That’s Right: Coffee “Enhanced” by Traveling Through an Animal’s Gut
You may have heard of kopi luwak, also known as Civet Coffee. It’s coffee that’s partially processed in the digestive tract of the palm civet, a type of exotic cat found in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. In other words, the palm civet, a small animal about the size of house cat, eats coffee cherries and passes the coffee beans through its body undigested.
The beans undergo a process not unlike fermentation in the palm civet’s gut. Digestive enzymes break down the proteins, shortening the peptides, and freeing some of the bean’s amino acids. This process results in a softer, smoother final result once the beans are gathered, cleaned, roasted, ground, and brewed into coffee.
Kopi is Indonesian for coffee and the palm civet is known locally as the luak. People then gather these beans, wash them, roast them, and then sell them as some of the world’s most expensive coffee beans.
Kopi Luwak can sell for more than fifteen hundred dollars a pound, making it the world’s second most expensive coffee after Black Ivory coffee, a Thai brand of coffee made from beans that have passed through an elephant’s gut.
History of Civet Coffee, or Kopi Luwak
Back in the eighteenth century when Sumatra and Java were part of the Dutch colonial empire in the East Indies, Arabica coffee was introduced as a cash crop, using plants brought in from the Arabian Peninsula.
The Dutch plantation owners forbid the indigenous workers from sampling the fruits of their labor. But the locals noticed that the palm civet also ate the coffee cherries that they were harvesting, and that the coffee beans appeared in the animals’ excrement seemingly unchanged.
The locals then cleaned and roasted the beans, and began to brew their own coffee from them. Eventually, the plantation owners caught wind of the local’s superior brew, tried it, and were swayed that it was indeed the better coffee.
Contemporary Controversy Over Civet Coffee
Collecting beans from the excrement of wild palm civets is labor intensive, and it is these labor costs that primarily drive the price of kopi luwak up so high. Because of this, some industrious Indonesians eventually decided to make it easier to harvest the excrement of these animals.
In order to do this, they built factory farms for them, where the animals are kept in cages and in some cases, force-fed coffee cherries. There have been many complaints from international concerns, as well as journalistic programs regarding animal cruelty in these coffee farms.
Flavor Comparison of Kopi Luwak to Other Kinds of Coffee
Sure, there’s tons of controversy and fanfare, and the coffee is known for being ultra expensive, but how does civet coffee actually taste? It’s only natural to wonder how kopi luwak compares to other gourmet coffees. Is it actually worth more than a thousand dollars a pound?
Most coffee experts say no. In fact, the process that civet coffee goes through, by nature, robs the finished product of most of its acidity. Without acidity, coffee can be very bland, and not entirely complex in flavor. But the civet coffee does supposedly have a bit more body to it – you’ll just have to save your dollars, buy it, and taste for yourself!