Kopi Luwak or civet coffee
Demand for Kopi Luwak coffee keeps on rising. In Indonesia, one of the major producer “The King of Luwak", Gunawan Supriadi, is having difficulty keeping up production to meet the demand.
For those who haven't heard of Kopi Luwak coffee yet: It's the world's most expensive coffee and is made from feces!
The civets who are almost exclusively fed coffee berries, eat the fleshy coffee cherries and digest the flesh. The stomach and digestive enzymes in the civets gut acts on the remaining beans to change its acidity and taste profile.
The beans are then excreted in the animals feces, which is carefully collected. The beans are separated from the dung, washed and lightly roasted to produce a superior quality coffee that has been lauded for its smooth, caramel-like taste.
In some outlets in London the coffee can sell for as much as £60 per cup. Connoisseurs proclaim the coffee to be the best ever and its popularity has soared as a result.
Production for the Raja Luwak brand has risen from 50kg in 2008 to well over 1.2 tonnes in 2010 and is expected to increase again with the number of civets increasing from 40 to around 150.
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 $3,000 per kilogram (approx. $1,364 per pound). Most customers are Asian, especially those originating from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Sources vary widely as to annual worldwide production, according to Wikipedia.
But its high-end pricing and idiosyncratic origin mask the grim reality of the coffee's production, which has morphed from a casual cottage industry for rural Indonesians to intensive farming.
A growing numbers of such civet "farms" are emerging across south-east Asia, confining tens of thousands of animals to live in tiny cages and force-fed a debilitating diet. The Asian palm civet is common, but conservationists claim that related species are sometimes used which are under threat of extinction. The binturong, another cat-like species that is sometimes used to produce Kopi Luwak, is classed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's red list as "vulnerable".
"The conditions are awful, much like battery chickens," said Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of the conservation NGO Traffic south-east Asia. "The civets are taken from the wild and have to endure horrific conditions. They fight to stay together but they are separated and have to bear a very poor diet in very small cages."
"There is a high mortality rate and for some species of civet, there's a real conservation risk. It's spiralling out of control. But there's not much public awareness of how it's actually made. People need to be aware that tens of thousands of civets are being kept in these conditions. It would put people off their coffee if they knew."
In an article published in The Guardian, one could read that they visited a coffee shop in Medan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where a female civet was kept in a cramped cage at the back of the premises. Her two young offspring were separated from her in a similarly small cage, with a further 20 cages hidden away from view on the shop's roof.
The civets are almost exclusively fed coffee berries, which they then excrete. This image was taken on a civet farm just outside Surabaya, Indonesia. Photograph: The Guardian
The beans are then excreted in the animals feces, which is carefully collected. The beans are separated from the dung, washed and lightly roasted to produce a superior quality coffee that has been lauded for its smooth, caramel-like taste. Photograph: unknown
The origin of kopi luwak is closely connected with the history of coffee production in Indonesia. In the early 18th century the Dutch established the cash-crop coffee plantations in their colony in the Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra, including Arabica coffee introduced from Yemen. During the era of Cultuurstelsel (1830—1870), the Dutch prohibited the native farmers and plantation workers from picking coffee fruits for their own use. Still, 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 the coffee fruits, yet they left the coffee seeds undigested in their droppings. The natives collected these luwaks' coffee seed droppings, then cleaned, roasted and ground them to make their own coffee beverage. The fame of aromatic civet coffee spread from locals to Dutch plantation owners and soon became their favorite, yet because of its rarity and unusual process, the civet coffee was expensive even in colonial times.
In 1995, an Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to John Martinez of J. Martinez & Company in Atlanta, Georgia, for "Luak Coffee", the world's most expensive coffee, which is made from coffee beans ingested and excreted by the luak (aka, the palm civet), a bobcat-like animal native to Indonesia.
Today, in the coffee industry kopi luwak is widely regarded as a gimmick or novelty item. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) states that there is a "general consensus within the industry ... it just tastes bad". A coffee professional cited in the SCAA article was able to compare the same beans with and without the kopi luwak process using a rigorous coffee cupping evaluation. He concluded: "it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality... Using the SCAA cupping scale, the Luwak scored two points below the lowest of the other three coffees. It would appear that the Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee.”
Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post reviewed kopi luwak available in the US and concluded "It tasted just like...Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn't finish it".
Some critics claim more generally that kopi luwak is simply bad coffee, purchased for novelty rather than taste. Massimo Marcone, who performed extensive chemical tests on the beans, was unable to conclude if anything about their properties made them superior for purposes of making coffee. He employed several professional coffee tasters (called "cuppers") in a blind taste test. While the cuppers were able to distinguish the kopi luwak as distinct from the other samples, they had nothing remarkable to appraise about it other than it was less acidic and had less body, tasting "thin". Marcone remarked "It's not that people are after that distinct flavor. They are after the rarity of the coffee"
Although kopi luwak is a form of processing, not a variety of coffee, it has been called the most expensive coffee in the world with retail prices reaching €550 / US$700 per kilogram. The price paid to collectors in the Philippines is closer to US$20 per kilogram.
SCAA claims that almost all kopi luwak available for sale is counterfeit, as 50 times more kopi luwak is sold than produced.
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.
Several commercial processes attempt to replicate the digestive process of the civets without animal involvement.
Researchers with the University of Florida have been issued with a patent for one process. According to the patent application, sensory tests were conducted and verified a significant reduction in bitterness.
Vietnamese companies also claim to replicate the digestive process with an enzyme soak.
Imitation has several motivations. The high price of kopi luwak drives the search for a way to produce kopi luwak in large quantities. 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. Imitation may be a response to the decrease in civet population.