The Curious Case of Kopi Luwak

You’ve tried them all: Arabica and Robusta, espressos, cappuccinos, café lattes and cafe zorros. But when was the last time you drank a coffee at Starbucks that has passed through the guts of a cat? Indonesian kopi luwak – or civet coffee – is exactly that.

Known as ‘fox-dung coffee’ in Vietnam (and ‘cat-poop coffee’ by its critics), kopi luwak may be the most expensive cup of coffee in the world – but its origins couldn’t be more humble.

The Origins of Luwak Coffee and the Palm Civet Cat

Far away in the tropical rainforests of Indonesia 200 hundred years ago, farmers in Java and Sumatra were busy planting a crop that they had never seen before: coffee. And while their Dutch colonial masters sipped it over breakfast and sold it by the ton to a growing European audience, the farmers themselves were forbidden to drink it. Until a little jungle cat came along.

Indonesia’s palm civet cat – the luwak – is a curious animal. Nocturnal, shy and looking like a cross between a mongoose and a weasel, it is found in the tropical jungles of Asia. And like the Dutch plantation owners, it also developed a taste for coffee.

Picking the ripest coffee cherries on their nightly rounds, the little luwaks would digest the fruit’s flesh – but the hard seeds, or beans, would pass undisturbed in their droppings. Collected, washed, roasted and ground by the plantation farmers, word quickly spread about the new wonder drink – its prized aroma and smooth, earthy flavour soon becoming a firm favourite of the Dutch colonialists.

Cup of coffee kopi luwak in Indonesia
A cup of the most expensive coffee on earth.

 

Coffee beans on the vine in Indonesia
Coffee beans ripening on the vine in Sumatra, Indonesia.

 

Preparing luwak coffee in Indonesia
A worker prepares luwak coffee beans in Sumatra, Indonesia.

 

The 'luwak', or Asian Palm Civet cat
The little luwak – night-time coffee hunter.

Coffee Luwak Hits the West

Fast-forward two hundred years, and the secret was out. Oprah Winfrey drank a cup on prime-time TV; so did Jack Nicholson’s character in the 2007 Hollywood film ‘The Bucket List’. When the Guardian newspaper published a review about it in 2008, kopi luwak was being sold in high-class London coffee houses for £50 ($75) a cup. Nowadays, a kilo of authentic, ethically-produced luwak coffee can cost you upwards of $800 – about the same price as a kilo of Colombian cocaine paste.

So How Does it Taste?

If you’re paying nearly a hundred dollars for a pick-me-up, a cup of cat-poo coffee had better match the price tag. One kopi luwak virgin writes: ‘On first taste it’s pretty fantastic with all of the higher notes you tend to get with a well-roasted bespoke coffee… the defining characteristic is a lovely, long, subtly nutty aftertaste…

Not bad then. Another food expert agrees: ‘A small sip… reveals an earthy profundity, an uncanny blend of Jamaican mountain and Indonesian jungle. As an exotic holiday for your tongue, the price tag is almost reasonable…

Kopi Luwak – What does it taste like?

The Problem With Kopi Luwak

So apart from its high price-tag, it’s OK then?

Not quite. One reason for its exorbitant cost was the claim that only 500kg of the beans were collected annually – a claim that is totally untrue. But when word spread among Indonesian farmers that they could sell a kilo of the precious poop for $130, everybody wanted in on the game. Jungle civets were rounded up by hunters in Bali, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, and sold on to battery farms.

The shy, nocturnal luwaks – far from their natural jungle habitats – suddenly found themselves locked in tiny cages and force-fed inferior coffee beans until they died or succumbed to disease. For a solitary animal used to 17 sq km of territory and feeding on a varied diet of meat and vegetables, it was a recipe for disaster.

The coffee luwak trade soon expanded to Vietnam, China and the Philippines, and fake beans quickly flooded the market.

It wasn’t long before journalists and animal welfare activists began to voice their complaints about the cruelty that this suddenly fashionable and highly-profitable industry had created. Kopi luwak – and the jungle civets that helped to produce it – had become victims of their own success.

Caged palm civet cat eating coffee beans in Indonesia
A caged palm civet cat in Indonesia force-fed coffee beans to create kopi luwak.

 

Caged 'luwak', or palm civet cat, in Indonesia
A caged palm civet cat in Indonesia. Palm civets are solitary creatures that need at least 17 sq kilometres of territory to roam.

BBC’s ‘Our World’: Coffee’s Cruel Secret.

Ethical Solutions

But if you think you’ll never be able to sample a cup of the most expensive coffee on earth, you may just be in with a chance. The backlash against ruthless civet farms and a push for sustainable, ethically-produced kopi luwak has begun.

Thanks to public campaigns by well-known animal welfare organisations such as PETA, large UK kopi luwak retailers like Harrods and Selfridges were encouraged to investigate their supply chains. They consequently stopped selling civet coffee until they could guarantee that it was sourced from the wild.

As a result of continued pressure, UTZ Certified – a programme for sustainable farming – no longer certifies producers that use battery-farmed palm civets. Which means that before you buy any kopi luwak online or in a coffee shop, make sure that it has the UTZ Certified stamp. Even better if it is also certified by World Animal Protection and the Rainforest Alliance.

Where Can I Buy Ethically-Farmed Kopi Luwak?

It’s harder than it seems. Your best bet for wild-foraged luwak coffee may be online, as larger non-Indonesian retailers have more of a reputation to lose when buying from an unethical source.

Wild Gayo Luwak – established in 2015 – is adamant that all of its ‘doree’ kopi luwak coffee beans are collected from free-range palm civets, and that this North Sumatran plantation operates within World Animal Protection guidelines. Coffee from the same plantation is sold through Sea Island Coffee from London at £18, or $28, for 50 grams.

The US KopiLuwakDirect sells wild civet coffee too, claiming that “The Luwaks are free to choose for themselves which beans they consume, and to eat their full varied natural diet, which enriches the flavour of our delicious coffee.” – but offers no certification from WAP, UTZ or the Rainforest Alliance.

If you’re looking to buy ethical luwak coffee on Bali, you may not have much luck buying at source. According to Project Luwak Singapore, “… there are no UTZ Certified coffee plantations” on the resort island. There are, however, plenty of guided tours available to show you around Bali’s coffee luwak plantations – and you’ll have lots of opportunity to see first-hand how caged palm civets produce the coffee. Beware the overpriced, on-site souvenir shops.

Where to buy kopi luwak if you’re already in Indonesia? Your best bet is to look around some of the bigger supermarkets like Carrefour, Bintang and Delta Dewata in the tourist destinations or major cities – and check for those all-important stamps of certification.

But don’t be shocked at the price.

Kopi Lewak coffee for sale in Indonesia
Kopi luwak for sale in an Indonesian market.

 

Processed kopi luwak coffee beans
Luwak coffee beans (l) and regular Arabica beans (r) side by side.

One More Thing – Fake Kopi Luwak…

A Japanese professor has finally invented a test that can tell if your luwak coffee beans have in fact passed through the guts of a palm civet cat – but the test can’t tell if that luwak is wild, or is living in a cage. And it’s difficult to send every pack of kopi luwak to Japan for testing before you buy. A tip: sniff your beans. If they smell leafy, you’re in with a chance. If they smell like rice, you’ve been conned. And pay attention to their colour: real kopi luwak beans are a yellowish-green rather than the more normal, dark chocolate colour.

Some retailers boast of being able to sell luwak coffee wholesale. This should set some alarm bells ringing. Firstly, wild civets simply can’t produce enough kopi luwak to fill a container. And secondly, there’s a good chance that your super-coffee has been mixed with regular Arabica straight from the tree. Beware of prices that look too good to be true. Let’s face it: real, ethically-sourced luwak coffee doesn’t come cheap…

Tips for Brewing a Perfect Cup of Kopi Luwak Coffee

So you’ve bought your first, super-expensive packet of certified luwak coffee, and you can’t wait to try it. But take a few tips from the experts first.

  1. Go for whole beans, and grind them yourself to ensure the freshest coffee. But only grind as much as you need… or it’ll lose its flavour.
  2. For a coffee as expensive as this, don’t risk ruining it with tap water. Treat yourself to a bottle of mineral water instead.
  3. Stay away from mixing kopi luwak with milk or cream – it’ll interfere with the coffee’s subtle taste.
  4. If you’re using an espresso machine, grind the beans extra fine to produce a thick, concentrated cup.
  5. The most common method is to use a percolator, or ‘drip coffee maker’. Medium-grind your coffee beans. Make sure you get the water-to-coffee ratio right: 1-2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 fluid ounces of water is a good starting point.
  6. If you’re a traditionalist and have 15 minutes to spare, you may want to try this. Take a saucepan, and add a generous teaspoon of finely-ground coffee for each cup you want to make – plus one for the pot. For each cup of coffee you’re making, add 1 ½ cups of cold water to the saucepan and heat on a medium-high heat. Stir frequently. As soon as the coffee comes to the boil, remove from the heat, stir and allow the coffee grounds to settle for 1-2 minutes. Pour carefully, leaving the grounds behind. Enjoy.

Rich Pickings

From secret coffee-drinking sessions in the jungle to the most expensive brew on the planet: kopi luwak is a curious case. Coffee connoisseurs rave about it; animal rights activists wish it had never been discovered. But find that rarest of creatures – the ethically-certified bag of cat-poo coffee – and you may find that your mornings will never be the same again. Go on. Put it on your Bucket List. Take a sip. And be sure to tell us what you think…