What Is Kopi Luwak?

Drue Tibbits

Kopi luwak is a type of coffee. It is made from coffee beans that have been eaten and then excreted by the common palm civet. The coffee beans are subjected to a process inside the civet that partially prepares the beans. They can only be found in areas of Indonesia and the Philippines where both coffee plantations and the native civet are present. Considered to be the world’s most expensive coffee, these unusual beans are said to produce coffee with a smooth, chocolaty taste and very little bitterness.

A cup of coffee made with kopi luwak.
A cup of coffee made with kopi luwak.

The common palm civet is sometimes called a civet cat. It is not a cat but is a nocturnal carnivore native to parts of Asia. This mammal’s diet consists of insects, small animals, and fruit. Like many fruit-eating animals, it prefers fruit that has ripened. This leads the common palm civet to eat the fruit from the coffee tree — the coffee berries — that are ripe and ready for harvest.

Whole coffee beans.
Whole coffee beans.

Once the civet eats the coffee berries, they pass through the animal’s gastrointestinal tract. Digestive enzymes erode the outer layer of the berries, exposing the hard endocarp layer of the coffee beans. The digestive process also partially ferments the coffee beans. Eventually, the kopi luwak coffee beans are excreted in the civet’s droppings, where they are collected by local harvesters. The harvesters separate the coffee beans from the excrement, clean the beans, and remove the outer shell before roasting them.

Conventional coffee beans have a higher protein content than kopi luwak coffee beans. Proteins are one of the factors that affect a coffee’s bitterness. Coffee brewed from these beans also has less acidity than conventional coffee. The lower protein content, the less acidity, and the partially fermented state of the coffee beans produce the distinctive, smooth taste of kopi luwak coffee. This distinctive taste, along with the process by which the coffee beans are obtained, is what makes this coffee so expensive.

The need for the coffee beans to travel through the digestive system of common palm civets means it is highly unlikely this coffee will ever be able to be produced on a large scale commercially. Research has been done to try to reproduce this coffee using artificial means and by subjecting the beans to digestive enzymes. The experiments have so far not been able to reliably duplicate this coffee’s unique taste. The coffee is available locally in the areas where it is harvested and in some specialty coffee shops.

Common palm civets will eat coffee berries right off of the plant.
Common palm civets will eat coffee berries right off of the plant.

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