Update October 2014: I first heard of Kopi Luwak in 1999, when our chef friend asked me to try to find it for him when we visited Indonesia. As related in my post below, it was nowhere to be found in the areas of Indonesia where we traveled until after it was made popular by a movie. Since this 2012 post, I have seen many articles online about the poor treatment of civets; including taking them from the wild and keeping them in appalling caged conditions in order to meet the increased demand for the coffee. There are also campaigns advocating “wild-sourced, ‘cage-free’ civet coffee.”
Trying kopi luwak was a novelty for us but I would not purchase it again and certainly do not advocate anything that exploits these animals in a cruel manner.
We just returned from Bali, twelve time zones away. My circadian clock is not happy about the reset, even with the aid of strong coffee. From the debilitating fog of jetlag, I’m detouring to talk about coffee instead of fish. Ever heard of Kopi Luwak? I have been looking for it for over ten years, ever since our friend, executive chef, Robbert Bouman asked us to buy some if we ever ran across it during our travels through Indonesia. Until recently, it was not all that well known in Indonesia either – at least not in the areas we visited. Over the years, my inquiries and attempts to describe it have been met with everything from incredulity to outright peals of laughter. A chef in Sulawesi declared it must be from Java because, “they have many crazy things in Java.” Kopi is the Indonesian word for coffee and Kopi Luwak is a very unusual coffee.
Ned and I have the same tastes in almost everything except coffee. He drinks powdered Nescafe, because no matter where we are in the world, from Turkey to Ecuador to Bali, he can ask for Nescafe and receive a consistent cup of coffee. He delights in quoting his hero, field naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who (I’m paraphrasing) wondered why it was that whenever one was in a country that produced coffee, one could not get a decent cup. I drink whatever the locals are drinking (except Starbucks).
Our first stop after arriving in Bali last month was the supermarket for a jumbo bag of Nescafe 3-in-1 stickpacks – a kopi concoction of the powdered coffee, sugar and creamer in a convenient one-cup sachet (for the record, at home Ned uses organic cream and sugar with his Nescafe.) Two hours down the road, our driver pulled into a rest stop for a kopi break where we were offered the opportunity to try…Kopi Luwak! At last, after all these years, there it was, in the highlands of Bali! We wound through a path of understory plants – cacao, jackfruit and coffee – arriving at a small stand, obviously set up for tourists, where the proprietors were pleased that they didn’t have to sell us on the product. The coffee groves are also home to small civets, genus Paradoxurus (called Luwaks in Indonesia) that eat the ripe coffee cherries. The pulp is digested but the seeds, known as coffee beans to us, pass through their digestive tracts whole. Supposedly, the enzymes in the civet’s stomach make the beans much less acidic. At some point in the past, an enterprising farmer thought to collect the scat, clean the beans, roast them and sell them at an ungodly price to crazy tourists and gourmands. That isn’t how it really originated but seems to sum up the current market.
For the price of two cups of Kopi Luwak, we also received a sampling of other local hot beverages, including the regular local coffee. Indeed there is a distinct difference; the Kopi Luwak was full-bodied but much mellower and quite smooth, without any hint of bitterness often found in strong coffee. At over $375 a kilo for the roasted beans, it will not be my regular morning coffee, but it was fun to finally try it. I purchased a small package for Chef Robbert.
A week later, I triumphantly shared my story with our friends who had joined us for two weeks of diving on Bali’s NE coast. Several years ago, I couldn’t find anyone who had heard of Kopi Luwak – but it seemed that my worldly friends knew all about it – then someone clued me in that it was featured a few years ago in a hit movie, The Bucket List. Talking about it made me regret not purchasing some for myself so I set about enlisting people to look for it on their various tours around the island. This past weekend, on our way out of Bali, I found more Kopi Luwak – we had a good laugh when we saw it in every gift and snack shop in the departure terminal at the Denpasar Airport!