Part 1: Bali
Imagine the last time you grumbled when you forked over 16 bucks for a pound of artisan coffee. Now imagine paying between 100 and 600 dollars for the same amount of Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee.
Still can’t make the connection between cats and caffeine? The description of Kopi Luwak, which seems to be found universally in any cafe that carries it, says:
“The rarest beverage in the world, Kopi Luwak (or civet coffee) is coffee made from coffee cherries which have been eaten by and passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus). After collected ,the beans are processed hygienically, and given only a medium roast so as not to destroy the complex flavors developed through the process. This Kopi Luwak process takes place only on the islands of Bali, Sumatra, and Salawesi in the Indonesian Archipelago, producing no more than 300 kg per year to be distributed throughout the world.”
If you managed to get past the rarity of this particular coffee, it might start to sink in that yes, you’re paying 300-something bucks for animal droppings. But think about it– cow manure is really only digested grass, isn’t it? Similarly, civets are mostly herbivorous, subsiding on a diet of berries, pulpy fruit, and insects.
Having an Indonesian-Chinese family friend who owns a Balinese cafe in Shanghai, I was blessed enough to have constant access to excellent coffee (not to mention civet coffee) throughout the trip. Budi was so nice to me, he even took me to see where the magic happens: Kopi Bali’s processing plant.
Kopi Bali is a Fair Trade haven: even though they now have fancy machinery that they didn’t when the business was first started in the 1930s, they still have workers handpick which beans are the “good ones” simply because they’ve had the same workers in the factory for decades.
When we first arrived at the plant, my first thought was, What kind of a factory is this? From the outside, it looked like a bright, spacious courtyard with smallish rooms for drinking coffee. In addition to the caged civet, there were coffee trees on display, both Robusta and Arabica.
(In case you didn’t know, Arabica has a lower caffeine content but better flavor. Most “good” coffee is mostly, if not 100% Arabica. Robusta has more caffeine, but it also yields more crema for espresso, which is why you get coffees that are a blend of the two).
Before we were given a tour of the roasting works by the cutest barista ever, Vivi. Before the tour, I was under the impression that Robusta and Arabica were the only types of coffee. I found out that no, there actually exists a third coffee cherry variety, Peaberry. Now, all I learned in Bali was that Peaberry tastes the best, but according to Wikipedia,
“Normally the fruit of the coffee plant develops as two halves of a bean within a single cherry, but sometimes only one of the two seeds gets fertilized so there is nothing to flatten it. This oval (or pea-shaped) bean is known as Peaberry. Typically around 5% of all coffee beans harvested are of this form. Peaberry beans are widely reputed to roast better than flat berries, being said to roast more evenly, because of their rounder shape minimizes sharp edges, and rolls about the roasting chamber more easily, as well as the alleged higher bean density may improve heat transfer in the roasting process.”
Before we went into the actual roasting works, we were also shown what Kopi Luwak looks like in its original form… that is, what it looks like as pure animal droppings. I think everyone was relieved to hear that the beans are first picked out and cleaned as opposed to roasted directly. The beans on the right are Kopi Luwak post-cleaning.
Next, the coffee warehouses. Apparently before coffee beans are roasted, they have to sit in storage. We saw all different kinds of beans: Arabica, Robusta, Peaberry, and Organic and civet versions of each.
Having never seen a coffee roasting plant of any kind, my head was spinning as I oggled the various machines. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to have a coffee tasting.
Tasting espresso is very similar to a wine tasting, because if you were to actually drink everything you tasted, I don’t think your nervous system would be able to take it. Obviously, you waste huge amounts, but as Vivi got to work pulling shot after shot, she didn’t seem to be worried about that.
At this point, I can’t even remember all the coffee we tried. The majority of it was Luwak, some peaberry and some not. Interestingly, when I said that I found the peaberry too acidic, Vivi remade the shot. It didn’t even taste like the same coffee! Any sour notes had completely disappeared. As it turned out, all she had done was adjust the grinder by one notch. From what I can remember, my favorite coffee was just an organic Robusta. In terms of the difference between organic and non-organic beans, Vivi explained (and we could taste) that organic coffee has a slightly “brighter” taste.
As more and more espresso cups accumulated on the small table, I found myself in a coffee trance. Vivi showed me her espresso manual, an Australian book written by John Doyle.
(Side note: I ended up ordering the book. Maybe they don’t get too many orders, because Doyle himself signed it “to Lida: Good luck on your coffee adventures!” and gave me the coolest portafilter keychain)
When I asked her about latte art, we decided to try practicing a little. First, the tamp: Vivi’s tamp was unbelievably even. She didn’t even use a timer, pulling the shots directly into espresso mugs. After a few failed milk-pouring attempts, I managed to make an ugly mutant heart with Vivi’s hand guiding my wrist.
Also, this was only Kopi Bali’s roasting plant. Kopi Bali also has an actual cafe that serves both food and coffee. Of course, it’s not as though Luwak is the default coffee they use; you have to specially order a pot of it. Unlike at the roasting plant, we didn’t drink the civet coffee as espresso. Instead, we had to wait for it to heat up.
Finally, I also drank Kopi Bali at our friend Budi’s cafe in Shanghai. Budi told me that if I ever open a cafe, I absolutely have to have my own roaster.
The problem is (I also discuss this in my next post), how do you drink something that you know costs a hundred dollars per pound? Similar to drinking a 300 dollar bottle of wine, it’s impossible to drink it unbiased.
To be continued: Kopi Luwak in the U.S.!