Kopi Luwak or Civet Coffee, is one of the world’s most expensive and low-production varieties of coffee. It is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet ( Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) and other related civets, then passed through its digestive tract. A civet eats the berries for their fleshy pulp. In its stomach, proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated, keeping their shape. After gathering, thorough washing, sun drying, light roasting and brewing, these beans yield an aromatic coffee with much less bitterness, widely noted as the most expensive coffee in the world. Mark Pendergrast notes: Near its sexual organs, this mammal possesses a gland that secretes a musky oil long prized in the perfume industry.
Kopi Luwak is produced mainly on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Sulawesi in the Indonesian Archipelago, in the Philippines (where the product is called motit coffee in the Cordillera and Kape Alamid in Tagalog areas) and also in East Timor (where it is called kafé-laku). Weasel coffee is a loose English translation of it’s name in Vietnam 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 early 18th century The Dutch established the cash crop plantations in their colony in Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra, including Arabica coffee introduced from Yemen. During the era of Cultuurstelsel the Dutch prohibited the native farmers and plantation workers from picking coffee fruits for their own use. Yet 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 these coffee fruits, yet they left the coffee seeds undigested in their droppings. The natives collect these Luwak’s dropping coffee seeds; clean, roast and grind it to make coffee beverage.The fame of aromatic civet coffee spread from locals to Dutch plantation owners and soon become their favorites, yet because of its rarity and unusual process, the civet coffee was expensive even in colonial times.
Cultivars, blends, and tastes
Kopi luwak is a name for many specific cultivars and blends of Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa or other beans eaten by civets, hence the taste can vary greatly. Nonetheless, Kopi Luwak coffees have a shared aroma profile and flavor characteristics, along with their lack of bitterness.
Kopi Luwak tastes unlike heavy roasted coffees, since roasting levels range only from cinnamon color to medium, with little or no caramelization of sugars within the beans as happens with heavy roasting. Moreover, Kopi Luwaks which have very smooth profiles are most often given a lighter roast. Iced kopi luwak brews may bring out some flavors not found in other coffees.
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 seventeenth century. The major Sumatran Kopi Luwak production area is in Lampung, Bengkulu and Aceh especially the Gayo region, Takengon. Tagalog Cafe Alamid (or Alamid Cafe) 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.
Kopi muncak or kopi muntjakKopi muncak (or kopi muntjak) is a different type of coffee produced in a similar process, is made from the dung of barking deer (muntjac) found throughout Southeast Asia. Unlike civet coffee, Kopi muncak is mostly gathered in the wild, chiefly in Indonesian Archipelago.
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 from fig trees 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. The capture and caging of wild civets has caused some concern within the coffee industry over witnessed accounts of animal cruelty, and there have been calls for production to become regulated to help consumers avoid contributing to unethical production methods.
Coffee cherries 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. They are gathered, thoroughly washed, sun dried and given only a light roast so as to keep the many intertwined flavors and lack of bitterness yielded inside the civet.
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. Since the flavor of coffee owes much to its proteins, there is a hypothesis that this shift in the numbers and kinds of proteins in beans after being swallowed by civets brings forth their unique flavor. 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.
At the outset of his research Marcone doubted the safety of Kopi Luwak. However, he found that after the thorough washing, levels of harmful organisms were insignificant. Roasting at high temperature has been cited as making the beans safer after washing.
Research into the palm civet’s digestive processes and the transformation of the beans’ proteins has led to the discovery of innovative ways to imitate the taste of Kopi Luwak without the civet’s involvement. It is a response to the decrease in civet population, caused by hunting for meat.Kopi Luwak production involves a great deal of labor, whether farmed or wild-gathered. The small production quantity and the labor involved in production contribute to the coffee’s high cost. The high price of Kopi Luwak is another factor that drives the search for a way to produce Kopi Luwak in large quantities, lowering the cost.
The University of Florida has developed a way to recreate how nature produces Kopi Luwak without the involvement of any animals. This technology has been licensed to a Gainesville Florida firm which now produces and distributes that product at a price competitive with ordinary quality coffees. A coffee company in Vietnam, through its work in isolating the civet’s digestive enzymes, has patented its own synthetic enzyme soak, used in its brand of simulated kopi luwak coffee.
Price and availability
Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world, selling for between US$ $100 and $600 per pound. The specialty Vietnamese weasel coffee, which is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by wild civets, is sold at $6600 per kilogram ($3000 per pound). Most customers are in Asia – especially Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It is also sold in China, London and Milan. In November 2006 a small cafe in the hills outside Townsville in Queensland, Australia put Kopi Luwak coffee on its menu at $50 a cup, selling about seven cups a week, which gained nationwide Australian and international press attention. Sources vary widely as to annual worldwide production.