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In the 2007 film, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson rhapsodizes over his choice of coffee, a rare kind known as Kopi Luwak, civet coffee. Kopi Luwak may be the most expensive coffee in the world, with prices ranging from $250 to $600 per pound. It’s on the menu at one London coffee shop for £50 and at an Australian coffee shop for $50 Australian. It’s been estimated that less than 1000 pounds of Kopi Luwak per year are available on the market. What makes this expensive coffee so rare and so unique that it was featured in a major motion picture release starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman?
Kopi Luwak is an Indonesian coffee that is processed in a rather unusual way – the beans run through the digestive tracts of a local species of civet cats, and are gathered when the seeds, still coated in some cherry mucilage, are eliminated in the cat’s feces. Yes, that’s right – the “rarest beverage in the world” is picked out of what is essentially cat poop.
On the small Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi, all well known for high quality coffee, a small marsupial called a paradoxurus or Asian palm civet climbs coffee cherry trees to feast on its favorite treat – perfectly ripe coffee cherries. It’s a rather adorable little bit of a thing, looking a great deal like a feline raccoon. Coincidentally, ecologists often claim that the palm civet fills the same niche in the food chain that the North American raccoon fills. The little critter gobbles coffee cherries, digesting the fruit and passing the seeds, still coated with mucilage. Coffee harvesters gather the excreted beans, wash them clean and continue the processing from there, which cuts several steps and several days from the tree-to-bean process.
In other words, the civet does a big part of the work for the coffee harvesters. It climbs the trees, picks the ripest cherries, strips the fruit from the cherry stone and begins the fermentation process in its digestive tract. By the time the beans are excreted, they’re ready for the final steps to strip the mucilage and dry the beans.
There are many theories about what actually happens inside the little creature’s digestive tract, and varying opinions of whether it actually makes a difference. Earlier this year, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology conducted blind taste tests to determine if people really could tell the difference between Kopi Luwak and less expensive coffees. They used four samples of coffee – one Kopi Luwak, one from the same species of coffee cherry but undigested, one Colombian coffee and one Kenyan coffee, and had over 1,000 people taste them and try to determine which were which, as well as asking which was preferred. The results? Tasters were unable to identify the Kopi Luwak with any degree of reliability, and it was not statistically preferred over any of the other coffees.
On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that 1,000 random people could accurately identify Pouilly-Fuisse in a random taste test either. There are very educated palates who come down on both sides of the ‘how does it taste?’ question.
Those who love it refer to Kopi Luwak as “the most complex coffee flavor I’ve ever tasted”. Those who don’t say you can cup it side by side with a cheap cup of robusta coffee and not tell the difference.
At $300 a pound, few of us are likely to ever get a chance to judge for ourselves, but there are rumors that new methods of synthetically simulating the digestion process will bring the price down and produce coffee that is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Until then, most of us will just have to sit back and enjoy our Blue Mountain and Kona.