These days a trip down the coffee aisle of your favourite store can mean walking into a whole world of options: organic blends raised with environmentally friendly farming methods, beans from exotic locations, speciality harvests, and in some locations local brands and farmers. All of these options make for a lot of exciting opportunity to experiment with different flavours and sources of coffee, but some of them can also pack a bit of sticker shock.
High end brands, or organic coffee, can often come with a pretty hefty price tag. Yet while most consumers might be taken aback at the idea of paying £15 or more for a pound of coffee, there is a type of bean which makes even the most expensive organic brand at your local supermarket look like a bargain basement discount. This particular bean can cost as much as £350 per pound! So why would anyone pay that much for some coffee?
The Somewhat Unpleasant Origins of the World’s Most Expensive Coffee Bean
In the jungles of Southeast Asia, a creature known as the Asian Palm Civet is the source of the world’s most expensive and sought after coffee bean. The civet is a cat like creature native to Southeast Asia, which can be found in the trees and jungles. As part of their natural diet, civet cats seek out ripe and fresh coffee cherries from naturally growing coffee plants.
Seeking out the freshest and highest quality coffee cherries, the civets eat small quantities of coffee cherries for their nutritional value. So how does this help eager connoisseurs get a better cup of coffee? Well, it turns out that the world’s most expensive coffee bean is not for the queasy: the reason it is so highly sought after is because these beans have been passed through the digestive tract of the civet cat!
The name given to these beans after they have been excreted by the civet cats is Kopi Luwak. Harvested from the dropping of the civet cats, Kopi Luwak possesses a unique flavour lent to it by its journey through the civet cat’s digestive system. Even though the process might seem disgusting, the results seem to speak for themselves: Kopi Luwak is widely regarded as one of the most delicious and desirable blends of coffee. This desirability, combined with the complexities of harvesting Kopi Luwak, have made it by far the most expensive coffee bean.
Why All The Hype Around The Kopi Luwak?
The question you are probably asking yourself now is why anyone in their right mind pay upwards of £350 for something which has already made its way through an animals digestive system. But as it turns out, there are several facets which lend to Kopi Luwak being altogether much more valuable after its encounter with the civet cat.
Firstly, civet cats in the wild are assumed to select only the best coffee beans for eating. This provides an incredible bean by bean selection process which truly selects the finest beans: far better service than any coffee farm could provide! Since only the very, very finest beans are consumed by the civet cat, once the Kopi Luwak is harvested it can be assured that no sub-standard beans have made their way into a customers batch.
Of course, the process of being digested by a civet cat is also vital to the final product. Aside from selecting the finest beans, the civet cats also do a bit of chemistry on the beans as they move through their digestive tract. The civet cat feasts on the coffee cherry, which contains a fleshy lair surrounding the coffee bean. The fleshy part of the cherry is digested by the civet cat, but the coffee bean within is relatively unaffected.
Enzymes within the civet cat’s digestive system do act on the coffee bean, making it less acidic, removing a small amount of caffeine, and stripping away a bit of protein. The result is a highly aromatic coffee bean, with a smooth taste and one of the least bitter coffees anywhere.
Kopi Luwak – A Rare Bean Indeed
Traditionally Kopi Luwak beans were harvested from the droppings of wild civet cats in their native habitat. This means that the process of acquiring Kopi Luwak is utterly unlike any other form of coffee farming.
Far from farming at all, it more resembles a hunt, carefully tracking animals and watching for their droppings. The faeces of the civet cat must be collected in large quantities, and is only likely to contain coffee beans in certain seasons. Once the faeces has been collected, it must be further washed, dried, de-skinned and eventually roasted before becoming ready for sale.
Labour intensive, rare, and potentially unreliable in sourcing, every part of making Kopi Luwak is a challenge!
Kopi Luwak Farming and Civet Cruelty
Looking to capitalise on the high price and popular demand for Kopi Luwak, some unscrupulous farmers have taken it upon themselves to keep civets in cages on farms in the hopes of having their own ready source of Kopi Luwak. This practice brings with it serious concerns about the welfare of the animal and the ethics of the practice: civet cats normally inhabit large ranges of jungle and do not adapt well to life in confinement.
Civet cats are omnivorous and in the wild their diet consists of a wide range of foods, with coffee cherries often only making up a small part of their diet. In captivity, farmers often feed their civets coffee cherries to the exclusion of other foods in the hopes of getting higher Kopi Luwak yield.
Forcing civets to consume coffee cherries as a primary part of their diet can bring with it dire consequences for the health of the animal, and also has a negative impact on the quality of the Kopi Luwak. Unable to select freely from entire forests of coffee cherries as a rare treat, civet cats are unable to perform their rigorous selection process for each cherry when they are forced to rely on the coffee cherry as a primary food source.
This inability to be as selective, combined with the poor health of civets kept in confinement (in often cruel and unsuitable conditions,) leads to farm produced Kopi Luwak being of substantially inferior quality to traditionally harvested wild Kopi Luwak.
Do Your Homework
If you’re thinking of trying out some Kopi Luwak, be very careful before you rush off to buy some online or even at a store. As it turns out, a huge quantity of Kopi Luwak on the market – most of it, in fact – is likely to be completely fake, containing little or no actual Kopi Luwak in the blend. Worse, it may have been sourced from farmer’s subjecting civet cats to cruel conditions for their own gain.
Make sure you investigate your sources and be careful before diving in! Real Kopi Luwak is rare, expensive, and can be exceptionally difficult to source. But if you get a chance to try out the real stuff – don’t worry about civet faeces – give it a go.