Kopi luwak (Indonesian pronunciation: [ˈkopi ˈlu.aʔ]), or civet coffee, refers to the coffee that includes part-digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus).
Producers of the coffee beans argue that the process may improve coffee through two mechanisms, selection and digestion. Selection occurs if the civets choose to eat cherries. Digestive mechanisms may improve the flavor profile of the coffee beans that have been eaten. The civet eats the cherries for the fleshy pulp, then in the digestive tract, fermentation occurs. The civet's protease enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet's intestines the cherries are then defecated with other fecal matter and collected.
The traditional method of collecting feces from wild civets has given way to intensive farming methods in which civets in battery cage systems are force fed the cherries. This method of production has raised ethical concerns about the treatment of civets due to "horrific conditions" including isolation, poor diet, small cages and a high mortality rate. A 2013 BBC investigation of intensive civet farming in Sumatra found conditions of animal cruelty. Intensive farming is also criticised by traditional farmers because the civets do not select what they eat, so the cherries which are fed to them in order to flavor the coffee are of poor quality compared to those beans collected from the wild. According to an officer from the TRAFFIC conservation programme, the trade in civets to make kopi luwak may constitute a significant threat to wild civet populations.
Although kopi luwak is a form of processing rather than a variety of coffee, it has been called one of the most expensive coffees in the world with retail prices reaching €550 / US$700 per kilogram, close to the €850 / US$1,100 price of Black Ivory coffee. The price paid to collectors in the Philippines is closer to US$20 per kilogram. The price of farmed (considered low-grade by connoisseurs) kopi luwak in large Indonesian supermarkets is from US$100 per kilogram (five times the price of a high quality local arabica coffee). Genuine kopi luwak from wild civets is difficult to purchase in Indonesia and proving it is not fake is very difficult – there is little enforcement regarding use of the name "kopi luwak", and there's even a local cheap coffee brand named "Luwak", which costs under US$3 per kilogram but is occasionally sold online under the guise of real kopi luwak.
An investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia found fraud to be rife in the kopi luwak industry, with producers willing to label coffee from caged civets with a "wild sourced" or similar label. A BBC investigation revealed similar findings.
Kopi luwak is produced mainly on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Sulawesi in the Indonesian Archipelago. It is also widely gathered in the forest or produced in the farms in the islands of the Philippines (where the product is called kape motit in the Cordillera region, kapé alamíd in Tagalog areas, and kapé melô or kapé musang in Mindanao island), and in East Timor (where it is called kafé-laku). Weasel coffee is a loose English translation of its Vietnamese name cà phê Chồn, where popular, chemically simulated versions are also produced.
The origin of kopi luwak is closely connected with the history of coffee production in Indonesia. In the early 18th century the Dutch established the cash-crop coffee plantations in their colony in the Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra, including Arabica coffee introduced from Yemen. During the era of Cultuurstelsel (1830–70), the Dutch prohibited the native farmers and plantation workers from picking coffee fruits for their own use. Still, the native farmers wanted to have a taste of the famed coffee beverage. Soon, the natives learned that certain species of musang or luwak (Asian palm civet) consumed the coffee fruits, yet they left the coffee seeds undigested in their droppings. The natives collected these luwaks' coffee seed droppings, then cleaned, roasted and ground them to make their own coffee beverage. The fame of aromatic civet coffee spread from locals to Dutch plantation owners and soon became their favourite, yet because of its rarity and unusual process, the civet coffee was expensive even during the colonial era.
Few objective assessments of taste are available. Kopi luwak is a name for any beans collected from the excrement of civets, hence the taste may vary with the type and origin of beans ingested, processing subsequent to collection, roasting, aging and brewing. The ability of the civet to select its berries, and other aspects of the civet's diet and health (e.g. stress levels) may also influence the processing and hence taste.
In the coffee industry, kopi luwak is widely regarded as a gimmick or novelty item. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) states 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 would appear that the Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee.”
Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post reviewed kopi luwak available to US consumers and concluded "It tasted just like...Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn't finish it."
Some critics claim more generally that kopi luwak is simply bad coffee, purchased for novelty rather than taste. Massimo Marcone, who performed extensive chemical tests on the beans, was unable to conclude if anything about their properties made them superior for purposes of making coffee. He employed several professional coffee tasters (called "cuppers") in a blind taste test. While the cuppers were able to distinguish the kopi luwak as distinct from the other samples, they had nothing remarkable to appraise about it other than it was less acidic and had less body, tasting "thin". Marcone remarked "It's not that people are after that distinct flavor. They are after the rarity of the 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.
Kopi is the Indonesian word for coffee. Luwak is a local name of the Asian palm civet in Sumatra. Palm civets are primarily frugivorous, feeding on berries and pulpy fruits such as figs and palms. Civets also eat small vertebrates, insects, ripe fruits and seeds.
Early production began when beans were gathered in the wild from where a civet would defecate as a means to mark its territory. On farms, civets are either caged or allowed to roam within defined boundaries.
Coffee berries are eaten by a civet for their fruit pulp. After spending about a day and a half in the civet's digestive tract the beans are then defecated in clumps, having kept their shape and still covered with some of the fleshy berry's inner layers.
Despite being in contact with faeces and pathogenic organisms, the beans contain negligible amounts of the enteric (pathogenic) organisms associated with feces. Moreover, the "cherry" or endocarp surrounding the bean is not completely digested by the luwak, and after being collected, the farmer performs thorough washing and removes the endocarp. The final roasting of the beans would, additionally, eliminate any remaining bacteria.
Sumatra is the world's largest regional producer of kopi luwak. Sumatran civet coffee beans are mostly an early arabica variety cultivated in the Indonesian archipelago since the 17th century. The major Sumatran kopi luwak production area is in Lampung, Bengkulu and Aceh especially the Gayo region, Takengon. Tagalog kape alamid comes from civets fed on a mixture of coffee beans and is sold in the Batangas region along with gift shops near airports in the Philippines.
Vietnam has two farms with 300 wild civets in Dak Lak, while in Mindanao island of the Philippines, has two farms with 200 (in Davao City) and 100 (Iligan City) wild civets. But the archipelago of Indonesia where the famous kopi luwak was first discovered and produced is leading in supplying the world market for almost three centuries, where many small-scale civet farms are proliferating in the countryside.
Several studies have examined the process in which the animal's stomach acids and enzymes digest the beans' covering and ferment the beans. Research by food scientist Massimo Marcone at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada showed that the civet's endogenous digestive secretions seep into the beans. These secretions carry proteolytic enzymes which break down the beans' proteins, yielding shorter peptides and more free amino acids. The proteins are also involved in non-enzymatic Maillard browning reactions brought about later by roasting. Moreover, while inside a civet the beans begin to germinate by malting which also lowers their bitterness. Marcone also conducted an analysis on the volatile compounds which are responsible for the coffee's flavour and aroma, showing that there are significant differences from regular coffee. He concluded that:
- Protein structure had been altered, reducing bitterness and potentially impacting flavour.
- Volatile compounds had significant differences compared to regular coffee, indicating there are changes in flavour.
According to Dr. Davila Cortes, the altered protein structure degrades the effectiveness of the coffee as a diuretic.
Several commercial processes attempt to replicate the digestive process of the civets without animal involvement.
Researchers with the University of Florida have been issued with a patent for one such process. Brooklyn-based food startup Afineur has also developed a patented fermentation technology that reproduces some of the taste aspects of Kopi Luwak while improving coffee bean taste and nutritional profile.
Vietnamese companies also claim to have replicated the digestive process with an enzyme soak.
Imitation has several motivations. The high price of kopi luwak drives the search for a way to produce kopi luwak in large quantities. Kopi luwak production involves a great deal of labour, whether farmed or wild-gathered. The small production quantity and the labor involved in production contribute to the coffee's high cost. Imitation may be a response to the decrease in the civet population.
Initially, civet coffee beans were picked from wild civet excrement found around coffee plantations. This unusual process contributed to its rarity and subsequently, its high price. More recently, growing numbers of intensive civet "farms" have been established and operated across Southeast Asia, confining tens of thousands of animals to live in battery cages and be force-fed. Concerns were raised over the safety of civet coffee after evidence suggested that the SARS virus originated from palm civets.
'"The conditions are awful, much like battery chickens", said Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of the conservation NGO, TRAFFIC south-east Asia. "The civets are taken from the wild and have to endure horrific conditions. They fight to stay together but they are separated and have to bear a very poor diet in very small cages. There is a high mortality rate and for some species of civet, there's a real conservation risk. It's spiralling out of control. But there's not much public awareness of how it's actually made. People need to be aware that tens of thousands of civets are being kept in these conditions. It would put people off their coffee if they knew"'.
A 2013 investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia found wild-caught civets on farms in Indonesia and the Philippines. The animals were deprived of exercise, a proper diet, and space. Video footage from the investigation shows abnormal behaviours such as repeated pacing, circling, or biting the bars of their cages. The animals often lose their fur.
Tony Wild, the coffee executive responsible for bringing kopi luwak to the Western world, has stated he no longer supports using kopi luwak due to animal cruelty and launched a campaign called "Cut the Crap" to halt the use of kopi luwak.
Farmers using caged civets in Takengon, north Sumatra, confirmed to the BBC that they supplied kopi luwak beans to exporters whose produce ends up in Europe and Asia.
Price and availability
Kopi luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, selling for between US$100 and $600 per pound in 2010. The specialty Vietnamese weasel coffee, which is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by wild civets, is sold at US$3,000 per kilogram. Most customers are Asian, especially those originating from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Sources vary widely as to annual worldwide production.
The price paid to collectors in the Philippines is closer to US$20 per kilogram.
In some countries the price of this coffee has gone down due to the extensive production, but it remains the most expensive coffee on the market.
In popular culture
In 1995, an Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to John Martinez of J. Martinez & Company in Atlanta, Georgia, for "educating the world about Luak Coffee, the world's most expensive coffee, which is made from coffee beans ingested and excreted by the luak (aka, the palm civet), a bobcat-like animal native to Indonesia."
Kopi Luwak is also mentioned in The Bucket List (2008) as Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) reveals with great amusement of how the Kopi Luwak — enjoyed by Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) — was produced; eaten and defecated by a jungle cat. Cole reacted in surprise "You're shitting me!" and Carter replied in jest "Cats beat me to it!".
In Franklin and Bash, Season 3 Episode 9, "Shoot to Thrill", associate lawyer/germaphobe Pinder and his law partner Stanton Infeld each drink Kopi Luwak. After Pinder learns of the coffee's origin he begins to vomit due to his extreme germaphobia.
In Season 3 of Jerry Seinfeld's web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry and his guest, Jay Leno, both partake in a $75 cup of "cat shit coffee." Leno proceeds to say it is awful. Jerry drinks his own coffee and later finishes Leno's, at which point it appears Leno has ordered a Coke.
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