Last updated Sep 29, 2011
Dear Urban Legends:
Apparently there is a brand of expensive coffee from Indonesia called kopi luwak, which is harvested from half-digested coffee beans picked from the turds of a small weasel-like animal. Is this really true?
I had my doubts until I learned that University of Guelph food scientist Massimo Marcone actually trekked to Indonesia a few years back to collect samples of kopi luwak or "civet coffee" beans with his own two hands, supplying independent confirmation that this rare and exceedingly expensive varietal does exist. Marcone figures almost half the beans marketed under the name "kopi luwak" are either adulterated or fake, however, so buyer beware.
"The secret of this delicious blend," enthuses the Indonesia Tourism Promotion Board, "lies in the bean selection, which is performed by a luwak, a species of civet cat endemic to Java. The luwak will eat only the choicest, most perfectly matured beans which it then excretes, partially digested, a few hours later. Plantation workers then retrieve the beans from the ground, ready for immediate roasting."
To be precise, the so-called "civet cat" more properly known as the palm civet isn't really a cat at all, but rather a distant cousin of the mongoose. Native to southeast Asia and Indonesia, the palm civet subsists entirely on fruit in particular the fleshy, red cherry of the coffee tree, which grows abundantly in those parts of the world.
Kopi luwak asking price: up to $600 per pound
Kopi luwak began showing up in North America during the 1990s at the height of the Starbucks-inspired gourmet coffee craze. It has been sold in the U.S. for up to $600 per pound and can fetch as much as $30 for a single brewed cup in some parts of the world. Coffee connoiseur Chris Rubin explains what makes kopi luwak worth the exorbitant price:
The aroma is rich and strong, and the coffee is incredibly full bodied, almost syrupy. It's thick with a hint of chocolate, and lingers on the tongue with a long, clean aftertaste. It's definitely one of the most interesting and unusual cups I've ever had.Indonesia isn't the sole producer of civet-processed coffee, by the way. In Vietnam, aficionados hanker after the exceedingly rare caphe cut chon ("fox dung coffee," so named because civets resemble foxes to the Vietnamese), which is harvested in precisely the same manner as kopi luwak.
Cream? Sugar? Gas mask?
As you have no doubt surmised, the unique taste and aroma of these coffees are routinely attributed to the fact that the beans have been chemically modified by the acids and enzymes in the animal's digestive tract before they're excreted and harvested. Less frequently observed but more to the point, in my opinion, is a characteristic of all members of the civet family which surely influences the fragrance of the beans: "anal scent glands that secrete a fluid with a musky odor" (American Heritage Dictionary).
I'll take mine with cream, sugar, and a gas mask, please.
Sources and further reading:
Kopi Luwak Safe, U of G Study Finds
University of Guelph news release, 26 November 2002
New Research Explains Structure, Taste of Kopi Luwak Coffee
University of Guelph press release, 23 July 2004
Last updated 08/05/10