Saturday, May 03, 2008

Kopi Luwak

Coffee grows in dozens of countries around the world. Some varieties have earned a special reputation, often based on a combination of rarity, unusual circumstances and particularly good flavor. These coffees, from Jamaican Blue Mountain to Kona to Tanzanian Peaberry, command a premium price. But perhaps no coffee in the world is in such short supply, has such unique flavors and an, um, interesting background as Kopi Luwak. And no coffee even comes close in price: Kopi Luwak sells for $75 per quarter pound. Granted, that's substantially less than marijuana, but it's still unimaginably high for coffee.

Kopi (the Indonesian word for coffee) Luwak comes from the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi (formerly Celebes), which are part of the Indonesian Archepelago's 13,677 islands (only 6,000 of which are inhabited). But it's not strictly the exotic location that makes these beans worth their weight in silver. It's how they're "processed."

On these Indonesian islands, there's a small marsupial called the paradoxurus, a tree-dwelling animal that is part of the sibet family. Long regarded by the natives as pests, they climb among the coffee trees eating only the ripest, reddest coffee cherries. Who knows who first thought of it, or how or why, but what these animals eat they must also digest and eventually excrete. Some brazen or desparate -- or simply lazy -- local gathered the beans, which come through the digestion process fairly intact, still wrapped in layers of the cherries' mucilage. The enzymes in the animals' stomachs, though, appear to add something unique to the coffee's flavor through fermentation.

Curiously, Kopi Luwak isn't the only "specialty" food that begins this way. Argan is an acacia-like tree that grows in Morocco and Mexico which, through its olive-like fruit, yields argan oil. In Morocco, the Berbers encourage goats to climb the trees to eat the fruit. They later gather the goats' excrement and remove the pits, which they grind for oil to be used in massage, in cooking and as an aphrodisiac.

What started as, presumably, a way for the natives to get coffee without climbing the trees has since evolved into the world's priciest specialty coffee. Japan buys the bulk of Kopi Luwak, but M.P. Mountanos (800-229-1611), the first in the United States to bring in this exotic bean, recently imported 110 pounds after a seven year search for a reliable and stable supplier. "It's the rarest beverage in the world," Mark Mountanos says, estimating a total annual crop of less than 500 pounds.

Richard Karno, former owner of The Novel Cafe in Santa Monica, California, got a flyer from Mountanos about Kopi Luwak and "thought it was a joke." But Karno was intrigued, found it it was for real, and ordered a pound for a tasting. Karno sent out releases to the local press inviting them to a cupping. When no one responded, he roasted it and held a cupping for himself and his employees. Karno is very enthusiastic, a convert to Kopi Luwak. "It's the best coffee I've ever tasted. It's really good, heavy with a caramel taste, heavy body. It smells musty and jungle-like green, but it roasts up real nice. The LA Times didn't come to our cupping, but ran a bit in their food section, which hit the AP Wire service." And Karno and the folks at M.P. Mountanos have been inundated with calls ever since.

Mountanos says, "It's the most complex coffee I've ever tasted," attributing the unusual flavors to the natural fermentation the coffee beans undergo in the paradoxurus' digestive system. The stomach acids and enzymes are very different from fermenting beans in water. Mountanos says, "It has a little of everything pleasurable in all coffees: earthy, musty tone, the heaviest bodied I've ever tasted. It's almost syrupy, and the aroma is very unique." While it won't be turning up in every neighborhood cafe any day soon, Mountanos reports that Starbucks bought it for cuppings within the company.

In fact, most of Mountanos' customers have bought it for special cuppings. The Coffee Critic in San Mateo, California, though, occasionally sells Kopi Luwak to the public for $5 a cup. Owner Linda Nederman says she keeps the price low to allow people to experience the coffee. Nederman says that most of her people who try it are longtime customers, and they're "game to try something different and unusual. I've never had anybody complain, they all seem to feel it's worth the price." Nederman drinks it herself every time they brew it. "I've never tasted anything like it. It's an unbelieveable taste in your mouth: richness, body, earthiness, smooth." She also carries Jamaica Blue Mountain, Burundi Superior AA and Brazil FZA "Natural Dry," so her customers are used to fine and exotic coffees. Still, she reports, many are afraid to try Kopi Luwak.

Michael Beech, founding partner in Raven's Brew Coffee: or email:, a roaster, wholesaler and mail order (800-91-RAVEN) merchant in Ketchikan, Alaska, used to sell roasted-to-order Kopi Luwak by the quarter pound ($75, including a free t-shirt depicting the coffee-making process) but no longer does: . "It's excellent coffee. But I always caution customers that you can't get $75 worth of quality in any coffee, there's no such thing. You're paying for the experience of quaffing the world's rarest and most expensive coffee. The palate would recognize it as Sumatran or Indonesian right away. It has earthy tones of natural processed Sumatra Mandheling. It has low acidity with a syrupy body. There's something else there, a nuance in the flavor profile that I can't describe, and when I've challanged others, no one else can either. It's almost alien, a tiny little flavor note, highly exotic." The last bag he sold was to John Cleese of Monty Python and Fierce Creatures fame.

But not everyone is seduced by this exotic coffee's charms. "Kopi Luwak is, in my opinion, indistinguishable from many an average robusta, especially if you cup them next to each other," says Tim Castle, coffee expert and author of The Perfect Cup, referring to the lower grade of commercially available coffees. "Kopi Luwak's processing is unusual and attracts attention. In that sense, it is an interesting coffee."

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