The civet, a catlike Asian animal, eats and "processes" the beans, then importers cash in big from those who love the distinctive brew.
BANDAR LAMPUNG, Indonesia — To connoisseurs of fine coffee, only one is good to the last dropping.
Human hands don’t harvest the beans that make this rare brew. It’s plucked by the sharp claws and fangs of wild civets, catlike beasts with weaselly noses that love their coffee fresh.
They move at night, creeping along the limbs of robusta and hybrid arabusta trees, sniffing out sweet red coffee cherries and selecting only the tastiest. After chewing off the fruity exterior, they swallow the hard innards.
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In the animals’ stomachs, enzymes in the gastric juices massage the beans, smoothing off the harsh edges that make coffee bitter and produce caffeine jitters. The greenish-brown beans are separated from the rest of the dung, and once a thin outer layer is removed, they are ready for roasting. The result is a delicacy with a markup so steep it would make a drug dealer weep.
It’s called “kopi luwak,” from the Indonesian words for coffee and civet, and by the time it reaches the shelves of fancy foreign food emporiums, devotees fork out as much as $600 for a pound — if they can even find that much. The British royal family is said to enjoy sipping it. A single cup can sell for $30 at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong.
Canadian food scientist Massimo Marcone thought kopi luwak was just an urban legend. Then he did some lab work.
He found that a civet’s digestive system does indeed remove some of the caffeine, which explains why a cup of kopi luwak doesn’t have the kick that other strong coffees do. The civet’s enzymes also reduce proteins that make coffee bitter.
Marcone is one of the world’s leading experts on foods that make most people go “yuck.” He recently wrote a book on the subject. One thing that really gets his glands salivating is “casu frazigu” cheese, which is packed with so many live maggots that it’s not only disgusting, the Italian government outlawed it.
Just days before the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, Marcone was in Indonesia’s Sumatran rain forest, where he collected about 10 pounds of civet droppings laced with coffee beans. He now uses his sample as “the gold standard” to rate other kopi luwaks in his lab at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
“About 42 percent of all the kopi luwaks that are presently on sale are either adulterated or complete fakes, unfortunately,” he said.
Real kopi luwak has a top note of rich, dark chocolate, with secondary notes that are musty and earthy, the scientist said. An Indonesian coffee lover described the scent as the smell of moist earth after a rainfall, with hints of vanilla, that teases the palate for hours after the cup is empty.
Other coffees, such as Jamaican Blue Mountain, may score better on official cupping tests that judge qualities such as aroma, taste and fragrance, Marcone said. But they don’t come with quite the exotic cachet of civet brew.
Local lore says villagers discovered centuries ago that civet droppings made for a smooth cup of coffee when they were forced to work on Dutch plantations and hand over everything they picked to their colonial masters. Civets provided the only coffee the workers could scrounge for themselves.
Today, the world’s only source for genuine, uncut kopi luwak is Southeast Asian civets, and most still comes from the ones foraging in Indonesia’s coffee plantations.
It takes a pound of their droppings to produce less than 5 ounces of beans. Roasting reduces the quantity by an additional 20 percent. Genuine kopi luwak has been difficult to find in the United States for years, said California coffee importer Tom Kilty, who traveled to Indonesia from California in 1989 to find a reliable source. A decade later, Kilty said, coffee coming from a European supplier didn’t look the same, so the company he was working for stopped selling it, even though it was going for $120 a pound.
“I am still on the lookout,” Kilty said from Redwood City, Calif.
Susanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, moonlights producing kopi luwak when he’s off duty from a government shrimp hatchery. He and his relatives have processed more than 440 pounds of civet dung into kopi luwak in three years.
They roast the beans over wood fires in clay pans as big as woks. With a log-size pestle in a stone mortar, they have pounded the beans into dark coffee with the powdery texture of cocoa.