Independent of the accuracy of this story, this coffee, known as Kopi Luwak (kopi =coffee, luwak = the civet), has become a coffee phenomenon. Its rarity and consequently exorbitant price has made it a product often talked about and sold in high-end markets.
Though, due to its price, few people have probably tried it.
Reactions to the idea of Kopi Luwak are wide ranging, as you might imagine. Few people are keen on the idea of consuming anything that successfully passed through an animal. Yet, others think the quality is significantly different and the social cache, certainly, can’t be disregarded. Most members of the specialty coffee community are vehemently against the coffee for its idea and its taste. As one notable industry expert once said, “Kopi Luwak is coffee from assholes for assholes.”
Independent of public opinion, there’s more reason to ponder the source of the beans.
While the initial offerings of the coffee certainly came from the droppings of wild animals, the dollar signs and popularity led more than a few proprietors to start keeping civets in cages and feeding them almost exclusively coffee cherries. While this isn’t very different from the way some chickens and cows are raised in the United States, it struck a chord with consumers and became a lively news story for several weeks. Perhaps the idea of an expensive luxury item coming from caged animals was simply too unsavory.
The real question is whether Kopi Luwak is actually different than coffee processed in a more traditional manner. Does the trip through the gastrointestinal track actually modify the seeds in a noticeable way, whether chemically or organoleptically? Fortunately, several researchers have addressed this question and all have come to the same conclusion. Yes.
All the reports I read demonstrated that Kopi Luwak coffee is chemically different than normal coffee. Most of the time, this was demonstrated by measuring the composition of the volatile compounds of roasted coffee, though some research looked at a variety of other physical and chemical markers instead. In addition, two studies concluded that the taste of the Kopi Luwak was different than normal coffee.
While this all sounds very exciting, the researchers, unfortunately, were faced with some challenges that I’m not sure they were aware of and their data, though interesting, may not be as conclusive as anyone would like. A critical step in doing any experiment is to hold all variables constant except the one in which you are interested. In not a single study was this done. None of them were able to take the coffee from a single tree—even a single farm—and ensure it was processed normally and via civet. Instead, they acquired commercially available samples or samples from within a region. As we learned in the previous section, just about any history or process can influence the chemical composition of coffees, especially the volatiles. We have no way of knowing whether the differences they found were from the actual processing or from any number of things such as genetic make-up, fertilizing regime, storage conditions, or age.
The challenge of acquiring perfect samples is immense, for certain. Without using a caged civet, it would be impossible to get proper samples. Their efforts should be commended, but the data should be taken with a healthy dose of wariness. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of the data that push me to think there is an actual chemical difference between Kopi Luwak and normally processed coffees.
This applies, too, to the quality assessment of the coffees. Actually, those results are even more difficult to accept as the quality of the sensory analysis leaves quite a lot to be desired.
Independent of whether the coffee is truly different, there is plenty of room for consideration of the animal welfare issues and whether or not any coffee is worth such a high price tag. Like all things coffee, though, it is up to the consumer to decide and nobody else!
Civets are small, nocturnal mammals native to tropical Asia and Africa. They are not true cats, but the civet family is related to the cat family.
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