Kopi luwak is not only the world’s most expensive coffee with the price reaching up to $3,000 per kilo but also the most controversial one as some people consider it the worst tasting coffee that gained its popularity because of the unreasonably high price and novelty. Intensive luwak coffee production has also contributed to environmental problems in South Asia caused by the decrease in animal population and even, by some sources, species extinction.
So what is it? A mere gimmick bought for the novelty rather than taste, or a gourmet coffee with the taste and health benefits that can be appreciated at their true value by only genuine connoisseurs? Let’s look at its history and origin to find out the truth.
Kopi luwak, or civet coffee?
Kopi luwak is an Indonesian name that can be translated as a coffee from [the] luwak — an animal known as a civet cat, or more precisely, an Asian palm civet, wrongly regarded as cat species though it is closer to mongooses. Kopi luwak is literally what it means in Indonesian — coffee obtained by collecting civet’s excrements after they have been washed thoroughly, dried and roasted.
Civet cat coffee originated in Indonesia, which is still the main manufacturer of it. Modern kopi luwak is also produced in the Philippines and some parts of Vietnam, but Indonesian one (specifically the one that comes from Sumatra island) is considered the best.
A bit of history
The legend says that civet coffee was discovered in Indonesia back in the time of the Dutch colonial rule when local farmers and those who worked at plantations were forced to develop a new way of collecting coffee beans because of the government ban of harvesting and using coffee for their own needs.
To make it clear, coffee beans have nothing to do with the legume family except for their resemblance to beans. They grow inside a red fruit (often described as a cherry) of the Coffee plant, meaning that these so-called beans are seeds with all the related properties and characteristics. Coffee fruits attract animals, particularly palm civets for which these fruits constitute a significant part of their diet. Similar to seeds of most fruits, coffee beans are excreted in their initial form without being digested by animals. Locals soon discovered excrements with undigested coffee beans, and it did not take much time to find out they belonged to wild luwaks that raided coffee plantations and were often referred to as pests.
Civet cat coffee taste. Is it worth trying a poop?
No wonder kopi luwak coffee had a better taste and flavor compared to conventional coffee of the 19th century. The civet would select only ripe sweetest coffee fruits for eating, while workers at plantations were not that choosy and would often fail to distinguish good berries from those that are not ripe enough or rotten. Besides, fruit pulp or mucilage on the coffee beans which would often cause mold formation during drying are eliminated in the process of digestion by the civet resulting in cleaner beans, a smaller risk of mold and thus a better taste.
On top of that, the fermentation process inside the animal’s intestine causes the breakdown of proteins known to be the reason for coffee bitterness (low-protein civet coffee has a remarkably mellow taste, probably, the softest taste of any coffee one will ever try).
Fermented beans also positively affect human health with a smaller amount of caffeine, a higher content of malic acid providing more energy to the body and citric acid known for its health benefits. Fermented beans also contain inositol proven to be effective against anxiety and depression.
There is no consensus among connoisseurs about kopi luwak taste. Some people find it unforgettable and rich while others describe it as disgusting, pointing out that kopi luwak is rather a gimmick in a coffee world, which became popular for its novelty and price but not the taste.
So, what’s the taste of so-called the best coffee in the world?
Civet coffee taste is often described as mellow, syrupy and a bit earthy. The fermentation process adds smoothness to the body and reduces acidity, but final taste largely depends on the coffee type (whether the civet eats sweeter arabica or harsher robusta beans), the washing process, roast, and whether the coffee beans are collected from the wild or caged civets. Coffee obtained from caged animals often has an excessive aroma of some common fruits, such as papaya and guava, which are often fed to the caged civets because of their availability and low price. On the other hand, kopi luwak coffee taste obtained from wild animals combines earthy, chocolate, nutty, herby, and even fishy notes.
Cruelty to animals and environmental concerns
Kopi luwak production and civets farming raise questions related to civet extinction and human cruelty. To start with, it is almost impossible to distinguish kopi luwak produced from wild or caged animals. The lack of legislation on civet husbandry and manufacturing standards leads to a mess in labels and terms. A term “wild” can appear on a pack of luwak coffee which is collected from animals kept on cement floors in battery cages in unacceptable living conditions, forced to eat exclusively coffee fruits, deprived of exercise and space. It results in severe health problems in animals, poor digestion, frequent fights between each other and gnawed legs. The problem is far beyond control: mortality rates of caged civets are extremely high, and there is a risk of animal extinction in the areas of intensive farming.
Depending on the quality, roast, type and whether it was collected from wild or caged civet cats, kopi luwak coffee price ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars per kilo. Coffee beans are collected manually, and it makes the whole process to be both time and labor consuming, so no wonder kopi luwak price is exorbitant. Its price and inability of most customers to spot a fake civet coffee make it a perfect target of fraud scams.
Despite all the controversy that surrounds this coffee, it has devoted fans around the globe. It is not the specific taste that makes people buy this coffee, but rather the story behind it and the novelty of its production spark people’s interest.
The question is, “Would you try the kopi luwak?”