Beans for the Crazy Rich Asian

Fermentation, digestive tract and expensive coffee beans from Southeast Asia. As a coffee connoisseur, or simply a coffee enthusiast, you probably know where we are heading. Kopi luwak, or civet cat coffee.

Typically sold at US$100 to US$500 (SG$137 to SG$684) per kilogram, kopi luwak was popularised from Indonesia and in Vietnam too, where it’s sold as ca phe chon or weasel coffee.

Kopi, meanwhile, is Indonesian or Malay for coffee, and luwak is the Indonesian name for Asian palm civet.

Having a cup of kopi luwak can set you back from US$35 (SG$48) to US$120 a cup (SG$165) depending on the quality of the beans.

Like the pricey Black Ivory Coffee, coffee beans are picked out from the Asian palm civet’s dung and repackaged into a specialty coffee. The premium prices are a function of the limited supply.

But how did it all begin?

The discovery of kopi luwak is likely to have happened in the early 18th century when the Dutch set up coffee plantations in the colonies of Sumatra and Java. At the time, they introduced arabica coffee from the Middle East.

The Dutch plantation owners barred workers from picking coffee beans for personal use, but the workers persisted in their effort to have a taste of this prized beverage.

Instead of picking coffee cherries from the tree, they learned that the dung of the luwak, or Asian palm civet, contained undigested coffee seeds. Harvesting these seeds, these workers treated them the same way as you would process a typical coffee bean and made their own coffee.

Later during the 19th century, the French also introduced coffee to Vietnam, and workers employed similar methods to make secret roasts from scavenged civet cat droppings as they were similarly banned from picking coffee berries. This unusual product would eventually become a premium specialty coffee.

The taste of coffee made from the droppings depends on the type of beans eaten by the civet cat.  Typically the coffee tends to be smoother and less bitter, at the same time it has a rich taste.

Unethical practices

According to UTZ Certified, Asian palm civets are listed as having LC (least concern) conservation status and are fairly common in Indonesian islands, but due to high market price, some farmers choose to hold the civets in either small cages or larger enclosures. Force-feeding coffee is a fairly common practice.

The caging and force-feeding is condemned by animal welfare groups. Those like PETA and World Animal Protection are leading campaigns to pressure farmers to stop this cruel practice and for consumers to purchase ethically sourced kopi luwak.

The UTZ certification body itself strongly opposes animal abuse which is not in line for requirements for certification, according to its Code of Conduct released in 2014.  Netherlands-based UTZ Certified is a programme and label for sustainable farming.

Even if the animals are not caged, kopi luwak or any sort of coffee in which animals are involved in the production process cannot be certified under the UTZ Standard.

“This is because the process is such that coffee produced this way does not meet the requirements of traceability and fermentation necessary to meet certification,” the organization said. “However, it is possible that a processor, who collects and sells coffee from wild civets may have UTZ certification for their regular coffee.”

Kopi Luwak done ethically. Photo from Vladimir Proskurovskiy

Greed is one of the major factors that drive the rampant practice of civet cat farms, where their survival rate is severely reduced by having to live in unnatural conditions.

But with increased awareness, there are a few coffee companies that stick to the ethical route.

Cluwak Coffee founder Stephen Lew is one of them. His journey in producing kopi luwak began more than 20 years ago when he visited Gayo in north Sumatra in 1998.

The green coffee beans are sourced directly from traditional farmers in the wild forest of Bengkulu, referred to as Cluwak Coffee’s Gold Label and Gayo, packaged as Black Label.

Lew developed relationships with trusted harvesters from selected locations in the region and began sourcing civet cat coffee beans from the wild, leaving the animals free to roam in their natural environment.

“The animal, the civet, they do not consume the berries as their primary meal,” Lew says. “The berry in the sense is a dessert for them, so they would eat all the other fruits.”

He says that after ingestion, only a small proportion of the dung will be coffee berries.

Civet cats are known to be selective, looking for the ripest and best quality of coffee berries.

The animal eats the berries and its body naturally extracts the flesh for nutrients, leaving the beans intact during excretion.

The beans would have undergone an enzymatic action at an optimal temperature, which triggers natural reactions to enhance the chemical composition.

Investing in a high integrity product

Lew understands the difficulty of this job. For some it’s considered “dirty”, so he ensures that the harvesters are given good incentives to collect the coffee.

“On a good day, they [the harvesters] can collect the end product, nine to 10 kilograms in a day,” he says. “The volume is very small. Even if you can collect 100kg [of droppings], only a small proportion of that would be coffee beans,” he says.

The demand for Cluwak’s kopi luwak is growing and he has set up a storage facility in the area. Without revealing the fee he pays the harvesters, he says he is pleased that he is able to give the local workers a decent income for a good lifestyle in the surrounding areas.

The work is tough, as after collection the workers have to pick through the “stuff” to get the beans.

“That is why people doing the job, they need to have great willingness to get their hands dirty.”

The beans are then crumbled and separated from the other residues via high-pressured chlorinated and iodine solutions, and go through a washing process before sorting and drying. Drying is a vital process and done under natural sunlight.

“If the rate of moisture extraction is too fast, the green coffee bean texture would become brittle and would result in cracked beans.

“On the other hand, if the moisture extraction is too slow, it may result in undesirable fermentation. It may take up to two weeks for kopi luwak beans to get the optimal moisture content of about 11%, depending on the climatic conditions,” according to information from Cluwak Coffee’s site.

During sorting, the beans are screened for shape, size, density and undesirable residues. Only perfectly shaped beans are collected. The separation of defective beans happens after this, where trained eyes are skilled to find the right coloured green coffee beans.

Cluwak Coffee roasts its civet coffee beans in an unconventional phased processed between 255 and 277 degrees Celsius. This temperature allows natural oils and sugar to be triggered optimally.

The harvesting process is seasonal and at times Cluwak Coffee will have to wait two to three months before they can replenish their supply. This is all part and parcel of wild “farming” when you rely on nature and the civet cat’s natural behaviour.

Lew notes that the whole process from sourcing to roasting is not only labour intensive but needs a strong and trusted relationship with the harvesters, making it a premium product.

Cluwak Coffee believes investing to ensure integrity in the entire process, and the production is ethical while supporting Sumatran farmers.

“It’s a win-win, stick to the quality and stick to the genuine aspect of the beans and that’s my philosophy and that’s Cluwak,” Lew adds.

If you are interested in Cluwak Coffee, you can order online here.