Kopi luwak coffee: Get over where it comes from and you might like where it’s going

June 11, 2010

It was not going to be a typical cup of coffee.

I sat in Cafe di Luna, an intimate little coffee shop at 1004 N. Third Street in Harrisburg’s evolving midtown neighborhood, waiting to sample the world’s most expensive coffee.

A word of explanation. I’m a coffee guy. Given a choice in a restaurant, I will almost always have either coffee or water, or both.

But I’m no connoisseur. I spent a lot of my life swilling down inky liquids in truck repair shops and can honestly say I’ve choked down some of the worst java on the planet for the sake of the caffeine.

To your good health.

But I prefer the good stuff. Just plain coffee, usually with cream, thanks. None of this sugary, dressed-up stuff for me, thanks. This is not a stance of machismo. I just have too much respect for the bean.

It’s all about the bean, says Ambreen Esmail, the radiant owner of the shop. She can, and sometimes does, go on at great length about the differences and similarities between what turns out to be hundreds or thousands of different kinds of coffee.

All this to a guy who thought there were only three: regular, decaf and instant. (Instant, in my book, is to be used only the way a first-aid kit is to be used, when something has gone wrong and there are no bullets on which to bite.)

So, the coffee was brewing. The coffee is called kopi luwak.

In one sense, it comes from Indonesia. In another sense, it comes from somewhere else. More on that in a moment.

Did I mention that it’s the most expensive coffee in the world? Try about $150 per pound. Give or take. That works out to about $10 a cup.

Feeling awake yet? That’s what I thought.

Now, the really interesting thing is where kopi luwak comes from. Yes, I know. I said it comes from Indonesia. I meant “where it comes from” in a somewhat more intimate sense.

The kopi luwak is made with the help of paradoxurus hermaphrodites, or the
Asian palm civet, a creature known in the native lingo as the luwak. Did I hear an “uh-oh,” out there?

The luwak is a cute little thing, sort of like a cross between a ferret and a monkey, and about that size. I don’t know if they make good pets.

The luwak eats fruit. Apparently, its favorite nom-nom of all is the fruit of the coffee tree or bush or whatever it is. The coffee fruit is called a cherry, because it pretty much resembles that fruit. The luwak eats the cherries because it obtains nutrition from the fruit pulp. Its body has no use for the pit of the fruit, which we think of as the coffee bean.

You see where this is going, right? Take a flashlight. It’s dark down there.

Anyway, the coffee cheery wends its way through the luwak’s little gut. The fruit pulp gets digested and the pit doesn’t. It does get changed, mind you; digestive enzymes seep into the beans and do some things that would only interest a chemist.

And then, the beans, um, see daylight again.

The luwak emissions are then collected by somebody who I would guess is fairly low on the coffee plantation’s pecking order, washed, dried in the sun, roasted lightly, packed and sent off to coffee connoisseurs around the world.

First, let me say I am probably thinking the same thing that you are. Who, in the name of all that’s holy, was the first to look down at a hot little pile of luwak doo and think: “Hey, I’ll bet that would make a good cuppa joe!”

I think whoever it was may have been related to the first person who looked at artichokes and lobsters and uttered similar words. In their native conditions, the one has the shape and general hardness of a fragmentation grenade, and the other looks like a large bug with entirely too many legs and a fondness for dead things it finds on the sea floor. But, cooked right and dipped in drawn butter…oh, my.

Surprisingly, the same is true of the kopi luwak, without the butter.

The research I did on the bean said the changes wrought in the luwak’s little gut made the coffee made from the beans much less bitter, though passing through the gut of a tree-dweller would probably leave me pretty doggone bitter, to say the least.

So, back to the tasting.

Ambreen brought out a variety of mugs – I don’t think she has two that are exactly alike – and served everybody their first cup of kopi luwak.

It looked like – dare I say it? – coffee. Sort of reassuring and disappointing at the same time, if you know what I mean. I had smelled some of the roasted but unground beans earlier, and they had smelled…good. Not exactly like other coffee beans, but not terribly unlike, either.

The kopi was lighter than the dark roasts I prefer, but not as light as the weak brews one gets in most restaurants. I picked up my mug. The people in the room were making jokes about the “monkey butt coffee.”

I sipped.


I sipped again.

Not bad.

In fact, quite good. Aromatic, more gentle on the taste buds than the coffees I prefer, but, even so. Not something I’d order regularly – not at 10 bucks a pop — but definitely a great cup of java.

Everybody in the room was nodding, smiling.

Not to be ignored is the “cool” factor, of course. Whenever anybody reads about kopi luwak and mentions it, we can all say, “oh, I’ve had that.”

But, honestly, I left the little shop on Third thinking I’d love to have just a little of it with me on my next trip to Maine. A good steaming cup of kopi, a nice lobster and a side of artichoke.

Oh, my.


7 Responses to “Kopi luwak coffee: Get over where it comes from and you might like where it’s going”

  1. Bernetta Fries said

    Want Fries with that? (Kopi Luwak)

  2. Martin said

    Hmmm….. Methinks I’d rather drink a ‘neat’ cup of good, medium roast Kona peaberry from a boutique grower any day.

    • T.W. Burger said

      Well, me too, frankly. I found the taste a little too mild for my palate…not to mention the price. Even so, I’m happy to brag that I had the nerve to give it a shot.

  3. Rudy said

    i like kopi luwak…
    .kopi luwak from my country “indonesia”….

  4. Kopi Luwak or Civet Coffee is coffee made from coffee berries which have been eaten and “digested” by the Asian Palm Civet in jungles in Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines and Indonesia. The civet cats eat the coffee berries normally. However, the coffee beans pass through their system undigested. This makes the kopi luwak coffee bean the most unique and apparently goes through the most refined process. it’s really good. And I’m so glad i have a pack of it at home.

  5. Kopi Luwak said

    Kopi luwak is the best coffee

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