The existence of kopi luwak coffee has long been known to java insiders, but it’s out in the open thanks to an article in today’s New York Times. Kopi luwak is made in southeast Asia from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, also called the “toddy cat” because of its supposed fondness for the fermented sap (“toddy”) of palm trees. The civet is not really a cat (family Felidae), but a viverrid (family Viverridae), a group of mammals related to the mongoose.
If you’ve ever eaten a fresh-picked coffee fruit, you’ll know that the hard bean in the interior is surrounded by a sweet white flesh. The civets eat the beans, digest the flesh, and pass the coffee beans. This supposedly causes an intestinal fermentation of the bean that makes the coffee derived from it pick up an indescribably luscious flavor. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never tried kopi luwak. As you might expect, given the intensive labor required of man and civet, the coffee is expensive (see here, for example, which sells it for $190/lb or $40/2 oz.; this works out to be around six dollars per cup). I once pondered splitting a pound with several of my javaphilic colleagues, but never got around to it.
When I first heard about kopi luwak around two decades ago, I learned that it was made by collecting the droppings of wild civets who frequented coffee plantations (a lot of it is still made that way). At that time I jokingly suggested that somebody could make a lot of money by building a civet farm where captive animals could be fed coffee beans. Now, as the Times reports, that’s being done, though the description of these places (and the picture below) makes it seem as if the civets aren’t really enjoying their captivity. It’s sad, because they not only lose their freedom but aren’t given a balanced diet.
Anyone for a crappucino?
Fig. 1 (from NYT article). A civet farm in Sumatra, with easy access to the bean-filled droppings