Asian Palm Civet eating fresh coffee cherries

Kopi Luwak: How the Most Expensive Coffee in the World is Made

Coffee.  Cuppa joe.  Brew.  Java.  The drink that fuels work forces around the world, that wakes people up and brings them together.  Made from beans found at the center of red coffee cherries, dried, roasted, ground, sapped by boiling water.  This is the basic series of steps for producing that sought-after bitter liquid, but coffee connoisseurs and hipsters could tell you about countless variations on the theme, I’m sure.  Usually, that means nuances of which beans to choose from, how long they’re roasted, how finely they’re ground, or how they are steeped then mixed with milk or other flavors.  But one coffee requires something special, something that probably can’t be found in any Brooklyn hipster’s kitchen or behind the counter at the fanciest coffee shops you know in most places around the world.  This special process has made it a regular top contender for the title of the most expensive coffee in the world: digestion by an Asian palm civet.

You read that correctly.  Digestion.  All the way in and all the way out.  In other words, the coffee is made from civet shit.

A wild Asian Palm Civet - photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_palm_civet
A wild Asian Palm Civet – photo from Wikipedia’s page on the Asian Palm Civet

Indonesian palm civet cats (they aren’t actually cats, just to be clear; they’re just called that…) prefer to roam coffee groves, selecting the coffee cherries with the richest flavors, bright red and aromatic.  It’s not the only food they like to eat, but it is one of their most favored, and certainly the most lucrative.  As it turns out, civets are extremely picky with which coffee cherries they’ll consume, only eating the most flavorful if they can help it, making their selectivity one of the two drivers for why coffee made from their excrement is considered such high quality.  The other reason is that civet stomach acid partially breaks down the beans at the core of the cherries, balancing out some of the bitterness natural to coffee beans and giving them a slight flavorful overtone that factory-processed coffee has yet to imitate fully, while leaving them mostly intact in bean-form and easy to clean off.

Asian Palm Civet eating fresh coffee cherries
An Asian Palm Civet munching on fresh coffee cherries – the beginnings of kopi luwak. Also, did you know that your morning coffee began in the core of bright red fruits? I had not personally known that that’s where coffee beans come from before visiting the Coffee Plantation…  This photo is from Wikipedia’s page on Kopi Luwak.

For many connoisseurs, the beans collected from civet droppings, particularly from healthy, wild animals allowed to roam the plantations at will to search for the best cherries, create a flavor unmatched by other coffee selection and processing methods.  Plus, the rarity of these “processed” beans drives their prices way higher.  As we can all imagine, the marketing of rarity is a very powerful thing, and has driven the trade in luxury goods for millennia.

Civet coffee, or kopi luwak in Bahasa Indonesia (that is, literally, the “language of Indonesia”), is no exception to the trend.

An example of the exorbitant prices commanded by Kopi Luwak. This is a screenshot from cluwak.com.
An example of the exorbitant prices commanded by kopi luwak. This 2 pack combination seen here, for 400 grams total, is nearly $500 USD before their current sale… For the Americans reading this, that equals .88 pounds of coffee. Maybe you feel a little better now about the $5 you spend at Starbucks, eh?  This is a screenshot from an online shop for kopi luwak.

As a result, a normal-size, few-ounce, home-use package of this coffee can cost you between $50 and $100 USD, sometimes even more.  A single cup at a cafe can go for $40.  A pound of it can go for several hundred US dollars, as seen in the example above.  (It’s only true competitor for most expensive coffee in the world is the Hacienda La Esmeralda from Panama, harvested in very small amounts from a grove of coffee plants growing in the shade of guava trees on the mountain of Barú.  Either way, unusual tastes plus scarcity equal very lucrative niches in the coffee industry.)

So why am I talking about this bizarrely expensive drink made from civet droppings?  Because we accidentally ended up eating lunch near Munduk in central Bali at a coffee plantation specializing in kopi luwak, so we got to see how it’s made and the traditional tools for doing so.  This particular site calls itself a Civet Sanctuary as well as a Coffee Plantation.  Additionally, it markets an associated restaurant as an Eco Cafe, where they can sell the coffee and food made from produce from a cooperative of local farmers who work on using sustainable practices and supporting local plants and wildlife nearby.

Here’s a look into what we encountered:

Gardens of the Coffee Plantation and Civet Sanctuary
The lush and misty gardens of the Coffee Plantation and Civet Sanctuary of Munduk – after eating a delicious lunch in the restaurant here (I think called the Eco Cafe 1), we were chatting with the hostess about the coffee plantation and learned that the civets were nearby. So of course we agreed to her offer to show them to us. On our way, we walked through this garden, down the stone path you can make out in the center of photo, beyond the yellow-leafed plants.
Civet (Luwak) at Coffee Plantation for Kopi Luwak
It turns out that the civet who lives on this coffee plantation is not a wild one, but rather lives in a cage with branches to climb, into which the coffee cherries are brought for it to eat.  Sometimes the civet is let out to run around on a long leash, and given access to baskets of coffee cherries or not-yet-harvested coffee bushes to munch on while relatively loose.

Keeping civets captive like this make it a lot easier to gather the valuable droppings to make kopi luwak, of course, but it also affects the quality of life of the civet itself – and can affect the quality of the coffee it helps produce, as the animal has no choice but to be less selective than in the wild, and its stress from being caged affects the chemistry of its digestion, even if it may be mostly well cared for.  But for many Indonesian coffee plantations, this is the most efficient way to become involved in the kopi luwak industry, as it’s easier to care for a civet in captivity than to follow them through the wild.

However, it turns out that the cage this civet lived in was far, far bigger and more comfortable than many of the other tiny cages that civets are kept in at coffee plantations elsewhere around Indonesia, which are so small and miserable that animal welfare organizations have mounted campaigns against this practice of the kopi luwak industry.  So in contrast to that, this civet, who looked happy to see its caretakers, had a shiny, soft-looking coat, and lots of energy for running around, is probably well cared for, despite still living in a cage.  Moreover, we saw our hostess holding the civet and it snuggling around her neck for a few minutes while we ate our meal, so presumably it is so domesticated that it would not be possible to release it safely back into the wild…

Kopi Luwak - Coffee beans in civet excrement
The collected coffee beans, digested by the civet, partially cleaned off, and stored in preparation for making kopi luwak.
Semi-traditional stove and cooking utensils for roasting the coffee beans while making kopi luwak.
The semi-traditional stove and cooking utensils for roasting the coffee beans while making kopi luwak. Note the coconut husks, in the left corner of the room, and the offering to Acintya, the canang sari bundles of banana leaf and flowers so prevalent all over Bali, on the right corner of the stovetop.
Roasting civet coffee for making kopi luwak
Although the roasting stove was not currently lit, our hostess showed us the techniques they use for constantly stirring the coffee beans while they roast, in order to make sure they cook evenly and just the right amount.
Grinding the coffee beans to make kopi luwak
Our hostess used a long, heavy metal pole as a giant pestle in the large mortar bowl to grind up the coffee beans. As we weren’t going through the process fully to actually make the kopi luwak, she just demonstrated the technique used to grind the beans. You can see how the giant pestle is shaped to have a narrow mid-section for easy gripping and the ends are much wider, so that there is enough weight to easily smash the beans by means of gravity. This kind of giant mortar and pestle is used all around the world for grinding grains, beans, nuts, and other such foods into more usable fragments.
Coffee Pot and Mugs made from Coconuts for serving Kopi Luwak
A traditional set of coffee mugs, along with a pot used for brewing and serving the warm drink. This coffee set was made from cleaned and finely finished coconut husks, to which handles, spouts, feet, and lids were added for easy use. Presumably, this is why there were the hairy outer husks of the coconuts stacked up in the corner of the room – to demonstrate from where all the parts of the kopi luwak brewing process came.  Plus, coconuts apparently make for some elegantly minimalist but rustic-looking serving ware!  Pretty cool design, in my opinion.

And that’s how the (in)famous kopi luwak is made, folks!  So after all that, do you think we tried the coffee?

EcoCafe Coffee Brewing Modern Techniques
This is the fancy modernized way the Eco Cafe 1, the restaurant associated with this Coffee Plantation, brews and serves its coffee. Cool device, eh?  This photo is from TripAdvisor.

…… Ehhhhh, nope.  We were curious, and we knew the beans had been sanitized by the point they are used to make the coffee.  But honestly, each cup is so incredibly expensive that we decided that we, who are avid tea drinkers and definitely not coffee connoisseurs, would not be able to taste the subtle differences between kopi luwak and non-civet-digested reasonable-quality coffee… and therefore it was just too much money to spend on a drink.  I kind of regret that in retrospect, just to have had the experience, but oh well.  At least it was pretty cool to see how the drink was made!

What about you, dear readers?  Would you try kopi luwak?  Have you ever done so?  If so, what did you think?

2 thoughts on “Kopi Luwak: How the Most Expensive Coffee in the World is Made

    1. Thanks! By the way, would you have been up for trying out the civet coffee? Since you’re a much more avid coffee drinker than I, I’m curious if you would have thought it worth it to try. 🙂

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