Lots of really crappy things are expensive—root canals, for instance, and tattoo-removal services, divorce—but most of them aren’t expensive because they are literally made from poop, which is precisely what Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee, actually is.
Kopi Luwak—kopi for “coffee,” and luwak being the term for the nocturnal creature that made it famous—makes headlines on the semi-regular for its weirdness, and is even featured prominently in the film The Bucket List for its exclusivity and exoticism. But there’s a lot of confusion about what it is, what makes it special, and whether or not it’s worth paying extra green for the brown stuff. (Sorry, had to.)
In order to understand Luwak coffee, first you need to know that coffee beans are actually the seeds of a fruit that look something like a cherry or a cranberry, and which grow in tropical climates such as the civet’s natural habitat of Southeast Asia. In order for us to have coffee beans to brew, the seeds need to be removed from their fruit. This is what we call processing in the coffee industry, and it can happen all kinds of ways. Sometimes the fruit is fermented and sloughed off with water; sometimes it’s removed mechanically, sometimes the whole berry is allowed to dry around the seed before it’s hulled and discarded.
Or you can feed coffee cherries to an animal, let its stomach acids and enzymes remove the fruit, and collect some number one seeds from the animal’s number two. If processing were a recipe in a cookbook, you could say that Kopi Luwak takes the least “active time,” though there is the sticky matter of harvesting (and, yes, cleaning) the beans on the other end.
First of all, there is something really odd and exotic about this, and it’s certainly pretty rare. Traditionally, it would be harvested more or less in the wild, as the beans kind of clump up once they pass through the animal’s system. It’s expensive in large part due to its exclusivity and bizarre backstory, and also because, to be fair, if one is going to pick coffee beans out of poop, one should probably charge a pretty penny for it.
Second, coffees from Indonesia (from where the vast majority of Kopi Luwak comes) are already naturally compelling and tantalizing. Their savory, earthy, almost herbaceous quality and heavy texture set them apart from the fruitier African coffees or sweet and sprightly coffees from the Americas. Kopi Luwak is even earthier than earthy—it certainly has a je ne sais quoi—and it can’t be beat as a conversation starter. For anywhere from $30 for 50 grams to $500 for five pounds, that’s an awfully expensive conversation.
However, it’s also not found “in the wild” as one might romanticize. These days, civet farms are big business and the animals are often held in close confinement, treated poorly, force-bred, and, of course, force-fed. What’s more, where the lore always held that the animals would seek out only the ripest cherry and the sweetest, best-quality fruit, that claim has always been dubious. (We’ve all seen what cats will eat when left to their own devices, and I hardly believe that a species of nocturnal jungle tree mammal would also happen to be a deep coffee connoisseur.)
If you’re ready to put your money (and who knows what else) where your mouth is, try to find a source that roasts fresh and dates the package, and can also offer some semblance of cruelty-free guarantee for the animals. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
— Head photo: flickr/Thomas Huang.