Coffee for $500 a kilogram? You’ve gotta be shitting me.
Those were my first thoughts when I heard about kopi luwak after arriving in Bali. After all, what type of coffee could possibly cost more than a high-end car payment? What type of rigorous, gold-standard production processes are in place to impart subtle, complex, artful, and incomparable flavors to the humble coffee bean? And how far did this coffee have to travel — and under what arduous conditions — to earn its outrageous price tag?
The answers are not what you’d expect.
Kopi luwak is made from poop. More specifically, it’s made from partially digested defecations of the Asian palm civet. As far as production lines go, this one is a relatively simple process that begins with the civet, or luwak as it’s known to the local population, ingesting the ripest coffee beans it can find, taking a nap, and then — ahem — ejecting them. It’s hard to believe that something so simple, so primitive, could produce a coffee so sought after and treasured.
I spent the day at a luwak coffee farm in Bali and discovered the origins of this bizarre coffee, how it’s produced, and its place in the massive coffee industry as a whole. As we walked through a plantation serried between towering cocoa trees, stepped rice terraces, and robusta coffee plants, my guide, Wayan Balik, educated me on the luwak and the coffee it produces.
A Coffee Rebellion
As with Vietnam, which has become the coffee powerhouse of Southeast Asia, coffee as a crop was introduced to Indonesia by the colonial powers of the time — the Dutch. They discovered that the tropical climate of the island nation made for exceptional growing conditions that allowed the coffee plant to flourish.
However, soil fertility didn’t mean that the Dutch were exceptionally generous, and, although local labor was used to rear and produce crops throughout the country, native farmers and plantation workers were forbidden from harvesting coffee beans for their own use. This frustrated the workers. However, they soon discovered that the cat-like civet would consume the coffee fruit and leave the coffee seeds undigested in their droppings. By gathering these droppings, cleaning, roasting, and grinding them, they were able to make their own coffee beverages without incurring the wrath of the Dutch farmers.
The Dutch, upon visiting the villages and seeing the Balinese enjoying coffee that seemed to be of equal, if not better, quality, quickly unraveled the conspiracy. It wasn’t long until the coffee became a favorite among plantation owners who favored its strong aroma and bitter taste. Its scarcity made it an expensive brew, even among coffee traders at the time.
But why would beans consumed and then defecated yield a superior flavor to coffee that has been subjected to various roasts or conventional production processes? According to Balik, the answer is two-fold.
“The reason why kopi luwak is so good is because the luwak only goes after the best and ripest coffee fruit,” Balik said. “The other reason is because, in the luwak stomach, fermentation happens, and the coffee beans get a different flavor.”
Since the discerning luwak consumes the pulpy flesh of the coffee fruit, it chooses those that are prime for eating. Once consumed, the remaining beans spend up to a day and a half in the luwak’s digestive tract, where fermentation occurs and the flavor profile of the beans is altered by the digestive enzymes. Later, the beans are ejected in clumps, still retaining their shape and remaining partially undigested because of the endocarp, the hard outer layer of the bean, which protects the core during the digestion process.
“After we find the poop, we gather it and clean it,” Balik said, showing me a series of broad pans containing beans in various stages. The outer layer of the bean, partially digested by the luwak, is removed, as are any damaged or generally unsuitable coffee beans, before they are roasted in a wok-like pan over an open fire.
The beans are then pounded into dust for 20 minutes using a massive mortar and pestle. At this stage of the process, if desired, other flavors such as hibiscus or ginger can be added to diversify the flavor profile.
Not All Coffee And Cream
While kopi luwak is undoubtedly a unique type of coffee, its lengthy production process and supposed superior qualities are subject to skepticism among professionals within the coffee industry. Many say that the coffee isn’t worthy of its lofty price tag and that kopi luwak continues to be sold at a premium because of the story behind it rather than any superiority of the bean.
There’s an ethical concern, too. Because of the high price that coffee fetches both locally and abroad, expedient farming methods have been employed for high-yield production of the luwak coffee. While traditional kopi luwak — that is, coffee harvested from the droppings of wild luwaks — exists (Sihjarta is one such producer), many luwak battery farms have been established throughout Southeast Asia to capitalize on the coffee’s profitability. In such farms, luwaks are kept in cages and fed coffee fruits harvested by farmers in order to increase excretion of the revered bean. While this is not only an inhumane way of treating the small mammal, it also impedes the careful selection process the luwak would otherwise employ when searching for food, undermining one of the core tenets that supposedly makes kopi luwak so delicious.
After trying a cup myself, I remain dubious. The roast was dark, the coffee strong — but there are equally delicious, exponentially cheaper roasts that satisfy my palate just the same. And I can still pay my rent.