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Part 2: Chicago

Sometimes it takes a time delay and a gap of 12511 miles to appreciate something like Kopi Luwak.  Being in Bali, drinking it regularly (we were traveling with a coffee affectionado if I’d ever seen one), it was hard to think of it a magical elixir. I never had to pay for it myself, never had it in possession outside of the cafes where we drank it. But after I was presented with three tiny pouches of coffee beans, each enough to serve two, I started getting jittery– and I wasn’t even caffeinated yet! Like something buying an illicit substance for the first time, I just didn’t know what to do with it. Those three miniscule bags– that was at least 50 bucks right there! I was told to keep them in the fridge until I got back to the states, so I did. My packing checklist went something like: clothes, books, shoes… Luwak.

But what was I going to do with this precious coffee? First of all, who would be worthy to share it with? I really don’t mean to sound pretentious, but who would love coffee so much that they would be willing to drink it in the form of animal droppings? Second, how would I prepare it? My espresso machine and I are in the midst of an ongoing battle– it just refuses to coorporate!

(Barista tangent: It takes 8-10 seconds for the espresso flow to start, but once the shots start pulling, the glasses are full in 20 seconds. The crema is way too thin, so it has no body at all. The grinder is on the finest setting. Help!)

In the end, I gave one pouch to my friends (aka former bosses) at Z&H. They put it in their safe, and are no doubt in the same boat as me, unsure when to drink it. The second pouch I knew I would drink with my friend Robert, a coffee lover and one of the most open-minded people I know. However, while I’m mainly an espresso drinker, Robert loves slow drip varietal coffee, the kind you brew in a Chemex or Clover. I generally prefer my caffeine in ultra-concentrated form and find a lot of slow drip coffee super acidic (I avoid any coffee that the word “citrus” in its flavor profile).

But after struggling with the espresso machine and taking into consideration all the things that could go wrong if we used it, we decided to make our Luwak in Robert’s Chemex.

“Okay, I’m opening the pouch.” There was a definitely an unspoken “Here goes” as I poured the beans into the grinder and the smell of coffee filled the air, strong enough to make my nose hairs stand on end. The problem was that we had to use makeshift filters. After gently pouring boiling water over the coffee grounds, it started dripping, more red than brown. That was when the grounds fell straight through the filter. Robert and I looked at each other.

“Maybe it’ll be like Turkish coffee,” I suggested.

The next question was where to drink the Luwak. How about on a stark white table overlooking Lake Michigan? As for what to drink it in, it seemed fitting to use the cups we bought at Kopi Bali.

After we had each been served a small cup, we toasted silently. I took a sip. My initial feeling was one of disappointment. “Oh, god, it’s too watery!” I exclaimed.

Robert didn’t say anything. I saw him drink. His eyes widened. “Wow. WOW. Take another slip and drink slowly.”

So I did, letting the coffee linger on my tongue before I swallowed. I realized that I was too accustomed to drinking espresso, to being so impatient that I needed all the flavors to hit me at once. As I sipped the Luwak, I noticed that it had a numbing effect on my tongue, similar to after you eat Sichuan peppercorns. When I swallowed, the coffee left behind a slight tartness i my throat, but it was mellow, not acidic.

“This is… no ordinary coffee,” Robert said slowly. “Has there been research done into whether or not this has other side effects?”

I didn’t know, but as I poured myself another cup, I knew we were both feeling something. There was no caffeine buzz, only a slow, illuminating sensation that the room was becoming clearer and its shapes more defined. I felt relaxed but also energetic, and in the mood to do something creative (like turn the experience into a post, for instance).

There was only a little bit left now. “Do you want to finish it?” I asked Robert.

He shook his head, still looking around the room in awe. “You finish it. I can’t.”

Was it the coffee itself, or just the atmosphere that was making us feel so drugged? The combination of the sun over the lake, the tranquility of the living room, and the Balinese coffee cups… All I knew was, Robert was right: Luwak could never be drunk every day. It’s not a beverage– it’s an experience.

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