Deep in the forests of Sumatra, locals meticulously scour trails around coffee plantations. Not necessarily in search of food or medicinal herbs, the people search for one thing: feces.
Small, furry animals known as civets snack on coffee berries, then pass the partially digested coffee beans through their system. Enzymes inside of the animals' stomachs bring out a flavor and body in the coffee that make a convert out of anyone who drinks it - particularly if they don't know the origin or price!
The droppings - perhaps the most expensive feces in existence - are gathered, processed, and turned into the most unique coffee in the world. A single cup of civet coffee, known locally as kopi luwak, can sell for $50.
The Origins of Kopi Luwak
The Dutch were the first large-scale importers of coffee; the first seeds were smuggled out of Yemen in 1616 despite an Arab prohibition against exporting unroasted coffee berries. The illegal Arabica beans were used to establish coffee plantations in Java and Sumatra during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia.
Legend holds that the Indonesian plantation workers were prohibited from picking the coffee berries for their own use. Locals fortuitously discovered coffee beans in luwak (civet) droppings on trails around the plantations. Perhaps desperate for a caffeine fix, or simply curious about the Dutch cash crop, some brave soul decided to collect, clean, and roast the droppings into a delicious drink!
The Most Expensive Coffee in the World
The uninitiated may grimace in disgust, but civet coffee remains the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world. Producing kopi luwak is very labor intensive; the processing time required, both inside and outside of the civet, inflates the cost. Coffee beans found in the wild cost exponentially more than those produced in civet farms.
A pound of kopi luwak averages around $300, but prices can reach $600 per pound. A single cup of civet coffee in a cafe can range between $30 - $80!
What Does Civet Coffee Taste Like?
Connoisseurs swear that the exorbitant price is justified; there is no coffee on Earth quite like civet coffee. Some fans describe kopi luwak as smoother and less bitter than regular coffee. Others describe kopi luwak as earthy with a full body and lingering aftertaste. Taste and strength vary widely depending on the type of coffee bean and quite possibly the temperament of the civet!
Producing Civet Coffee
The star "barista" of kopi luwak production is the Asian palm civet from the Paradoxurus family. Known locally as a luwak, the civet resembles a small gray and black weasel. The civets are not endangered and roam freely throughout Southeast Asia and India.
Most of the 500 pounds of kopi luwak produced annually come from Sumatra. While civet droppings are still gathered in the wild, much kopi luwak is now produced on civet farms. Asian palm civets are fed a mixture of coffee berries - mainly Arabica - and digest the fruit over a period of around two days. The enzymes inside of the animals' stomachs create a chemical reaction which manipulates the proteins of the beans, reducing bitterness and bringing out unusual flavors.
The partially digested "product" collected from the civets is then cleaned, dried, and roasted. Heat kills bacteria normally found in feces.
Civet Coffee Around the World
Kopi luwak is unappetizingly referred to as "fox dung coffee" or simply "weasel coffee" in Vietnam. The weasel coffee in Vietnam is regularly found in upscale cafes around Hanoi's Old Quarter and the Ben Thanh market in Saigon. Vendors offer free samples and peddle bags of weasel coffee as unique souvenirs to take home. As most tourists can not tell the difference, these are rarely more than overpriced, regular coffee beans or synthetically produced versions of kopi luwak.
Much to the dismay of purists and hard-working civets, the University of Florida successfully finished a three-year study in reproducing kopi luwak synthetically without the need for animals.