I’d like to start by quoting the authors of “Coffee: a Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, The beverage, and the Industry” (2013):
“It’s coffee made by assholes for assholes.”Coffee: a Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, The beverage, and the Industry” (2013)
I am inclined to agree. To answer the actual question, however:
At $18/oz on Amazon, it’s the most expensive coffee worldwide; some say up to 80% of it is fake. The elements that made it high-quality are no longer used. Overall, it’s not worth the price.
What’s special about it? How is it made?
Apparently, back during Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia, the Dutch forbid the native people from harvesting coffee for their own use. This meant that they were forced to find other sources for a cuppa.
The locals scrounged the area and found that a native animal, the Civet “cat”, which would eat the coffee cherries and would, uh, “pass” the coffee beans without digesting them. They must have been quite desperate for a caffeine fix, as they decided to wash off the beans, roast them, and use them for their own beverages.
Turns out, they found the flavor was actually enhanced by this repugnant processing method, and so Kopi Luwak was created. Fun fact: this is actually how early coffee trees had originally spread throughout suitable climates; animals would eat the fruit and then deposit the seeds around their territories.
What makes the coffee special? Well, there are a few theories as to why this method of processing makes a superior cup:
- Selective picking – The civets are free to take their time to selectively pick the best fruits, while the human pickers were much less picky because they were merely working for a paycheck. As such, civets were much more discerning in the quality of their beans.
- Thorough “washing” – By eating the cherries, the fruit’s exterior would be removed and digested, leaving the bean alone. If the cherry is left intact for too long, it can start to ferment or grow mold. These effects were actually used regularly for processed coffee in the 1800s and in some locations today.
- Enzymes – Some people believe that there is something in the animal’s digestive enzymes that might change the chemical composition of the coffee, giving it an altered flavor. Some consider this a form of fermentation, it seems.
Is it safe to drink?
Yes, it is entirely safe so long as it is processed properly. I tried it in Indonesia in 2015 and it’s hard to see how any harmful bacteria would survive the high-temperatures of the roasting process and then also the boiling hot water it was brewed with. As well, they thoroughly wash the beans before the beans even reach the roasting stage.
You will not get sick; the only danger is being overcharged or tricked.
What does it taste like?
According to Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide (2013), they state the flavor to be the following:
“In the cup, the coffee has balanced body, high acidity, and some bitterness, although the characteristics depend on the coffee’s nature and handling. Kopi Luwak’s aroma is intense with sweetness and sometimes a fruity flavor.”Coffee: a Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, The beverage, and the Industry” (2013)
The main issue with talking about the flavor is that the Civets will eat both arabica and robusta alike, so you don’t know what strain of coffee you’ll be getting. As well, supposing you have legitimate Luwak coffee, the quality will vary greatly if they are caged and force-fed indiscriminate cherries, or if they are free-range because these ones would be much more likely to choose superior beans.
As I said, I have tried it and it was a pretty damn good cup of coffee, but the place I went on Bali island did not have a great living situation for the animals, and who knows how stress will affect their digestive systems.
How much does it cost? Why is it so expensive?
Well, the prices seem to range, so I tried to look at where I’d buy it if I was going to do it as easily as possible: Amazon.
On Amazon.com, the best sellers worked out to be something in the range of $18/oz, or $630/kg at that rate. The reason it tends to be so expensive is that the yields are extremely small and can be difficult to find – if legitimate. You may also find it at specialty shops, but their prices will vary.
The real stuff would require people to wander around the civet’s territory, seeking out and collecting droppings. This, of course, would be time-consuming with little reward. Quality coffee can already be expensive, but now there’s this entirely extra, strenuous step added into the mix. Of course, it’s going to cost a lot more.
Then there are the scammers who merely want the highest price with lowest effort.
Where is it produced?
It is mainly produced on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Sulawesi, and it is largely gathered from forests or farms from various islands and regions in the Philippines.
Why do people hate it?
Well, the main reason it’s even famous is not for its quality, but more the quasi-mythical status of being the most expensive. There are plenty of things that are the most expensive in reputation but are not based on the actual quality of the product. As always, the perception of things goes a long way.
Kopi Luwak, if free range and at its best, will have excellent quality… but as stated earlier, 80% is fake, and much of the real stuff is a result of indiscriminately force-feeding beans to stressed out Civets. Some people may not like the idea that they’re being taken advantage of purely due to the label being slapped on.
Finally, there’s the treatment of the animals. Civets are shy, picky eaters; they are nocturnal animals that enjoy large areas to roam and have loner tendencies.
In the case of Kopi Luwak farms, however, they’re often in cages the size of bathrooms with multiple other Civets, being force-fed low-quality fruit during daylight. It’s the exact opposite of how they’d wish to be treated. Imagine being kept up all night in a jail cell, being force-fed moldy bread. As you might have guessed, their rate of death in such conditions is quite high. Wonderful.
The Asian palm civet, the main genus of civets that create Luwak coffee, are adaptable to many environments and are not believed to be declining; however, whatever threat there is to civets, Luwak Kopi appears to be one of their biggest concerns to wild civet populations.
Yeah… not much to like about the industry.
What are other names for the coffee?
At the time of writing, I’ve lived in Beijing for three years; mandarin tends to be kind of blunt and logical. In the case of Kopi Luwak, they call it 猫屎咖啡, which directly translates to “Cat shit coffee”. So blunt. Though, fun fact: civets are not part of the cat family. They are actually more closely related to mongooses than cats. So maybe calling them weasels is more accurate, as the Vietnamese call them.
- Kopi Luwak / Luwak Coffee (Indonesia)
- Weasel Coffee (Vietnam)
- Civet coffee
- Kape Alamid (Phillippines; Tagalog region)
- Kape motit (Phillippines; Cordillera region)
- Mape Melo/Musang (Phillipines; Mindanao island)
- Kahawa Kubing (Phillipines; Sulu Archipelago)
- Kafe-laku (East Timor)
- 猫屎咖啡 [mao shi kafei] / Cat Shit Coffee (China)
My advice: Give it a miss.
In researching this topic, I’ve come across many people who have sites claiming that Luwak Coffee is “the world’s favorite coffee” or playing up how amazing it is due to the price. This is an instance where the price seems to be a misleading signal; it is not worth the price given to it because of the mistreatment, the lower quality due to all the scammers, and the fake product flooding the already small market.
If you can find a solid source where they collect it from free-range civets, then I’d say give it a shot. But in all likelihoods, you’re merely supporting a shitty industry (pun intended).
Main photo by: Dennis Tang, which has been modified for size. Original here on Flickr; “Sad Luwak” by Stefan Magdalinski on Flickr , size modified