From the Bowels of the Beast: The World’s Most Expensive Coffee
Ever heard of kopi luwak? It’s the world’s most expensive coffee.
Because It Comes From the Bowels of the Beast.
Yep. Kopi luwak is processed through the bowels — yes, the bowels — of the palm civet, a bad-tempered tree-dweller which folk in Bali compare to a cat.
Ever since I first tried kopi luwak, in a mall in the Spice Islands, I’ve been keen to visit a farm and see the beasts in action. Which is exactly what we did on Monday.
Now, when you think about a kopi luwak farm, you’d envisage cage upon cage of palm civets, chomping and excreting their way through mountains of coffee cherries — the pretty red fruit which surrounds the bean that ultimately becomes your coffee.
You know. Huge piles of poo. And workers sifting through them wishing for a better job…
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
That’s why Kopi Luwak tastes so good.
Now, just because something’s expensive, doesn’t mean it tastes good. But if you like coffee, you’ll love kopi luwak. It has a rich, smooth, deep flavour, low on oil and bitterness, with almost caramel notes.
The best explanation? Not so much the enzymes in the civets’ guts. But how selective the luwak are about the beans they choose.
In the wild, they’re just one part of a varied diet. And civets are picky eaters. Presented with a kilo of coffee beans, they’ll select maybe twelve out of the whole basket.
Not just picky. But delicate, too.
As Putu, who showed us around the farm, explained, civets can die of stress in captivity, some in as little as a week.
They’re treetop dwellers, you see. Not used to cages.
Enter the Goats!
Now, obviously, coffee’s not native to Indonesia. It grows wild in much of Africa and the most popular story of its discovery dates it to Ethiopia, around the eleventh century.
Where, in the second weird animal story of this post, a goatherd noticed his goats got hyper after eating the deep red fruit of a wild tree — and tried it out for himself.
Quite how this evolved into washing, sun-drying and roasting the beans before grinding them and boiling them up — well, it beats me.
Kopi luwak dates back to some time after the Dutch introduced coffee plantations to Java in 1696. When, I guess, some of the local population, notwithstanding the dietary restrictions within Islam — a number of religious officials have lately pronounced it contrary to Islamic law — somehow decided to extract the beans from the civet faeces and boil them up.
You Cannae Be Serious?!
Yep. Someone, somewhere, was inspired enough, desperate enough, or plain damn freaky enough to pick up poo and turn it into coffee.
I’d write the whole thing off as an invention of Western marketing folk, keen for an, err, innovative luxury line extension. Or inspired by those worm lollipops that got a lot of press in the late nineties.
But the fact remains that someone, somewhere had to try it first.
Also, I find it hard to imagine anyone serious presenting faeces coffee at a corporate planning meeting. Even if they did brand it Monkey Coffee…
It Doesn’t Look As Bad As You’d Think.
One partial explanation?
The turds don’t look as bad as you’d think.
It’s actually broken into three pieces. But it doesn’t look too bad. More like elderly peanut brittle than, well, poo.
It doesn’t smell bad, either. This one had a kind of dusty, musty, cocoa-y scent to it (perhaps because this particular critter had been chowing on cacao, which is also grown on a micro-scale here in Bali).
But How Do They Get It?
Now, you might be wondering, if they can’t keep civets in captivity — though on some farms in Sumatra, they risk the death toll — where on earth do they get the turds?
How they do it here, on the fringes of Temen, a little town near Kintamani, Bali, is by tempting civets into cages full of coffee beans by night, using pieces of papaya and banana. Then they release them in the morning, to sleep and wander at will.
Picky critters, the civets will only eat 12 or 15 beans out of a single kilo.
Now, it takes four or five days for the ripe coffee cherries to pass through the civet’s digestive tract before they emerge as substantial, beany turds.
A process, given the creature’s only the size of a cat and those things are, well, doggy size, which has simply got to hurt.
And they emerge wherever the civet lays its, err, eggs. Generally on the surrounding farms.
Yes. Around Kintamani, there’s a small cottage industry of farmers and their kids scouring the paths for civet poo.
Farmers will pay up to 25,000 rupiah, or almost three dollars for a fresh dropping. Which sounds like a pittance, until you realise that it’s more than the daily minimum wage in many parts of Indonesia.
Isn’t That Kind of Unhygienic?
Once they’ve bought the droppings, workers wash the beany turds three times in boiling water.
“To get rid of the worms,” Putu explains.
“Worms?” I say. “You mean, worms from the stomach?”
“Yes,” he says.
Crikey, think I, recalling the piece in James Fenton’s book on Borneo where his guides prepare him a fish stew including what he identifies as pasta but turn out to be intestinal worms. Whatever next?
Well, they sort the beans, by size, into Arabica, Robusta and Bali coffee beans, and peel them by hand. Wash again in cold water. Then sun-dry and toast, ready for sale.
And What About You?
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten — or drunk, for that matter? And what sort of information would put you off eating something? Drop me a comment and let me know…
Thanks to Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday.