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.

Kopi luwak: one red and two green coffee cherries ripen on the bush.

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.

Here’s one.

Kopi luwak: civet poop full of coffee beans used to make the world's most expensive coffee

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.

Kopi luwak: roasted coffee beans in a basket

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.

41 Responses

  1. Snap says:

    T, I can’t think of anything really wierd…emu, crocodile, kangaroo, blood…oh, wait, does Vegemite count?

    I lloovvee my coffee and could quite possibly be willing to pick through pooh if it meant having a good cuppa. By the way, what does a cup of pooh coffee cost?

    Kind of nice to know they can’t cage the little critters 🙂

    PS…where’s your ‘subsribe to post comments’ button gone?

    • admin says:

      Round here, it’s about 70,000 rupiah, or around $7.50 US in the cheaper places. When I’ve seen it in malls, it’s been 100,000 rupiah, or roughly $11US. God only knows what they sell it for in the West. You can buy a 2oz packet online in the UK for around 25GBP.

      Vegemite? Now, I’m British. So I ceremoniously tried that in Australia — one of those Brit rites of passage — and still prefer Marmite…

  2. Nicole says:

    I laughed out loud at the poo photo. Who woulda thunk? But I love the whole concept: the essence of cacao, they don’t cage the animals, the poo has to be scavenged for, and they pay locals big bucks for the poo. If I get to Bali, I will visit a kopi luwak farm for sure!

    • admin says:

      Ah, do come here at some time. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since folk like Ainlay were living here, but it’s still a very real and vibrant culture under the tourist development…

  3. As weird as that sounds, I would love to try it. I think the weirdest thing I’ve eaten was a fresh mangrove worm out of a wet log in the bush on the Tiwi Islands in Australia. That or cow brains in Bolivia. I’ve got a pic and story of the brains on my website.

    • admin says:

      I’ve not eaten worms — we never did the bushtucker tours in Oz… Though Z and I ate crickets in Laos. Eating anything from a mangrove swamp, having fallen into one when looking for bats, is bloody brave IMHO.

      Brains, I’ve had — they’re one of my mother’s favourite things.

      • Did crickets in Thailand and they were actually pretty tasty. Good flavor and crunchy although the bits got stuck in various parts of my mouth for a while.

        Don’t dig the brains at all. You are better than me for that.

  4. Ok, wow – that definitely needed the thorough explanation you’ve given. Thanks for all the background! I’m intrigued to consider trying this coffee.

  5. Funny, my husband’s aunt (your typical cat lady) sent us a story on cat poo being made into coffee earlier this week. I didn’t read it through, but I wonder if this was what she was talking about!

  6. Sonja Key says:

    Wow . . . absolutely fascinating story. I hate the taste of even regular coffee, so this just really makes me wonder.

    • admin says:

      Wow! A coffee hater… I think you’ll find kopi luwak too, err, coffee-y to try. My son thought it was good coffee, but much preferred a ginseng coffee they also make, served with ample milk and sugar… That might, conceivably, convert you…

  7. Ainlay says:

    Holy crap! How did I live there and never hear of this? I am soooo glad you are there to enlighten us. Nothing would make my son happier than to come back and tell his friends exactly how this cup of coffee is made 🙂

    • admin says:

      It’s easy enough to get to. They have small-scale coffee plantations all over the Kintamani region, so you can, actually, just rock up in a village and ask someone to show you one (which is what we did on our way over to Batur). This one’s actually on the main road out of Tampak Siring, just as you come up to Temen. I think it’s a relatively new thing for Bali. Putu said they’d been making it here since his grandfather’s time, but it’s more established, like coffee in general, in Java and Sumatra. No sign of it, intriguingly, in the Tana Toraja, where they are also extremely proud of their coffee.

  8. Anna says:

    What an interesting post. I do like coffee but I’m not sure I like it that much! The strangest thing I’ve ever eaten? ‘Meat’ curry in Thailand, I just wish I knew what that too vague description meant. I know it wasn’t chicken, lamb or beef…

    • admin says:

      Hmmm… Now, if it tasted like a slightly gamey version of mutton, it would have been goat, though I don’t think they’re big on goat in Thailand. But it does sound dubious… Heard some horrible things about the meatball soups they sell by the roadside here, which rather put me off eating them…

  9. I am learning so much from your posts! Yet another interesting, but slightly disturbing bit of information. I suppose I’d give it a try, just to say I did.

    • admin says:

      It’s worth trying, if you get the real deal. Though I’m glad I tried it before I’d seen the process in action…

  10. Mo Travels says:

    I need my morning coffee, but I don’t know if I need it that badly. 😉

  11. Natalia says:

    Great article. I know I would definitely try it. Do you think they sell it in Singapore?

    Pre-vegan days I ate a lot of food other people consider weird – kangaroo, emu, crocodile, snake, fugu (blowfish) … now people just think eating ‘vegan food’ is weird anyway 🙂

    • admin says:

      Now, I believe you can get just about anything that’s edible in Singapore — apart perhaps from square watermelons, which seem to be a Japanese thing. So, yes, I would say that you almost certainly could get it in an upscale mall foodcourt.

      However, Google produced a lot of hits but no immediate guidance as to where in Singapore.

      Incidentally, there is a very good restaurant here in Ubud with a vegan offering that transformed my idea of raw food from something starlets ate as a cover for anorexia to “yep! great, err, cooking”: Kafe on Jalan Hanoman.

  12. melani rae says:

    I had heard about this poo coffee before. I thought it was a joke. *goes to read label on coffee package*

  13. Matt says:

    I just drank some of this today. Here in Eugene we have an annual Asian Celebration and the Consulate General of Indonesia was here from San Francisco. They were giving out samples of kopi luwak. It’s as you say, very good without the bitterness.

  14. Justin says:

    Simply amazing, I would never have even thought of such a thing. It is amazing the little secrets our planet has…

  15. GERALD says:

    Have a nice cup of NAAFI tea!!!

  16. Heard about this in the movie Bucket List. We have eaten some fairly strange stuff, donkey, rocky mt. oysters, chicken feet, tongue & cheek marmalade, but I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly consumed something that was excreted from another critter. Guess I’d be willing to give it a try. Thanks for a fun post.

    • Theodora says:

      It is, I think, definitely the weirdest substance I’ve ever drunk. A range of exotic palm hooch notwithstanding…

  17. The coffee is truly amazing. Buyer beware: there are a LOT of fakers and adulteraters out there. Also, coffee from free, wild civets is much higher quality. Be sure to look for 100% authentic, cage-free civet coffee which has been certified by a reputable 3rd party agency. Happy drinking

  18. Sophie says:

    I couldn’t agree more, that looks like a chocolate coated peanuts.

  19. nugget says:

    Hm, I’ve just had this, and while it’s okay to a non-coffee drinker, I’m not really seeing how it’s that much better than cold-brewed generic store-brand coffee. Any enlightening comment from a coffee-lover?

    My experience here:

    • Theodora says:

      I think it’s smoother and less bitter than typical coffee, although a) there are a lot of fakes about and b) you need to be a real coffee geek to appreciate it.

  20. ALBERT SOUCY says:

    Just has a cup of wild LUWAK COFFEE, SPICE ISLAND brand from BALI. Very smooth,more like tea than coffee.

  1. February 18, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by KaZ Zamri 站昵 and Ve We, Theodora Sutcliffe. Theodora Sutcliffe said: NEW: From the bowels of the beast: the world's most expensive #coffee: #lp #indonesia #travel […]

  2. March 15, 2015

    […] kopi luwak – palm civet coffee – started the boom in coffees processed by way of an animal’s […]