Is civet coffee worth the price?

A civet involved in the production of kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Superlatively expensive, kopi luwak coffee is famously prepared for roasting by passage through a civet cat. Have you ever tried a food with a legendary reputation, and was it up to snuff?

‘Coffee people’ are not like the rest of us. I mean I’m a fan of a decent cup but the kind of people I meet who run the new independent coffee shops, the roasters and champion baristas, they’re, well, intense. You might imagine the starey-eyed evangelism comes from drinking too much of their own product, but if you’re brave enough to enter conversation you quickly work out that they’re actually just extremely committed to the thing they love … and keen to share.

I first met Reiss Gunson a couple of years ago after I’d written a piece on domestic coffee makers for the Guardian. He turned up unannounced on my doorstep late one night with a grinder and a big box of beans and proceeded to demonstrate, in quite some detail, where I was going wrong. Reiss is a ‘coffee person’ par excellence. He takes coffee so seriously that he roasts and blends beans to order for individual customers, so when he asks me to try something I do. Even, as is the case this morning, when it’s been picked out of cat shit.

Kopi luwak is variously marketed as ‘cat-poo coffee’ or occasionally ‘the most expensive coffee in the world’. The reason it’s so costly is that, rather than harvesting the coffee fruit (known as ‘cherries’) and extracting the bean by the usual methods, some Sumatran villagers collect the faeces of the civet cats which live on the plantations and pick out the beans. (I don’t know, since you ask … tweezers? Some sort of sieve? For all I know they just use their fingers).

It’s said that the beans taste better either because of something that happens to them inside the cat, or possibly because the clever little beasts pick only the finest and ripest of fruit. Either way, only about half a tonne is produced each year and the headlines just write themselves.

Which, in a way, is rather the problem. As a rare and luxury product with great story attached, kopi luwak – ‘a great gift for the foodie who has everything’ – tends to get packed into tiny little sachets, stored for ages and sold as a gimmicky gift and is as a result almost guaranteed to taste – well to be brutal, a bit like shit. Worse, according to industry gossip, up to 40% of the product sold as genuine kopi luwak is nothing of the sort. (We have to hope that any such sharp practice involves the passing off of regular coffee rather than passed beans through an inauthentic animal).

It would be easy to conclude that kopi luwak was just another of the world’s great ‘stunt eating’ experiences. Great for gross-out stories, an opportunity for TV presenters to make gurning faces and poo jokes, but Reiss, ‘coffee person’ to the end, wasn’t going to let that pass without trying me on the real stuff.

Kopi luwak producers have recently begun to set their little gatherers loose on Arabica rather than Robusta beans. This is a much better flavoured variety. With this as a starting point Reiss roasts batches specifically for the brewing method you’re going to use (again, since you ask, it’s still a Rancilio ‘Miss Silvia’ espresso machine souped up with a PID controller and a bottomless triple basket). As the beans mature and then begin to deteriorate after roasting, each bag is dated with a week long ‘window’ for consumption. My bag was intended for opening this morning, coincidentally, my birthday. If cat-shit coffee is ever going to taste good, today is the day.

I was up early this morning – frankly buzzing with expectation. I cut open the foil pouch and took a good deep sniff. It would have been idiotic to expect anything that had been roasted at such a high temperature to retain any fecal honk – in fact it just had a delicious fruity whiff from which, if I was truly pretentious, I should probably try to define the individual subspecies. That said, having absolutely no idea of the diet of a Sumatran moggie or any of the flora of the area, it would be fairly irrelevant.

To be a bit technical, the coffee brews faster than my regular blend on the same grind and produces a less oily shot with a pink tint to the crema. On first taste it’s pretty fantastic with all of the higher notes you tend to get with a well-roasted bespoke coffee (regular civilian drinkers, myself included, seem to see coffee in terms of big, bassy low-end flavours and smells. Coffee people seem to seek the distinctions in the lighter, more evanescent notes) but the defining characteristic is a lovely, long, subtly nutty aftertaste that looks like it’s going to carry on right through to the bacon sandwich I’m lining up as breakfast.

Will kopi luwak replace my regular blend? Yeah, right! On what I get paid it’s going to be many many more birthdays before I can afford another pouch of this stuff. Of course I love the idea that it’s been through a cat, what food lover wouldn’t? And tonight I’m going to serve it to some food geek dinner guests with genuine delight.

Is it the best coffee in the world? I’m nowhere near enough of a connoisseur to be able to tell you. What I can say is that most of the reviews I’ve read of kopi luwak have been from disappointed people who’ve been sold a gimmick. If you ever get that chance to try the real thing it definitely rewards the effort.

I’d heard a lot about kopi luwak and tried quite a few bum lots before today, so it’s a pleasure to finally discover that it actually deserves its reputation. But have you ever had the chance to try one of those legendary foods with a great story behind it? Did it live up to your expectations?

Posted by: Tim Hayward –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *