I drank the poo coffee. It didn’t taste like poo. Which gets the inevitable first kopi luwak question, out of the way.
To expand, kopi luwak (or, more commonly, luwak coffee) is the one where hungry South East Asian civet cats (they’re not actually cats) eat fleshy, fruity coffee beans and, a few hours later, excrete a handful of warm, sticky coffee beans. The scat is promptly scooped up, washed, roasted, ground, mixed with hot water and consumed by keen human beings. Presumably, the civet cats watch on, somewhat bemused by this behaviour. The theory behind this poop scooping carry on is that the digestive juices of the civet soak into the bean as they pass through the creature’s intestinal tract (it sounded better in the brochure) making it extra tasty. More on the taste later.
South East Asians have known about this treat for years, Westerners, however, have only been in on the game since the early 90s. Naturally, as soon as a bunch of money hungry Westerners get in on the act, things tend to go awry — especially if you happen to be an Asian Palm Civet.
The exotic kopi luwak, combined with its scarcity, quickly pushed prices into the stratosphere and it wasn’t long before Clueless Coffee Wankers™ everywhere were falling over themselves to throw money at the stuff. It’s reputation grew and in those parts of the world with particularly high concentrations of well-funded coffee-knobs, it wasn’t uncommon for hundreds of dollars to be exchanged for just a few mililitres of kopi luwak — a dollar-to-volume ratio that would have execs at an inkjet printer company doing a spit take.
Humans being humans (and by humans I mean those that fall into the greedy, ignorant asshat category), it wasn’t long before this exotic rarity was being exploited in order to make a quick buck. The Sumatran jungle equivalent of battery-farmed chickens soon became a thing. Animals suffered horribly and, even though the luwak coffee was no longer ‘rare’, Clueless Coffee Wankers™ still liked to show off how rich they were by buying kopi luwak for hundreds of dollars per kilo.
Fortunately, there are ethical kopi luwak farmers whose beans are sourced sustainably from wild civet under strict, Indonesian government imposed conditions (bear in mind kopi luwak is farmed throughout SE Asia). These are the beans you should seek out if you’re interested in ‘drinking the poo’.
Recently, I had an opportunity to try (on someone else’s tab) kopi luwak for myself. I was on a press junket in Bali — the small Indonesian island famous for its beaches, surfing and bodyboard bags. A few of us filled in some downtime with a side-trip to see some of the sights — one of these sights was a small kopi luwak plantation in the hills outside Denpasar.
The place didn’t look like much from the road, but on the inside it was a spacious, civet sanctuary. Ushered into a walled garden filled with thriving, tropical greenery, our first stop was a small hut lined with trays of beans on display showing various stages of production — from poop-covered to washed to roasted. A woman sat by a small, fired-powered stove roasting beans while, nearby, another was pounding away with an over-sized mortar and pestle — presumably getting the grind juuuust right.
Well aware of the controversy hanging over the kopi luwak industry, we asked about the civet, upon which they showed us the three animals that lived in the grounds. They were caged and sleeping. I feared for them. Perhaps sensing this hesitation, our host informed us that they’re only caged during the day and are let out to feed in the garden during the evening. Somewhat reassured by this news, the woman then told us they only keep them here for two months before they release them back into the wild. This made me feel better, although I was still somewhat torn. They looked healthy and relaxed, but what do I know? I patted one of the little fellas in the hope he was having a good life.
We snapped a few photos and headed over to the next stop — a table filled with about 20 freshly brewed coffees and teas. We sat down, in the shade. It was bliss. While we were indulging, some of the freshly ground kopi luwak was brewed right in front of us. We drank it short and black.
Now, I can’t give you a detailed breakdown of the flavours I was experiencing — I simply don’t have the skill to attempt this without sounding more idiotic than usual. However, I try a lot of coffee and in my humble experience, it was good. I also suspect that the quality of the coffee we were tasting had more to do with the beans themselves than the animal’s digestive system. If the civet were eating crappy (pun alert), 6-month-old Nescafe instant, I’d say the coffee would have tasted like…rubbish. Crap in, crap out as they say (pun absolutely intended).
The stuff we were sampling was certainly good. We stayed until we’d drunk our fill then stopped by the shop on the way out — the shelves were lined with dozens of varieties of coffee, tea and and chocolate. Self restraint at this point was difficult, however, the fact a 200g bag of kopi luwak beans would have cost me around $40NZ helped.
It was a fantastic experience and, as a coffee lover, I’m glad to have done it. Poo coffee aside, it was simply a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. I’m not sold on the whole kopi luwak idea though. I’m not convinced the coffee was necessarily any better than anything else, and the temptation for human greed to fuck over yet another creature on this planet makes supporting the wider process simply not worth the risk. If you’re going to try kopi luwak yourself, do the industry and the civet a favour by only buying ethically sourced beans.