THEY SAY IT was a brave man who first ate an oyster. I would add that the guy who had the first cup of kopi luwak — aka civet coffee, made with beans gathered from the critters’ poop — must have been seriously jonesing for caffeine.
I can imagine this man in the 1800s, in the colonial hotbed of the Spice Islands (Indonesia today), clearing jungle next to a coffee plantation. He has had coffee before, that strange bean valuable enough for the Dutch to import it from Yemen, and loves the heady spike of energy he gets from it.
Then this man slides his eyes at the tiny piles of droppings on the forest floor: droppings left by a furry little mammal slinking guiltily back into the coffee bushes to continue feeding. The man bends down, picks up the droppings and puts them in his pocket. He takes those fecal balls home and cleans them with — I hope — gallons of water and roasts them with the heat of 1,000 suns. And then he makes some coffee by pulverizing the beans to a dusty powder, pouring hot water directly on top of them and giving the concoction a stir.
And I’ll bet it was surprisingly smooth. The beans had already been digested, the cherry fruit burned away and the green beans themselves soaked in the harsh bath of a musk-bearing mammal’s gastrointestinal juices — a hellish gantlet that left them essentially tenderized.
And so we come to today’s kopi luwak, “the most expensive coffee in the world.” Kopi luwak is sometimes called “cat-poop coffee,” but this is erroneous — a luwak is not a cat at all, but rather an Asian palm civet, which looks like a cross between a weasel, a ferret and a raccoon.
Kopi luwak is produced all over Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Vietnam (“kopi” is Indonesian for “coffee”) and is definitely pricey, ranging from $50 a pound to $6,000 or more a pound, depending on quality, whether you’re buying wholesale or retail, and how much of a sucker you are. In a coffee shop stateside, you’re looking at $10 to $25 a cup. Aside from the price, there also are animal social-justice issues to consider; while you still can find wild-harvested civet poop coffee, much of the available product is essentially mass-produced, digested by luwaks kept in cages and fed coffee cherries whether they like them or not.
I myself am half-Balinese and lived in Bali and have had plenty of kopi luwak of various types and qualities, even though I’ve never met a Balinese person who actually drinks the stuff. I’m not sure all of it was even authentic — fake kopi luwak exists, made by soaking beans in a lab-produced enzyme soup. Because coffee depends so much on how it is brewed, I can’t definitively say that more expensive = better. But most of the time, each cup had a distinct smoothness, as if the ragged edges of the coffee had been shaved off, leaving a mild, chocolaty, sometimes vegetal taste. It’s not always good, and when it’s bad, it tastes like moldy dishwater. But when it’s great, it tastes like fermented hot chocolate.
However, although Seattle is known for its coffee pedigree, very little kopi luwak is available retail. If you want to score a cup, you can try John Howie Steak in Bellevue, where they will serve you a cup of Sumatran kopi luwak, Turkish-style, for which you will — ahem — drop a cool $45.