Barely an instance goes past in Asia speaking with someone newly interested in coffee that the topic of Kopi luwak, or 'civet' coffee, doesn't come up. Kopi luwak is literally 'Coffee Civet' in Bahasa Indonesia or Malay. It is named after the Asian palm civet or 'luwak', a very cute cat-like creature indigenous to south-east Asia. The luwak eats coffee cherries, digests the pulp and then excretes the undigested beans. The beans, when collected from the faeces and then cleaned, roasted sold, are prized as a highly-valued and reputedly delicious tasting coffee.
N.B. I rarely make negative posts criticising anything. However, the majority of kopi luwak stands to reduce the credibility of the specialty coffee industry overall. The sooner this is recognised, the sooner the industry can move on to truly exceptional coffees.
Gross! Why would anyone do this?!
The theory is that luwak coffee tastes better for two reasons.
- Firstly, the luwaks are reputedly picky about coffee. More picky than a human? Perhaps not. But more picky than random. Thus, since luwaks will only eat high quality and ripe beans, the theory is that the coffee they excrete would only be from the best beans.
- Secondly, the digestion process is said to improve the coffee. According to legend, the fermentation process in the gastrointestinal tract of the luwak are said to 'break down proteins' and alter the taste characteristics of the coffee for the better.
Is kopi luwak actually tasty?
Frankly, it's usually just terrible. Sometimes it's OK - at best.
Firstly, coffee produced by a luwak, when compared with the same coffee not processed by a luwak, will score lower on blind taste tests. You read that right. The luwak diminishes the flavour. The fermentation process mutes the brighter flavour notes of quality, obliterating what made it special. Some novice drinkers associate the muted, bland flavours with mildness, which they compare favourably with the usual bitter, acidic brew they've been tortured with in their supermarket-variety instant coffee brand. However, taste tests of luwak vs non-luwak coffee of the same origin regularly grade the luwak coffee lower. In one example, a coffee scored at 94 was reduced after luwak processing to a still acceptable, but far worse score of 82.
Secondly, the coffee objectively does not score well in taste tests. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) states that that "general consensus within the industry ... is it just tastes bad." The very highest rated luwak coffees get taste scores of around 85 (out of 100). (You can get African coffees that are one fiftieth of the price that score above 90.) Most coffee luwak that reaches a tasters cup will not score above 80 in taste tests. These are good, but not excellent (defined as above 90).
Finally, most coffee luwak available to retail buyers is just awful. It is usually low grade coffee, poorly processed, burned in roasting, diluted with other (low grade) beans, stale and packaged inappropriately. This coffee, available for example in airports or tourist outlets in Indonesia, is sold purely for gimmick value. It raises the question of what else a civet could poop out and which could be marked up 100-fold. Nuts? Twigs? Fragments of iPhone? Who knows.
What's wrong with it?
The good: In the best cases, it's actually OK.
A small amount of kopi luwak that is ethically sourced, made of quality Indonesian beans, roasted well and sold fresh can score well in cupping tests, reaching tasting scores north of 80. It is important to note two things to benchmark this. Firstly, specialty coffee (the kind of coffee sold in more and more high-end coffee establishments around the world) requires tasting scores above 90. Secondly, you can get very high-end specialty coffees for $50 a kilogram or even less.
Some specialty coffee roasters will occasionally offer kopi luwak on the menu for a laugh and a bit of a story. They would never advertise it, for the bad rep this would produce. If you really must try it, get some made for you at a trusted, local roaster.
In good scenarios luwak is often described to have as pleasant and fruity an aroma as any other medium-grade quality coffee.
The bad: In the worst (and most common) cases, it's terrible!
The vast majority of Kopi Luwak sold retail is borderline fraudulent. The most serious problems are:
- Animal cruelty, fake kopi luwak and other horrors (see below): These problems, including caged civets, regular coffee packaged as civet coffee or highly diluted blends plague the industry and tarnish not just the reputation of kopi luwak, but the specialty coffee industry overall.
- Low grade beans, grading and cleaning: Rarely if ever are the best beans used. In fact, most civet coffee is made of inferior-grade robusta beans rather than arabica. Any specialty coffee needs good treatment, and this is especially true for anything that has passed through an animal's intestinal system.
- Poor roasting, storage and transport: Retail grade kopi luwak is usually inexpertly roasted, sold in inappropriate packaging and is usually stale when bought by the consumer
How much does it cost and where should I buy it, if I have to?
Kopi luwak can retail from under US$300 a kilo in Indonesia to over US$3,000 a kilo if sold retail online through luxury retailers. The price depends on many factors: a) whether it's real, b) where you've bought it, i.e. locally or abroad (hint: if it's packaged in gold and has Chinese characters on it, it's going to be expensive) and c) the usual coffee metrics: the quality of the underlying beans, the sorting process, the roast, the roast freshness etc. Even at the high end of the spectrum, you will see specialty-coffee no-nos being committed such as selling pre-ground coffee, stale roast coffee (or simply with no roast date) or the ultimate atrocity of instant coffee. (I cannot fathom a worse value for money proposition in the coffee world than instant Kopi Luwak.) Interestingly, price does not correspond with quality in kopi luwak world. If you really must try some kopi luwak, consider Doi Chaang Estate's coffee, available on Amazon.com in small and affordable bags. Doi Chaang is partly farmer-owned and retails kopi luwak direct at a median price (approx $650 a kilogram), and is known as a reputable farm that produces quality coffees and has strong sustainability and workers and animal rights practices. However, my advice is to just say no to Kopi Luwak.
Fake luwak coffee, animal cruelty and other horrors
Kopi luwak has a number of systemic problems with it that, even aside from the fact that it has a net detrimental effect on the flavour of coffee, drives specialty coffee buyers away.
The rise in price and popularity of kopi luwak has meant that many farms have sprung up in which civets are caged in cramped conditions and force-fed coffee cherries. This produces obvious ethical treatment of animal concerns, and paradoxically eliminates one of the two claimed benefits of civet coffee - the selection process (if they're force-fed the cherries, they don't get to pick which ones they eat).
Fake luwak coffee
Fake luwak coffee abounds. The annual civet coffee market is approximately 5,000% of the total capacity of production in south-east Asia. Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell what coffee is genuinely luwak-produced or not. One Japanese scientist claims to have discovered a way of telling if it's fake or genuine. Wishful thinking. (Ironically, coffee NOT secreted by a cat is probably likely to taste better.)
Some enterprising entrepreneurs have decided that it's not just luwaks that can pick and digest coffee. One Portland man advertised that he would produce luwak-like coffee from his own faeces at a fraction of the price. Thai farms have argued that elephants, not luwaks, are the best coffee connoisseurs. Regardless of which animal knows coffee best, they both make for amazing pictures.
Just say no.
Civet coffee is a curiosity that has gone out of control and spawned fraud, animal abuse and disgusting parallel trends that have warped the consumer's perception of what coffee can be. Just don't do it.