Cat-butt coffee: A critical review

Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world. At my local specialty coffee bean store, it sells for $420 per pound—or $10 for a 10 oz. brewed cup.

Kopi Luwak is very different from that cheap, gauche coffee you and I drink every day. This is because each hand-harvested bean of Kopi Luwak has been artisanally shat out of the digestive system of a small Indonesian pseudo-cat.

Yesterday, my husband and I split a cup of Kopi Luwak in an attempt to figure out whether having cat butt all over your coffee beans really did noticeably improve the flavor, or whether this was all just an elaborate practical joke on the part of Indonesian farmers.

The Asian Palm Civet is not really a cat, per se. It's a viverrid, a family of animals not found in North America. Viverrids belong to the same suborder as cats, so they are related. But, if you're not from Asian or African tropics, these animals will probably look a little weird to you. Imagine what might happen if the bastard love child of a ferret and a lemur had babies with your house cat. That's an Asian Palm Civet.

And Asian Palm Civets, as it turns out, really like to eat the fruits off of coffee plants. Although the civet can digest the fruit itself, the same can not be said for the bean at the center. Coffee beans pass through the civet whole. But they don't leave unchanged. Enzymes in the civet digestive tract break down proteins in the coffee beans. We know this because researchers at the University of Guelph actually did a detailed analysis in 2002, comparing Kopi Luwak and normal Columbian coffee beans. (You will be pleased to note that the same study confirmed that Kopi Luwak is safe to drink.)

Civets poop out coffee beans. This can happen on farms, or in the wild. Either way, once the pooping is done, somebody comes along to harvest the "processed" beans, cleans them, and roasts them. And then you have Kopi Luwak.

Here are the two things you need to know about the taste of Kopi Luwak:

• There is a difference in flavor. Kopi Luwak is noticeably not bitter. Swallow a sip, and it's like you just drank some water. There's no sting or heavy flavor left in the back of your throat. That makes sense. Proteins are part of what is responsible for the bitterness of coffee. Kopi Luwak beans have fewer whole proteins than normal beans. So they're less bitter, but still taste good. As my husband put it, "Everything that is wrong with cheap gas station coffee is right about this."

• That difference is totally not worth the price. Again, to quote my husband, "If I were a Russian oligarch or an investment banker or something, and $420 a pound represented a much smaller amount of my time worked, I'd probably drink this. As it is, not worth it."*

Cat-butt coffee: The coffee of the 1%?

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that Kopi Luwak originated during Dutch colonization of Indonesia, when Indonesians were banned from drinking any of the coffee they worked to grow and harvest. Instead, they gathered beans from civet poop and brewed that. And they talked about how great this cat-butt coffee was. Eventually, the Dutch colonists got curious, tried it for themselves, and then pretty much took it over. That's how Kopi Luwak became a luxury item. It's been expensive since the 19th century.

Of course, that history also lends a little more evidence to the theory that, somewhere, Indonesian farmers are having a good, long chuckle.

• • • •

Read more about Kopi Luwak in a 2010 New York Times story.

If you'd like a smoother brew at a more reasonable price, I'd recommend the Aerobie AeroPress. It's $30, makes a damn fine cup of coffee, and does not contain any cat butt.

Image: Kopi Luwak, Kaffee, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ohallmann's photostream