Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world with the price tag of $700 per kilogram. Yes, you heard it properly.
And if that made you spit your regular, cheap coffee while asking Is it gold?, wait until you learn how it’s produced.
In essence, kopi luwak is the type of coffee bean processing which involves small animals called Asian palm civet eating coffee cherries, digesting them and defecating them. Again, you read it properly. The civet cat eats the bean and poops it out.
What’s left from that process is then washed, roasted and ground into what people can later drink.
Some say that the key to the deliciousness of this coffee is in the fact that a fermentation process happens as the animal digests the cherries. Some say that the key is in the fact that the animal picks only the best cherries to eat. Some say it’s a mix of both.
Whatever the reason may be, this coffee is the most expensive in the world.
How kopi luwak is made
The traditional method of making kopi luwak is to let wild civets eat the cherries they want and then to collect the beans from the feces when they are done. It’s very natural and humane, as no one is harming anyone, but the coffee is still made.
However, as we humans tend to do, people of Indonesia have seen just how much money they can earn from kopi luwak and they have decided to trap the poor civet cats, hold them in battery cage systems and force feed them coffee.
This method is highly unethical and it really puts these animals in awful conditions where they are isolated, on a poor diet and in very small cages. They also die pretty quickly from the conditions or by fighting amongst themselves.
This not only leads to terrible lifestyle for these animals but it also reduces the quality of kopi luwak since they can’t choose which cherries they want to eat and the stress of being in a cage is destroying the quality of bean they produce.
Kopi luwak is produced on Sumatra, Bali, Java, Sulawesi and other Indonesian islands. It is also produced and gathered in the Philippines where it’s called kape motit or kape alamid, kape melo or kape musang.
A loose translation of its name would be Weasel coffee.
Origins and History of kopi luwak
The origin of this coffee begins with the production of coffee in general in Indonesia, in the early 18th century when the Dutch established coffee plantations. This included arabica coffee brought there from Yemen.
The Dutch said that the natives are not allowed to use any of the coffee they worked on. However, the farmers and plantation workers still wanted some of that coffee for themselves, mostly because they wanted to try coffee, the famous beverage in the world.
So, they soon noticed that some species ate the coffee cherries but that they didn’t digest the coffee seeds completely and that they would poop them out. Then they would collect the coffee seed poop and cleaned it. Then they would roast it and ground it to make their own coffee.
The coffee became famous almost instantly, even reaching the Dutch plantation owners and becoming their favorite type of coffee. The process it took and the rarity made the coffee extremely expensive even during colonial times.
Production of Kopi Luwak
The key to the process of making this coffee is of course the animal itself. The civet cat or the luak, as it’s also commonly known, likes to eat coffee beans after dark. They pick the most ripe and the best of cherries that they can find and they gorge on them. Then they digest the fruit, expelling the bean.
The farmers then pick it up, wash it and roast it.
Kopi is the Indonesian word for coffee and luwak is the name of the animal, usually how locals call it. Luak eats berries and fruits mostly, just like small insects and seeds.
As mentioned, the producers feel that the key is in two processes that happen. One is selection, because luak only takes the best and the second is digestion where the bean gets fermented and their flavor improves while various enzymes reach the bean.
The early ways of production meant gathering the beans from the wild. However, farms have developed a different way of collecting beans and it’s not for the better.
If the process seems a bit disgusting or scary to you, don’t worry. For one, the pathogenic organisms from feces are not harmful or at least not in sufficient amounts to be harmful. The farmers also wash the beans thoroughly and they remove the endocarp. The roasting, finally, removes any remaining bacteria from the bean.
The largest producer of kopi luwak is Sumatra. Sumatran coffee beans are a variety of early arabica which has been in Indonesia for a very long time. The biggest production happens in Aceh, Bengkulu and Lampung area. The Tagalog version is from luak fed with various coffee beans and this type is sold in gift shops and near airports.
There are two farms of wild civets in Vietnam and two in Mindanao island. The Indonesian farms are still leading the world in kopi luwak production and there are many small civet farms there.
There were many studies conducted around the process of making kopi luwak. They looked at the enzymes and acids found in luak digestive tract.
The secretions from civet’s digestive tract seep into the beans and they carry enzymes which then break down proteins and make more free amino acids. The proteins also go through Maillard browning reaction in the roasting process.
When the beans are inside the civet, it also begins to germinate which makes the beans less bitter.
The conclusions were that protein structure gets altered and bitterness reduced while the flavor improved, volatile compounds had differences from regular coffee and that the changed protein structure reduces the effectiveness of coffee as a diuretic.
Taste of Kopi Luwak
There is really no way to show people the taste. Everyone has different preferences – some like their coffee bitter, some like it milder and so on.
The taste of kopi luwak will also vary based on where it was produced, what type of beans were used, how healthy the civet was, whether he was caged, how the beans were roasted, aged and brewed etc.
Kopi luwak is also seen as a gimmick by the coffee industry, meaning that they don’t think it tastes good but rather that it’s just a novelty, something fun for people to talk about.
A coffee professional said that they compared both the beans without the civet processing and with the processing and that there was apparently no strong difference between the two. They claimed that the coffee sold for the story behind it, not the real benefits it has over any other coffee. In fact, in several testings it scored for less points than other coffees.
Some feel that the process makes it less acidic and less flavorful, making it smoother. In general, that’s what the public likes in coffee.
Some critics have stated that the coffee tastes really bad, stale and lifeless. Conclusions in general are that people are just after the rarity rather than the flavor of the coffee.
There have been several processes committed to replicating the taste of the coffee through processes similar to those civets create without the animal as the middle man.
One group of researchers from the University of Florida have gotten a patent for a process that somewhat succeeded at that. Then a Brooklyn startup came up with fermentation process which could recreate some of the taste of Kopi Luwak.
Vietnamese companies often sell an imitation of kopi luwak made with enzyme they say imitates perfectly the civet’s digestive process.
They imitate the process because of the high price of kopi luwak. But the real production involves a lot of work and a lot of time. This is why they imitate. Another reason would be the fact that the number of civet animals is decreasing.
Animal abuse and welfare
Civet coffee beans, as mentioned, used to be picked from the poop of civet animals who were wild and free. However, the process made the coffee really rare and really expensive.
This is why there are now many civet farms which operate in Southeast Asia and keep thousands of animals which live in cages and are force fed. This is why there are concerns that the civet coffee is not that good for people.
There was also a concern that SARS virus came from civets.
The conditions in which these animals live are terrible. They are treated like battery chickens, taken from the wild. The animals want to stay together but they get separated and they have to eat a poor diet while living in tiny cages. They often die and there is a conservation risk as well.
However, because the coffee is so rare, people are not aware of the problem and they really should be because so many animals are treated very badly and kept in awful conditions, unsuitable for them.
There was also an investigation from PETA in 2013 where the animals were found on these farms, deprived of all things that are necessary for them like space, proper feeding and exercise.
The video they got shows that the animals are behaving abnormally, pacing around, circling, biting the cage bars and so on. They also lose fur.
BBC investigated as well and found the same things.
Even the man who brought the coffee to the West, Tony Wild, stated that he doesn’t support it anymore and he launched a campaign against the use of kopi luwak.
Farmers that keep the animals caged say that they export to Europe and Asia.
The traditional farmers also criticise the battery cage farmers because they create worse product. Civets don’t pick their own food and they are under a lot of stress, affecting the quality.
Price of Kopi Luwak and Where to Get it
Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world. The most expensive type of this coffee is the Vietnamese weasel coffee which is collected from wild civets, sold at $500 per kilogram or more. Most of the people who are buying it are from Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea. The sources vary based on annual production.
“The price of low grade or farmed kopi luwak is $100 per kilogram which is five times the price of the traditionally farmed kopi luwak. People in the Philippines receive what is closer to $20 for a kilogram,” says Zane Bosnam, a coffee expert at LastMinuteWriting and Writinity.
Specialty coffee shops sell this coffee in cups for $35 to $80 per single cup.
The Authenticity of Kopi Luwak
Many investigations, namely those of PETA and BBC have found that there is a lot of fraud in the kopi luwak industry. People that farm this coffee by caging animals label their coffee as wild sourced or something similar to get a better price on their coffee.
The authentic kopi luwak is really hard to buy in Indonesia and to prove that it is fake is nearly impossible. The name can be used at will, as there is a local brand which sells coffee called Luwak for $3 per kilogram or even online as the real kopi luwak.
So, one can never be really sure when buying kopi luwak because there are no enforcements which make the farmers state where their coffee came from and anything can go as this coffee.
“The process that happens with civets also happens with birds and muntjac. For example, there is a bat coffee but bats spit out the seeds. These are found and processed for a fruity flavor in the coffee,” says Elis Parker, a blogger at Draftbeyond and Research Papers UK.
This is a guest post by Harry Conley. As a lifestyle and travel writer at LuckyAssignments and GumEssays, Harry Conley creates amazing stories that aim to give the people the taste of the experience of being in amazing new places or trying new things.