One of Bali’s most expensive exports will run you up to $400 for a pound. No, it’s not drugs, well, sort of. It’s the coffee beans known as Kopi Luwak. These beans are revered by a devoted following, despised with a passion by the competition, and rated unspectacularly average by world wide coffee critics. So why is there a sustainable and established market for coffee that costs 20x your typical bag? Just as elegant French labels can add significant value to wine, the Kopi Luwak comes with an exotic and bizarre story worth the premium.
You don’t want to know, but you do because that’s where the value is:
These beans have been partially digested by the Luwak, a close relative to the mongoose known as a Civet Cat. Luwaks supposedly will only select the very best beans to eat from the local coffee plants. Their stomachs digest only the skins, leaving the whole coffee beans to ferment for roughly 12 hours before being “returned”.
On this particular farm in Ubud, Bali, the Luwaks live free in their natural habitat on roughly a hectare. Balinese farmers walk around the woods collecting Luwak droppings from the forest floor. After cleaning the beans, the workers sort out by hand the black ones which move into further processing.
The winners are hand roasted just a pound at a time in what looks like a stir fry pan. Some beans are packaged whole and the rest are ground, again by hand, with a mortar and pestle. (remember, in Bali, manual labor is cheaper than electricity).
The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), among others, is at odds with the Luwak product actively claiming that the process is a sensationalist scam and that the finished product is mediocre at best. Whether or not these claims are worth anything, it’s clear that the competition is bitterly jealous of Kopi Luwak’s marketing success.
After trying it myself, I was unimpressed, but that could be due to their brewing (non)method. They basically pound it to a fine powder and put it in hot water. I’m sure it would have been much better if a barista got their hands on it. Other than that, its basically smooth and mild.
Jack Nicholson drank it in The Bucket List and Oprah mentioned it a few times.
The pop culture references in the last 5 to 10 years regarding Kopi Luwak caused an explosion in popularity which led to a huge increase in price and counterfeiters.
I researched 1lb bags listed on Amazon and saw enormous differences in price. It’s highly likely that most Kopi Luwak you see advertised is not the authentic product considering it sells for such a high premium and is difficult to impossible to authenticate. It’s well known that far more Kopi Luwak is sold than is produced.
Why would anyone think to invent this type of coffee?
The story is that Kopi Luwak was discovered by resourceful native plantation workers whose only access to coffee beans were in the Luwak droppings. After washing, roasting, and brewing the beans the natives discovered that they liked the unique flavor. After the Dutch took notice they jumped on the opportunity to package it for world wide sale as a premium, exotic, and unusual coffee drink. The more satisfying theory is that this was all a prank by the farmers on their plantation owners.
While I’d like to think that this laborious process would produce a Macalllen 25 caliber cup of coffee, in the end it’s really worth far more as a story than it is as an actual cup of Joe.