It’s funny how some urban legends just catch on and become mainstream truths.
You have probably heard some of them before:
- Ostriches bury their head in the sand when scared
- Einstein failed math in high school
- Bulls are enraged when seeing the color red
Of course, none of these are true. If ostriches bury their head in the sand, they would either die of asphyxiation or get eaten by predators. Soon the species would be extinct.
Upon closer examination, none of these claims make any sense whatsoever. Still, myths like these persist.
The same is also true in the realm of coffee. In fact, there are many widespread myths and misbeliefs.
But there is one idea that is so widespread and long-lasting that no manner of debunking seems to work. It is the myth that kopi luwak, also known as civet coffee, is the best/most expensive coffee in the world. This legendary coffee derives its name from the use of partly-digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. It is said that this partial digestion renders the beans exceptionally smooth.
I can’t count how many times people have asked me about my opinion of kopi luwak. Once, I was even invited to go on a TV show to drink and talk about kopi luwak.
It’s counterintuitive to think that any food or beverage would taste better after being mixed with – ahem – shit. Why would coffee be any different? Still, the kopi luwak hype persists. This is my attempt to set the record straight.
The Kopi Luwak origins
To understand how kopi luwak came to prominence we need to take a brief historical detour. Back in the 1600’s the coffee market was very different from today. One of the most prominent sources of coffee was the Dutch East Indies – a group of islands that is today known as Indonesia.
Indonesia was the first country, besides Ethiopia and Yemen, where coffee was grown on a large scale. At one point the Indonesian island of Java became almost synonymous with coffee in Europe.
But by 1830, the Dutch had created a more strict set of rules governing agriculture in the colony. This meant that the native farmers, who were already accustomed to drinking coffee, were suddenly no longer allowed to pick any beans for their own use.
Somehow these caffeine-craving farm workers discovered that a small cat-like animal known as the ‘luwak’ ate the coffee cherries and passed the seeds without digesting them. The Dutch never mentioned anything about collecting dung. It didn’t take long before the workers began collecting, roasting and brewing these defecated beans.
The ‘processing argument’
Back then coffee picking standards and processing weren’t anywhere close to those of today. When picking coffee, it’s critical to only go for cherries that are perfectly ripe. As with any other fruit, this ensures that the sugar level is at its peak.
Animals prefer ripe fruits so there is something to suggest that the palm civet, as it’s called in English, might have been more selective than the laborers at the Dutch-owned estates.
Coffee processing, in its essence, is all about stripping away the fruit while avoiding the development of mold. Strictly speaking, 30 hours in the stomach of an animal would do precisely that.
It is possible that this combination of carefully selected cherries and efficient processing made the coffee superior to anything available back then. However, it’s worth remembering that the general standard of processing wasn’t anywhere close to those that are employed by specialty coffee producers today.
The marketing begins
One of the first rules of marketing is to turn a thing that can be perceived as a fault into a feature. This is precisely what happened next.
Kopi Luwak, meaning ‘civet coffee’ in Indonesian quickly gained attention from the colonial overlords. The idea spread that the coffee was somehow ‘smoother’ than regular coffee.
Due to the somewhat limited supply of Kopi Luwak, high prices could be fetched when it was exported. Still, this kind of coffee wasn’t big business, and when large-scale commercial coffee production took off other places besides Indonesia, interest in kopi luwak slowly faded.
But then in 2007 something crucial happened: Kopi Luwak was mentioned in the movie The Bucket List featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.
(You can embed this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVJqwCdzZnw )
The interest once again soared, and businesses were quick to exploit the craze. Suddenly, a bunch of coffees in South East Asia had a Kopi Luwak stamp on their packaging even though they had never been anywhere near cat poop. With a bit of marketing, a subpar robusta bean could be sold at a premium many times higher than before to gullible tourists who believed that they had bought the ‘best coffee’ in the world.
But that wasn’t the worst part. It turned out that some farmers in poor coffee producing Asian countries suddenly began capturing civets to force feed them the cherries. Civets are omnivores and eat a wide variety of fruits and insects. It goes without saying that coffee cherries shouldn’t make up the majority of their diet as caffeine affects animals the same way as humans. This way of producing coffee is not just stupid; it’s also outright animal cruelty.
Don’t compare oranges and apple pies
When you hear “kopi luwak is the best coffee in the world” this refers to a particular kind of processing and not a specific botanical variety of bean.
In South East Asia, where most Luwak coffee comes from, you can find a wide range of coffee species – from high-quality arabica to low-grade robusta – grown at different altitudes. Though processing is an integral part of creating delicious coffee, these other factors are equally important.
Kopi Luwak is at best below average
Cat poop coffee, it seems, is merely a colorful marketing ploy. Still, wouldn’t it be fun to see how this kind of coffee compares against the other types?
This is precisely what I have done in my article about the best coffee in the world. In that piece, I try to study coffee based on statistics. What I found is that Kopi Luwak is actually of a lower quality than the average specialty coffee
So, how come this myth still persists? Well, for the same reason that Kopi Luwak made it into a movie in the first place. It’s the definition of clickbait. It’s too much fun to not mention at the water cooler or to share on your favorite social media.
Just remember, it’s not that much different from the stories about Einstein and ostriches.
BIO: Asser Christensen is a Danish journalist and coffee expert. His work has been published in Sprudge, The Perfect Daily Grind, and a range of newspapers and magazines in his native country. He is also the founder and editor of the most influential coffee publication in Denmark, Hipsterkaffe. Recently, he has started to blog in English under the moniker ‘The Coffee Chronicler.’