consumption. No place for product tasting, and the penalty was steep.
Workers were, however, permitted to collect the over-ripened coffee cherries that had already fallen from the trees. In their diligent coffee bean foraging, the local workers discovered that the furry nocturnal thieves consumed the coffee cherries by night and left undigested beans in their morning number two.
The locals, quite correctly, presumed that the plantation owners would not raise a fuss over gathering these stinky beans. Since the beans were going to be roasted anyway, killing off harmful bacteria, the residents didn’t see much downside. The beans were carefully collected, cleaned, and roasted for local consumption.
It did not take long for the Dutch to realize that the workers unexpectedly devised a method to produce a superior product. Locals 1, Colonists 0. The fecal frenzy spread and became a famed delicacy in the colonies and abroad.
Kopi Luwak’s unusual process ultimately contributes to the complex aromatics and smooth taste experienced in the final product. But how good is it, really? My coffee enthusiast crew sought the answer.
The coffee was bright and aromatic, with cherry and floral hints bursting from the cup, earthy and chocolate elements on the mid-palate, and finishing with lingering smoke, leather, and musty characteristics. As the poo predicted, it was notably smooth, with less bitterness and astringency. Complex and unique, it was definitely an enjoyable cup of joe, but at a relatively high price point. Commanding a sum that can exceed $80 per cup in Western shops, Kopi Luwak is a likely a bucket list item that won’t leave you reaching for a refill. Good? Absolutely. But when the novelty wears and the bank account groans, it is time to set your sights back to Long Coffee & Roastery for your daily fix.
The palm civet enjoys a tasty meal while coffee connoisseurs cherish a unique and tasty brew. Win-win scenario, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, the increased prestige of Kopi Luwak and correlated value has encouraged some producers to capture and cage thousands of these furry felines, forcing them to subsist on a nutritionally deficient diet in less-than-ideal living conditions. Numerous news agencies and animal rights groups have documented the cruel treatment of these animals in the pursuit of higher production and profits.
While this is obviously problematic for Mr. Civet, it may also carry the unintended consequence of diminishing the coffee’s quality. Because palm civets in the wild are finicky eaters, coffee cherries naturally digested in their jungle habitat tend to be the highest quality available. For the unfortunate four-legged prisoners, it is more about forced quantity rather than quality. Culinary nitpicking is not encouraged. The caged life is not a kind one for our beloved civet.
Kopi Luwak is a unique coffee worth exploring. If you are going to explore, however, be mindful and respectful of the cuddly critter that makes it possible. There are some organizations that ethically produce high quality Kopi Luwak. Research, verify, support. If you are in Indonesia, even more information is available if you make even small effort to obtain it. We should all cultivate an attitude of stewardship and respect for our natural world and its inhabitants. After all, #CivetLivesMatter, and we can do our part (even with minimal effort) to ensure the animal’s best welfare in the coffee making process.
It may even produce a better cup of coffee. I’ll cheer to that.
An Ode to the Luak
In conclusion, a proper ode to kopi’s cute and cuddly celebrity, written by John A. Martinez:
the cry is heard.
Is it a plane? Is it a bird?
Alas, my friends, it's not like that.
My star's a first cousin to a pole cat.
We ask, "What is it?"
Britannica says it's a palm civet,
Genus Paradoxurus, species hermaphraditus,
--Scientific information to excite us.
Where do you dwell?
On the isle of Sumatra, where it's hot as hell.
Who under the cover of the darkest night
Hunts for ripe coffee cherries red and bright.
After you've gorged,
A new taste sensation is forged.
For all gathered here, this is the scoop--
We're drinking coffee made from your poop.
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