Not all is gold that glitters, I said recently in a review of a Harvey Nichols cafe, and I want to bit my tongue; not because I suddenly realised that their coffee is actually amazing, but because this saying should have been reserved to introduce a very special kind of coffee. So, let me repeat myself, reuse and rephrase this statement, to announce boldly: some gold is far from glittery. And so, without further ado, I introduce to you: Kopi Luwak.
Growing in popularity, it is still a niche kind of coffee; and no wonder, as it is mainly celebrities (and anyone on similar wages) who can afford to stock it. Going for £100-£300 per lb, this is the priciest and most exclusive coffee in the world, with only around 500kg of beans produced yearly. The biggest curiosity about this coffee, however, is that it is produced by a cat-like-animal, a civet, and all the magic is born in a rather foul process – quite literally.
Kopi Luwak translates as Civet Cat Coffee, but as its popularity spread, it acquired various names, the most popular being: Cat Poo Coffee. In its simplest form, it is the faeces of a Luwak, after the ripe coffee fruit had been eaten by the cat and passed through its digestive system. These faeces are then quickly collected by locals to avoid mistaking them for other coffee; the beans are then cleaned and dried.
“I find that the digestive process reduces the acidity and brightness of the coffee, ironic given that it is the Luwak’s stomach acids that ‘make’ Kopi Luwak, and the final taste is, in my opinion very balanced,” says Troy Davis from Animal Coffee. “It is very mild, sometimes to the point of being bland and I need to use two ‘short’ shots of espresso in a milk based coffee to prevent it being too milky.”
The Kopi Luwak is produced by the Asian Civet, whose home is in Indonesia, the source of bold, full-bodied coffees from regions such as Sumatra. Although there are Civets living on the African continent (the birthplace of coffee), these animals do not seem to be as interested in coffee fruit as much as their Asian cousins; this, of course, impacts the flavour characteristics of the final product. However, the uniqueness of this coffee lies also in the fact that it is difficult to establish, whether it is Arabica or Robusta beans – or both – that the Luwak had consumed.
“As Kopi Luwak is from Indonesia the general characteristics obviously tend to follow those of other Indonesian coffees, particularly Sumatra. Having said that I have people in east Java collect relatively lowland Arabica Kopi Luwak for me and even very small amounts in Bali, which is mostly Robusta,” says Troy.
Animalcoffee claim to be the only provider of unprocessed Kopi Luwak; its founder, Troy, lived in Indonesia for several years and conducted tours in Sumatra, Java and Bali together with local coffee plantation workers as guides. During one of his tours he had a Kopi Luwak collected for him, and that is when his business was born.
“Animalcoffee is a bit different to other companies selling Kopi Luwak as we refuse to sell via retailers. Our main reason for this is so that we can control the quality of the coffee that is sold as Animalcoffee.
“Coffee usually improves in the week to 10 days after it’s roasted and stays fresh for around a month to six weeks, after that period it deteriorates quite rapidly. We don’t want people buying Animalcoffee “off the shelf” that is more than about six weeks old. To this end we roast every single order we receive after we receive it and send it out within two days.”
However, controversy around the poor living conditions of some luwaks, allegedly caged to commercially produce the coffee, led to some retailers boycotting the mass-suppliers of Kopi. Troy explains:
“In Bali you can now buy what is supposedly Kopi Luwak on the shelves of supermarkets but if people gave it any serious thought they would realise that without farming massive numbers of luwaks it would be impossible to produce the quantity of Kopi Luwak on sale.
“One of the reasons Kopi Luwak is so excellent is that wild luwaks have an entire coffee plantation of beans to feed from yet for some reason they choose to eat some beans and not others. Feeding a luwak in a cage with beans that have been picked circumvents the luwak’s natural – and excellent – selection process.
“Given that your local supermarket offers free range eggs as an alternative to caged hens it should be obvious that luwaks kept in similar conditions is unacceptable.
Kopi Luwak is surely a special kind of treat; rather unpredictable taste-wise, it will certainly surprise anyone who braves to go against the preconceived ideas surrounding the nature of its sourcing; and it certainly gives the expression “crap coffee” a whole new meaning. I have tried it myself to find out whether it is indeed worth the publicity – and the sky-high price – find out for yourselves!