Back to the Roots Part 6: Kopi Luwak Coffee
Written by Sabine Henning
We have arrived in wintertime—nights are dark and long, whereas daylight is very limited! It seems that the sun has withdrawn her light for this period to prepare for an even brighter comeback after the darkness.
We are still busy making ourselves comfortable and welcoming the Christmas season. May it be filled with baking Christmas cakes and biscuits or decorating our homes with red and white colored winter ornaments. Do not forget the candles and a nice roaring log fire or dimmed lights in the windows behind the curtains. All this is well on our minds—despite the hectic running and shouting in the streets!
Let us stand still for a while and remember what is really important in life. It seems not much and for sure not complicated—freedom and a peaceful mind with an open heart for those around us who mean a lot to us and may need our attention or a warm embrace!
In this sense I wish all of you, dear lovely and patient readers, a peaceful and meaningful Christmas time and the very best start into the new decade, that begins with 2020!
Hope you come back for more, now let me think how to continue.
A hearty “Welcome” to my last post in 2019 about specialty crops grown in Indonesia!
This one is even more special— not really a new crop but a production curiosity that I want to introduce to you here.
Have you seen this animal before (see Pic 1)? No? Well, this little catlike animal plays the main role in how luwak coffee is produced in Indonesia— mainly in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Sulawesi and East Timor. Meet the Asian palm civet.
Before talking about the “Kopi Luwak” [i] we need to hear more about the coffee production in Indonesia back in the early 18th Century, when the Dutch established their cash crop plantations in the East Indies colonies of Sumatra and Java, planting Arabica coffee originated from Yemen. When the Dutch planters refused to allow the native farmers to pick coffee beans for their own use the Indonesians looked for other options to get their share which they found it in partly digested coffee beans left in feces by this little wild civet (see Pic 2).
These little animals are frugivores that like to eat the coffee cherries, but only the ripe and flawless ones. The natives collected these luwak 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 during the colonial era.
Doyo Soeyono Kertosastro, Indonesian Coffee Farmer, wrote in the National Geographic in March 1981:
The luak, that's a small catlike animal, gorges after dark on the most ripe, the best of our crop. It digests the fruit and expels the beans, which our farm people collect, wash, and roast, a real delicacy. Something about the natural fermentation that occurs in the luak's stomach seems to make the difference. For Javanese, this is the best of all coffees—our Kopi luak.
As said the production of luwak coffee starts with the eating of the coffee berries by the civet; then in the digestion process fermentation occurs, where the civet`s protease enzymes seep into the beans and make shorter peptides (remark from the author: Chemically speaking these are chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds) and more free amino acids. The beans are defecated in clumps, keeping their original shape and still covered with some inner layers of flesh as shown in Pic 2.
Speaking about the enteric (pathogenic) organisms associated with feces, the berry`s flesh or endocarp surrounds the bean and is not being digested by the Luwak. After collection of the feces containing the beans, all is thoroughly washed and the endocarp removed. Going through the final roasting process any remaining micro-bacteria is removed.
Pic 3, 4 and 5 are snapshots taken during a cycling tour near Borobudur temple (Java) in a small -scale coffee production site.
Several studies have examined the process in which the animal's stomach acids and enzymes digest the beans' covering and ferment the beans.
Food scientist Massimo Marcone (University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada) performed extensive chemical tests on the beans. He was unable to conclude if anything about their properties made them superior for purposes of making coffee. Further Marcone 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". He concluded that:
Protein structure had been altered, reducing bitterness and potentially impacting flavor.
Volatile compounds had significant differences compared to regular coffee, indicating there are changes in flavor.
Final remark: "It's not that people are after that distinct flavor. They are after the rarity of the coffee".
In the beginning, the luwak coffee was produced with wild living civets while collecting their bean containing feces in the natural habitat of the animals. Consequently, to this very special production, the coffee was very rare and therefore high prices were paid. Lately civet farms have been established in Southeast Asia, where animals live in cage batteries like chickens and force-fed.
Of course, this gave many animal welfare NGOs like TRAFFIC (the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) reasons to investigate the circumstances of how civets are treated under these conditions. A 2013 investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia found wild-caught civets on farms in Indonesia and the Philippines. The animals were deprived of exercise, a proper diet, and space. Video footage from the investigation shows abnormal behaviors such as repeated pacing, circling, or biting the bars of their cages. The animals often lose their fur. A BBC[ii] investigation revealed similar findings.
Intensive farming is also criticized by traditional farmers because the civets do not select what they eat, so the cherries which are fed to them in order to flavor the coffee are of poor quality compared to those beans collected from the wild. According to an officer from the TRAFFIC conservation program, the trade in civets to make Kopi Luwak may constitute a significant threat to wild civet populations.
Price & fraud
Kopi Luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, selling for between $100 and $500 (US) per pound in 2010. The specialty Vietnamese weasel coffee, which is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by wild civets, is sold at $500 per kilogram. Most customers are Asian, especially those originating from Japan, China and South Korea. Sources vary widely as to annual worldwide production.
The price of farmed (considered low-grade by connoisseurs) Kopi Luwak in large Indonesian supermarkets starts at $100 per kilogram (five times the price of a high quality local arabica coffee) while the price paid to collectors in the Philippines is closer to $20 per kilogram.
Some specialty coffee shops sell cups of brewed Kopi Luwak for $35–$80 (see Pic 6).
Investigations by PETA and the BBC found fraud to be rife in the Kopi Luwak industry, with producers willing to label coffee from caged civets with a "wild sourced" or similar label [iii]. While genuine Kopi Luwak from wild civets is difficult to purchase in Indonesia and proving it is not fake is very difficult, there is little enforcement regarding use of the name "Kopi Luwak". There’s even a local cheap coffee brand named "Luwak", which costs under $3 per kilogram but is occasionally sold online under the guise of real Kopi Luwak.
To explore further!
Other varations of the Kopi Luwak type process occurring naturally with muntjac and birds and even bats. Bats feed on the ripest coffee and fruits and spit out the seeds. These seeds are dried and processed to make coffee with a slight fruity flavor.
You decide, dear reader, whether it is worth trying Luwak coffee (if you haven’t already), or better not!
[i] Kopi is the Indonesian word for coffee. Luwak is a local name of the Asian palm civet in Sumatra.
Pic 1: By Jordy Meow - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12818326 Pic 6: By CaliPhattie - Martin Coffee Shop in Taipei City, Taiwan., FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15443328