By Thulasi Muttulingam
A kilogram of these beans can cost up to $400 or more; it’s not for the faint-hearted, either of purse or palate. The average kopi luak consumer stands out as a connoisseur willing to shell out the extra few (or many) dollars for that extra good cup of coffee.
So what makes this coffee extra-good? Well, it’s mostly a load of crap!
Er… we mean it’s a ‘highly refined process’ of collecting civet dung, and as they are so rare, and the process is so difficult, the coffee is also supra-expensive.
Let’s back up a little.
This story starts all the way back in the early 19th Century during the days of colonialism. The Dutch had most of their prized coffee plantations in Java, Indonesia. The coffee grown there earned them massive profits in the world market, but being the ethical
slave-drivers masters they were, they prohibited the native coffee pluckers from keeping any of the plucked coffee cherries for themselves.
Naturally the workers were keen to taste the product they were harvesting, which was so sought after in the rest of the world. But this strict embargo meant they could only speculate.
You can just imagine how they would have marched off in anger to work in the fields, pausing to give the animal dung one encounters on such expeditions a good swift kick. But marvel of marvels, they promptly discovered that this particular dung contained some coffee beans. Was it a sign from above?
Well it was still covered in feces. But the plantation workers of a bygone age (or now) are not in the habit of being finicky. They simply washed off the dung and used the beans thus harvested for their own consumption. While the rich got the beans harvested from the trees, the poor as usual were confined to scrapping what they could from the seemingly lowliest of places.
How though did such beans go from fit only for the poorest of the poor – to the richest of the rich?
It’s a real story of
rags to riches, bullshit – well civet shit.
In 1981, a hardy National Geographic writer who travelled to Indonesia to track what had happened to Java coffee, happened to mention an interaction with a local farmer in passing:
Doyo told me over a superb cup of coffee, “The luak, that’s a small catlike animal, gorges after dark on the most ripe, the best of our crop. It digests the fruit and expels the beans, which our farm people collect, wash, and roast, a real delicacy. Something about the natural fermentation that occurs in the luak’s stomach seems to make the difference. For Javanese, this is the best of all coffees—our Kopi luak.” (source: National Geographic).
Inevitably, some coffee enthusiast half-way across the world was going to read it and decide he wanted to try it. In this case, that kismet fell to Tony Wild, now a famous coffee consultant and author.
“I first read a description of kopi luwak buried in a short paragraph in a 1981 copy of National Geographic Magazine. Ten years later, in 1991, as coffee director of Taylors of Harrogate, I was the first person to import kopi luwak into the west – a single kilogramme. I didn’t sell it through the company, but thought, perhaps naively, that its quirky, faintly off-putting origins from a wild animal roaming Indonesian coffee estates might be of interest to the local newspaper and radio in Yorkshire where the company was based. It proved to be so much bigger than that – national news, TV and radio fell over themselves to cover it. Kopi luwak put Taylors – and me – on the map.” (The Guardian)
This one action of Tony’s sparked off a world-wide contretemps – everyone with money to spend and a label to gain, as ‘connoisseur of coffee’ seemingly wanted civet digested coffee. When demand increases, supply will also increase – by hook or by crook.
So where earlier, the coffee beans were harvested from the droppings of wild civets which visited the coffee fields of their own volition, they are now harvested in farms where the hapless animals are kept in battery cages amidst horrific conditions.
Animal rights issues aside, is this cruelty justified in terms of significantly better taste? Coffee cupping procedures where expert tasters evaluate coffee samples, tends towards a negative.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) have stated that there is a “general consensus within the industry … it just tastes bad”. A coffee professional cited in the SCAA article was able to compare the same beans with and without the kopi luwak process using a rigorous coffee cupping evaluation. He concluded: “it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality.” Using the SCAA cupping scale, the Luwak scored two points below the lowest of the other three coffees.
It hasn’t deterred the coffee’s sales though. And as usual, innovations have sprung up as well. So the rich want to consume coffee passed through the digestive tracts of exotic animals?
Step right up gentlemen! Would you like this coffee harvested from the feces of Thai elephants, Brazilian Jacu birds or Bonobo monkeys? That will be $50 a cup.
Poor Tony Wild is now trying desperately to end what he inadvertently set off with his original purchase. He fears that the next thing that would happen if we don’t stop this absurdly run-away phenomenon is: “celebrity-digested designer crap coffee. One way for former stars to revitalize a flagging film career I suppose, or perhaps for a Turner prizewinning artist to comment on the vacuity of our consume-at-all-costs age.”
Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie digested coffee anyone?