San Felipe, Baja, Mexico




Nine thousand three hundred and twenty one miles from San Felipe there’s a small mammal that looks like the love child of a raccoon and a fat fox. For many java lovers, the furry fundament of this beady-eyed critter is the official dispenser of the world’s finest and most exotic coffee. Kopi Luwak is the name of this magical product, kopi meaning coffee and luwak, the all-regional Indonesian name for the cat-like animal (Paradoxus hermaphroditus) that exercises a fondness for coffee beans. Ranging from four to eleven pounds and largely nocturnal, the luwak is also known as a luak, musang, toddy cat, civet, palm civet and civet-cat. Many people believe it is a wild cat. But it's actually a cousin of the mongoose. Probably the closest North American counterpart is the skunk, with which it shares the ability to excrete a noxious odor from scent glands near it’s anus.

The luwak uses its extremely sensitive button nose to ferret out only the ripest and most delectable coffee cherries (the bright red berries produced by coffee trees). During its nocturnal shopping along the arboreal aisles of coffee plantations, it will eat only a small fraction of the berries offered, leaving the inferior ones to less discrete consumers like Starbuck’s and Peet’s.

Canadian University of Guelph food scientist Massimo Marcone (the Indiana Jones of the comestible world) went to Indonesia to collect samples of kopi luwak beans with his own hands. He retired them to his laboratory, a CSI look-alike environment, where he proceeded to fingerprint proteins and search for chemical trails using gas and liquid chromatographers. Employing common coffee beans as exemplars, he was shocked to discover that the beans derived from the luwak scat hosted fewer bacteria than the control samples. Marcone’s studies supplied independent confirmation that kopi luwak undergoes physical and chemical changes as a result of digestion. They become harder and more brittle, with an extremely finely perforated outer surface, and have a lower protein content, theoretically resulting in a less-bitter cup.

In another study cited by a food research article, an "electronic nose analysis" was able to detect differences between kopi luwak and undigested coffees, which may help confirm a particular batch's authenticity.

Because of the faddish attention directed at it, kopi luwak beans tend to spike the retail charts at $150-$500 a pound. This attracts a lot of confidence men, who these days take up ethereal residence on the internet. Marcone, who has become a leading expert on kopi luwak, can examine the beans under an electron microscope and determine from its striations whether a civet excreted it or not. His investigations revealed that about 42% of the kopi luwak being sold as legitimate was completely fake or actual luwak beans adulterated with common coffee beans. Since a pound of civet droppings yields less than 5 ounces of beans and roasting reduces the quantity by an additional 20%, the quantity of harvested and processed kopi luwak is understandably modest. It's been assessed at a mere 500 to 1,000 pounds on the global market each year.

"Real kopi luwak has a top note of rich, dark chocolate, with secondary notes that are musty and earthy", Marcone said. "Other coffees, such as Jamaican Blue Mountain, may score better on official cupping tests that judge qualities such as aroma, taste and fragrance," he added, "But they don't come with quite the exotic cachet of civet brew." An Indonesian coffee lover described the scent as the smell of moist earth after a rainfall, with hints of vanilla that tease the palate for hours after the cup is empty.

The rarity of genuine kopi luwak will certainly grow as the civet populations decrease. In Indonesia, civets are struggling along with much of the country's wildlife to hold onto their habitat as human influences encroach. Farmers who scratch out a living harvesting pepper, cacao, coffee and rubber on an Indonesian mountainside do not view civet scat lying in the dirt and dead leaves as a bankable commodity. More aggressive civets will often raid a farmer's chickens. And because coffee is a seasonal crop, the animals will eat cacao, bananas, papaya and other fruits. Most Indonesians believe the only good civet is a dead civet.

"They're a farmer's enemy," said Ponirin Suparlan, 45, a barefoot farmer who earns $600 a year from rubber and coffee trees, and any civet droppings he finds. He would rather eat a civet than let it dine on his crops. "If I find one, I will surely kill it."

Villagers aren't sure how many wild civets are left, but the population is obviously shrinking because the dung is getting harder to find each year. Still, a small-time collector like Suparlan can earn about $3 a kilo, roughly twice as much as they get for regular coffee. It's a pittance compared to what foreign buyers earn, often after cutting it with regular coffee to boost their profits in places such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

In Indonesia, local lore reports that villagers who were forced to work on Dutch plantations centuries ago discovered that beans from civet droppings rendered a smooth cup of coffee. Since the workers were required to surrender everything they picked to their colonial masters, civet scat provided the only coffee they could scrounge for themselves. Today the coffee is reportedly enjoyed by the British royal family and a single cup can sell for $30 at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong.

This summer, rather than fly to a 5-star Hong Kong hotel, I purchased a hundred grams of kopi luwak from a website I found on the internet. I shopped around first, reading the endless guarantees and promises of authenticity and eventually stumbled onto a site that actually posted links to certificates, which I believed enhanced their legitimacy. Only later did I discover, upon closer examination of the documents (one of which was in the Malay language), that they were a business permit and a food testing result of the 'Filth & Extraneous Analysis' type. At best they proved that something was analyzed which the records described as Kopi Luwak.

The small bag of vacuum-sealed beans, which shipped out of Jakarta, took quite a while to reach its buyer but ultimately they arrived and that afternoon I stood reverently fondling them in front of the coffee grinder. I stood there for some time, reluctant to open the package. The psychological exotica attached to the beans nearly had me deliver them to a mahogany shadow box or some similar enshrinement. Then the notion was overwhelmed by the thought of a really good cup of coffee, a great cup of coffee, the best cup of coffee. ``It's the rarest beverage in the world", affirmed Mark Mountanos, president of southern California's coffee wholesaler M.P. Mountanos. Well, at least if it wasn't the best, it would be the most exclusive.

I scissored the edge off the bag, which immediately relaxed the interlocked beans and they fell into casual relationships, like a pocket full of wood beads. It suddenly occurred to me I had no idea how much I should grind for a four cup pot of coffee. So I went back to the internet, which was reluctant to supply any useful formulae. I found two references that were worlds apart.

  • Use finely ground beans. Place 1/2 teaspoon (2gm) coffee in a cup, pour boiling water over it, stir and allow to settle before drinking.
  • Give the beans a course grind and mix seven grams of coffee with four ounces of hot water in a cup.

Coffee, like any art or barber, is an entirely subjective experience. I reasoned that changing a car shouldn't require changing the road, so I used the same coffee grinder (after a good cleaning) and the same drip coffee maker.

I gathered a few friends to sample the end product. And here is where coffee can help lift the hem of the robe that veils our reality. The eyes and hearts that surround you usually out-vote your perceptions. In fact, they help create them.

Once they learned the dark secret of kopi luwak, my collaborators were unanimously derisive and mocking.

"It smells like a litter box," one of them commented.

"You sure these weren't harvested under a rabbit hutch?" said another, narrowly eying the remaining beans in the bag. And so on.

My first cup of kopi luwak was tainted by prejudice and resistance. It looked weak to me, tasted like hot water and smelled like shower steam. But the second cup was a different story.

About a week later I was visited by an old girlfriend and explained to her the coffee's peculiar pedigree. She was immediately interested and I ceremoniously prepared a small pot, adding more beans than my first attempt.

"It smells great," she remarked, holding her pretty nose a few inches above the cup. This surprised me. My first cup didn't impress my own nozzling analysis so I hung my neb over my own cup and was instantly rewarded with a humid, exotic bouquet. "It does, doesn't it?" I agreed.

We sat across from each other and used the cups to warm our hands as the coffee cooled a little. We talked about old times as I slowly filled with a fuzzy familiarity, remembering intimate evenings and low, whispered endearments. Her blue eyes followed my cup and the kopi luwak washed over my tongue like a satin celebration.

The second thing I noticed (the first was how little her blue eyes had changed) was its smoothness, its utter lack of acidity. Most coffee houses consider acidity a virtue and some of them smelt such ulcerous potions that they border on pure sainthood. The kopi luwak offered no hint of that kind of battery heritage. It was balanced, stylish and friendly.

The next thing I noticed was the intricacy of its flavor. There was something cosmopolitan about it, a wide yet select combination of savory influences. It had a heavy richness. If it had to be described in personal terms, the words gifted or talented come to mind.

My friend voiced a similar impression. We couldn't agree with Massimo Marcone's 'musty and earthy' description, but we definitely detected a hint of chocolate in its aroma. Coffee connoisseur Chris Rubin was reportedly impressed by its taste. "The aroma is rich and strong, and the coffee is incredibly full bodied, almost syrupy," he said. "It's thick with a hint of chocolate, and lingers on the tongue with a long, clean aftertaste. It's definitely one of the most interesting and unusual cups I've ever had."

My old girlfriend and I sat across the table from each other and indulged in the atmosphere. It was strong. It was complex. And there was definitely something syrupy about it.