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.
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).
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.
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.
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.