While touring and photographing the lush rice terraces in Bali, I saw a nearby coffee plantation. I decided to stop to learn more about Bali’s controversial kopi luwak coffee.
I first heard about this outlandish java from one of my favorite movies, the 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Nicholson plays an obnoxious billionaire who only drinks the exotic brand. He carries his stock of kopi luwak everywhere he goes and even takes a portable brewing station to ensure a fresh cup of kopi luwak wherever and whenever he wants it. Nicholson’s character calls it the “rarest coffee in the world,” indeed, it is the most expensive brew in the world. So, what makes it so extraordinary?
What is Kopi Luwak coffee?
Kopi Luwak is a famous (and somewhat disreputable) Indonesian coffee that has been digested by an animal called an Asian palm civet. The civet, a cat-like creature, roams the forests of Bali at night, eating ripe coffee cherries. But only the outer pulp is digested while the coffee beans pass through the animal’s digestive tract intact. After being expelled, the beans are collected, thoroughly washed, and meticulously processed to remove any remaining impurities. This process, coupled with the enzymes and fermentation during digestion, contributes to the coffee’s unique flavor and smoothness.
The History of Civet Coffee
The history of civet cat coffee or cat poop coffee goes back to the 1700s when the Dutch first set up coffee plantations in Sumatra and Java. According to legend, the locals noticed wild animals were eating the ripe coffee cherries (the stone fruits that grow in bunches on the coffee plant). They digest the cherries and excrete the beans. At the time, the plantation workers were prohibited from harvesting coffee beans for themselves, so they started brewing their drinks from these discarded beans.
Why Would You Drink Kopi Luwak?
Coffee connoisseurs seek it because wild animals will only eat the best, ripest cherries, so you don’t end up with inferior, unripe beans. The enzymes in the civet’s digestive system alter the coffee beans, producing a smoother cup of coffee.
How Does the Process Work?
The cherries get entirely stripped of their fruity exterior while passing through a civet’s stomach, giving them an extensive washing process. The workers then peel off any remaining skin, and the beans are ready for drying and later roasting. Without any fruit pulp left on the bean, mold doesn’t grow, resulting in a better cup of coffee.
When I toured the plantation, more of a family compound, I saw a few civets in cages. The guide explained that they were only there so we could see the animals.
Next, we stopped to see examples of the beans at various stages of the process. Then, we sat down to taste various locally grown tea and coffee blends. The guide collected an additional fee from those tasting luwak.
Naturally, I decided to take a taste test while I was there. I admit I was skeptical, but the coffee was one of the smoothest, low acid, and most flavorful cups I have ever tried. I liked it, but did NOT buy any to bring home.
What’s the Problem with Civet Coffee?
The problem with kopi luwak coffee is that it’s rarely actually wild. As you can imagine, a plantation that relies on free-range civets would be unpredictable. Finding and collecting the excreted beans in the forest becomes a labor-intensive task and therefore is cost prohibitive for a business.
As a result, the most common production involves removing civets from the wild and keeping them in tiny cages on coffee plantations – in other words, an unethical form of animal abuse. Many coffee plantations don’t comply with animal welfare standards for hygiene, shelter, and mobility. The civets may also be force-fed the cherries. If the civets are kept on restrictive coffee-only diets, that may lead to malnutrition and other health problems.
The Dark Side of Coffee
The consumer must also be wary as much of the coffees sold as kopi luwak isn’t authentic. With incredibly high prices for this specialty product, expect sellers to cash in by labeling unauthentic merchandise. I saw a 3.52-ounce pack of kopi luwak selling for $116.99 on Amazon. That amounts to a whopping $530 per pound.
Recommendations call for buyers to look for ethical sourcing and responsible producers. However, I think that would be difficult to determine.
To learn more I recommended reading: Black Gold: The Dark History of Coffee
Paperback – May 2, 2019
by Antony Wild (Author)