Tiffin Project

Roasting Cat Crap Nuggets

by Rick Green on March 3, 2009

Roasted Kopi Luwak

Aficionados get curious as a cat when they hear of something novel and rare. The more bizarre, the greater the buzz. Such is the case with Kopi Luwak, the über expensive Indonesian coffee that started its journey in the digestive tract of an Asian Palm Civet. So, is it the shit or is it just shit? I recently had a chance to find out.

An acquaintance of mine acquired a pound of green Kopi Luwak beans as a gift. He was looking for a place to roast it. Through the kind assistance of Mark Prince, local Coffee Geek, I was introduced to JJ Bean’s Coffee Quality Team Leader, Grady Buhler. For a flat rate of $10.00, he would be happy to transform these straw-colored orbs into black gold.

Kopi Luwak Green Beans

We met Grady one afternoon at the JJ Bean Commercial Drive store where they have a 1940s-era, four-barrel Jabez Burns & Sons sample roaster installed in the middle of the room. A horseshoe-shaped counter encircles it, offering a ring-side seat to those who want to witness the Arabica alchemy. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee, along with roasting coffee, is intoxicating.

Before we began, Grady made us a cafetière of JJ Bean’s first ‘Gold Reserve coffee,’ an Ethiopian micro-lot called Aricha No. 34. It comes from a 10-sack lot within a farm in the Yirgachefe district of Sidamo province. Such a small amount would normally be mixed in with other beans from that area, but Aricha is making the extra effort to produce the best quality coffee, sorting and separating beans at the sub-farm level. This is the ultimate expression of terroir. As such, JJ Bean is taking special care to provide you with the freshest possible coffee. You can only pre-order it as each bag is custom roasted ($24.00/half pound, $44.00/pound).

JJ Bean's Grady Buhler

Grady hadn’t had Kopi Luwak before, so he opened the Kopi Luwak bag in anticipation. We were met with a distinct grassy smell. He had never experienced such an odor in a coffee before and was definitely intrigued by it. It was decided to roast the Kopi Luwak in two half-pound batches, starting off with a lighter roast to make sure the inherent flavour of the coffee wasn’t overcome by that of the roast.

Roasting Kopi Luwak

Checking periodically, we saw the beans transform in colour as the roasting progressed, but the change wasn’t uniform like other coffees. A crackling sound like popcorn popping suddenly emitted from the roaster — the first crack. At that point, Grady increased the temperature and checked the beans more frequently. Then came the second crack and, shortly after, he lifted the drum, dumping the beans into the cooling tray. Eight minutes had elapsed.

According to Massimo Marcone, a Department of Food Science adjunct professor at the University of Guelph who studied the effects of the Luwak’s digestion on coffee, proteins are broken down and leached out of the bean. Bitterness caused by the proteins is, thus, reduced. This is very similar to wet processing, only it takes place in the digestive tract of the civet. This is supposed to result in a superior taste.

Kopi Luwak Beans Cooling

After allowing the beans to cool down, it was time for a taste test. Grady made up a cafetière to finally lay our curiosity to rest. And? In a word, disappointment. The grassy characteristic was still there, only the roasting had given it an earthiness that was neither superior, nor even pleasant. To the aficionado, it’s an interesting curiosity if you don’t have to pay the premium for the privilege of trying it. To the average drinker? Costly cat crap. The Aricha No. 34 is far better value.

To be fair, there are different grades of Kopi Luwak. Something that is highly prized (or highly hyped) and of such limited supply (global annual harvest of approximately 1,000 pounds) is bound to be counterfeited, especially if there are no regulations or chain of custody. The genuine article is gathered from wild civet cats who are discriminating in their choice of coffee cherry, choosing only those at their peak of ripeness. There is also the farmed variety produced from captive civets, fed coffee cherries picked by humans who are likely not so meticulous in their selection of cherry. However, given no means of verifying the authenticity of our beans, and not having acquired it from a reliable source, we really don’t know if this is ‘free range’ Kopi Luwak or even the farmed type. Caveat emptor.

~ RG

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Bonner March 3, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Fascinating review. Now we just need you to convince a microbrewery to add them to a stout. I’ve wondered about these coffee’s and their cost/value. Thanks for the insight.

Keith Talent March 3, 2009 at 2:43 pm

“(global annual harvest of approximately 1,000 pounds) is bound to be counterfeited, especially if there are no regulations or chain of custody.”

Ha! Last year in Vietnam we saw at least 1000 pounds pilled in stall-fronts in the market. I knew it was as fake as the stall selling Panerai next door.

Then again when it comes to cat shit coffee, maybe Folgers Crystals are preferable.

Josh Oakes March 3, 2009 at 3:15 pm
BC Brew March 3, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Last year in Vietnam we saw at least 1000 pounds pilled in stall-fronts in the market.

Technically, this is not Kopi Luwak. KL is from Indonesia. In Vietnam, they call it weasel coffee. That’s just pedantry, though. Knowing what is the real deal is harder than finding true Jamaica Blue Mountain or Kona. Mind you, finding out what is in Folgers isn’t that easy either.

Mark March 3, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Grassy smell would be my first major warning bell. It’s an olfactory warning that the beans were stored improperly.

Uneven roast a second warning sign, though if this were genuine KL (I’ve had about 6lbs of the supposed genuine stuff over the years), it makes sense, because of the small amount available – but uneven roasts = poor sorting, defects in the coffee.

The thing is with KL is that it is an expensive gimmick coffee, and nothing more. I’ve never had a quality cup of the stuff, and that includes getting samples back in 2002 from the harvesting farm direct, and roasting it at the same JJ location! (I think at the time, Grady wasn’t working there yet).

If you want a gimmick coffee that actually tastes good, 49th Parallel had some “monkey spit parchment” coffee last season – it’s cultivated by monkeys that eat the ripest, most perfect cherries, and spit out the beans. Some ingenious farmer decided to harvest the beans, complete a dry processing on them, and sell them. That coffee was quite good.

Brad March 3, 2009 at 6:39 pm

One reason your coffee might have tasted bad was because you brewed it immediately after roasting. You have to let the coffee rest at least 1 day for drip, and 2 days for espresso. When I try my coffee immediately after I roast it, it is very undeveloped and disappointing. I find many of my roasts reach their peak at 5-9 days. Even at day 2 they are usually undeveloped. Though this coffee may well be “crap”, I don’t think we can deduce that from this test.

BC Brew March 3, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Mark: I had the Devon Estate, monkey-picked coffee. I liked it too — definitely superior to our KL.

Brad: Grady did say the coffee ought to degas for a few days. I still have some to test. However, I wouldn’t be inclined to prepare such a single origin Arabica as an espresso.

Grady March 4, 2009 at 12:33 am

I cupped the coffee four days after the roast. It didn’t taste like specialty coffee at all. Very… unique (to put it delicately).

But it was a fun experience. Thanks again Rick.

Grady

Daniel March 4, 2009 at 5:38 am

Actually a microbrewery in denmark already made a beer with this coffee………

Barrett March 4, 2009 at 12:07 pm

although waiting a few days off roast is ideal for enjoyment, brewing right off roast, you can still find defects – it takes some practice, but it is possible.

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