The story behind the most expensive gourmet coffee in the world: Kopi luwak
The life of a civet cat, strangely known as the coffee rat in Indonesia or tree dog on the Indian subcontinent, is not at all that bad.
In the wild, they are free to roam anywhere they fancy, from the tropical forests of Sri Lanka all the way to the dense jungles of Sumatra.
They are solitary creatures for most of their lives, but are persnickety eaters and thus discard rotten fruit and diseased mammals.
The males get together with their female counterparts whenever they have to, receiving the better end of the deal by mating with no strings attached.
They are nocturnal save for when a bright moon comes out. Then they sleep all night like they normally do during the day. And as long as their intestinal tracts remain fully functioning, they will continue pooing out a tradable commodity, one that also happens to produce the most expensive gourmet coffee in the world: the kopi luwak.
There are over a hundred types of coffee in the world but only three -- Arabica, robusta and liberica -- are farmed exhaustively and made commercially available.
The luwak coffee can be made from all three types but result in varying tastes. The Arabica bean in Indonesia is the most popular for the luwak blend, as well as for non-specialty coffee consumption.
With a name like “cat-poo-ccino” and Jerry Seinfeld’s blunt “cat shit coffee” description from his hit TV show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the luwak and its history in Indonesia is nevertheless by no means a laughing matter.
Before the introduction of coffee plantations, civet cats and coffee production were an unlikely pair.
The civet cat was in fact a creepy pest scurrying over rooftops and eating prize-winning tajen cocks. Their utility hadn’t been explored at all as coffee “fermenters” and their fecal matter was a mere inconvenience to the villager, as is dog crap to the jogger in New York City.
The luwak’s prodigious poo-coffee discovery came when the Dutch launched their cultuurstelsel program of enforced coffee planting in Java in the 19th century.
Due to exploitative practices, the local indigenous workers were forbidden to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Of course, prohibition piques interest and so the workers gave their beans a go, but only after they were passed through the guts of the civets running amok on the plantation fields.
Fast-forward one hundred and some years. In 2012, the value of coffee exports from Indonesia reached US $1.5 Billion. Seventy percent of Indonesia’s total coffee production was exported, yet how much the luwak contributed to that figure is largely unknown.
Regardless, being a highly sought after specialty blend, cat poo coffee has proven to be a lucrative business attracting global consumers for its rich taste, as well as its novelty factor -- sometimes more of the latter than the former.
Its labor-intensive production process, as well as scarcity on the global market, drives up its price to anywhere from $300 to $600 per kilogram, making it the most expensive coffee in the world.
A cup in the US can go anywhere from $50 to $80.
Though coffee estates are seeing a decline in Indonesia, large-scale “wild-sourced” luwak plantations are still in operation, mostly in Sumatra. There are also the small backyard ventures popping up here and there that are proving to be quite profitable enterprises.
Harmoni Bali Organik is an example of a successful homegrown luwak plant run by Kadek Ardhi, 54, and Santhi, 51 -- a husband and wife team.
They operate right from their traditional Balinese home in Bangli where civet cats roam naturally in the forests and are even brought in by farmers in exchange for a 25-kilogram bag of rice.
Unlike the coffee’s history, Kadek and Santhi’s roots in the business are not as deep.
“In 2006, I had a Japanese visitor who recommended I merge business with pleasure,” says Kadek, 54, while sliding a tray of Arabica cherries into a civet cat’s cage.
“At that time I had only two civets and I kept them just for fun. But he recommended that I breed them and so my capacity quickly grew to 18. Every month I was visited by my Japanese friend who inspected the cages -- now I have 94 luwak and I export my special coffee to Canada and Japan.”
The production of kopi luwak is by no means a complicated process. The civet cat sleeps all day with their eyes creepily open and wakes up around sundown.
Santhi and her team then begin sliding trays of about a kilogram of Arabica cherries to each cat for dinner. They gorge until satiated, defecate, circle their cages for a bit and then go back to sleep.
It was a surprise to see that they meticulously sift through the best cherries -- a selling point that inflates their price tags because of this ability to distinguish good beans from bad.
Surprisingly, they spit out the fruit, which is then collected and used as organic fertilizer -- sometimes even dumped on the side of the road next to the plantations where the cherries originated.
Their feces are collected in a sieve from right under them in the mornings. The cleaning process begins by laying out the feces on trays in the open sun.
“We don’t use water in cleaning the feces,” says Santhi. “The sun does the cleaning through drying and it takes anywhere from one to two weeks, depending on the sun.”
Much debate surrounds the luwak coffee’s taste, with many experts asserting that the quality is in fact quite poor and nothing to be excited about. Some connoisseurs swear over the coffee and will go out of their way to make a purchase. Some claim the taste to be less bitter and earthier, yet the overall quality and robustness of flavor varies widely region by region.
For Santhi, luwak coffee from Java and Sumatra is spicy while from Kintamani it is a bit more acidic.
Nowadays, the kopi luwak can be seen as a business model of micro-economy interconnectedness.
Take Santhi and Kadek Ardhi’s plant, for example. Coffee cherries are purchased from a Kintamani farmer and arrive every day at the same time before sundown: two bags weighing anywhere from 95 to 100 kilograms. They hire local help to feed and tend the cats, maintain the cages and package the final product, which then goes to what many might consider a sampling showroom, or sales point, for tourists, in a forest near Ubud.
However, one drawback to luwak production is that the Arabica bean is ripe from April to June in lower altitudes (700 to 900 meters) and from April until September in higher altitudes (900 to 1200 meters or even more), such as in Kintamani.
Despite a season-dependent output, Santhi and Kadek still manage to produce 25 kilograms per month for the international market, as well as 50 kilograms for the domestic one.
However, luwak or not, the irony is that coffee in Indonesia appears to be unpopular.
According to investment statistics in 2012 the per capita consumption was relatively low at 0.95 kilograms, compared to Finland where it was 11.7 kilograms.
Unscientifically and by observation only, it seems that the artificial variety is preferred by Indonesian consumers, a powdery kind, which in fact has less coffee and more sugar with creamer -- a blend that is atrociously sweet and lacks real flavor and effect. Coffee culture has yet to catch up, although domestic numbers are slowly growing.
All in all, the luwak coffee, or any other Indonesian-grown coffee for that matter, is worth boasting about and for thumbing the nation’s nose at the ex-colonizers.