Luwak is the holy, if somewhat slightly smelly, grail for coffee snobs around the world. The beans of which the coffee is made from are harvested from the excrement of a rather large, lazy and unfriendly cat: the luwak. At the height of this trend in 2012, we visited one of the last traditional plantations in Bali to get to the truth of the brew.
Bali is the only place in the world where luwak coffee is omnipotent. Every hole-in-the-wall café with a rundown coffeemaker offers the stuff that connoisseurs in the western world would happily murder for. There are more tour guides to plantations than there are hookers in Amsterdam, but the real deal is surprisingly hard to find. Bali, and any other Indonesian island for that matter, have 'show plantations', places where caged, slightly depressed luwaks are being force fed inferior beans so that tourist can take snapshots and buy overpriced coffee. My Bali connection insists that I use one of his local drivers and visit a traditional producer in the heart of the island where an ancient family-run luwak plantation is well hidden deep in the jungle.
The driver is a 149kg-all-muscles and full body tattooed local who introduces himself as Dewa. This technically isn't a name, but a title belonging to the middle Hindu castes. Dewa is a warrior—and he certainly looks like one. He tells me he can't drive in the evening as he has sword fight obligations most nights. Dewa doesn't need many words. He prefers long silences over chatter, and his answers tend to be monosyllabic. A small tattoo on the soft flesh between his thumb and index finger indicates that he is part of a group called the Laskar widely considered the Bali peace keepers. Dewa and his palls, all of the same build, actually stormed the prison where they believed Amrozi bin Nurhasyim was held—one of the masterminds behind the 2002 Bali terrorist attack. The Laskar actually pushed down the outer prison wall with their bare hands to get in, only to find out that the terrorist had already been transferred to a Federal Prison. Probably a wise choice. When I ask Dewa about this he answers without taking his eyes off the road. “We just wanted to talk to him.”
The plantation I go to is located in a region called Kintimani and consists of a mountainous piece of jungle where coffee plants have been randomly placed in between the natural vegetation. The untrained observer wouldn’t even notice that this is farmland, but luwaks like their habitat rough. There's some java coffee plants, but the cats are snobby little consumers. They tend to go for arabica: good beans, if you can get ‘em.
One of the secrets behind luwak coffee is not just that their digestive system breaks the beans down nicely: it's the fact that luwaks are extremely picky about which beans they eat.
The owner of the plantation, Mr Par who is well in his sixties, explains: “I've been working with coffee all my life, I know the stuff. So when I handpick a kilo of the perfect beans, using all the knowledge that my forefathers passed on to me over the course of hundreds of years, you are left with a pretty decent kilo of coffee—right? Now we give this kilo to a hungry luwak. Guess what: he will only eat 20 percent of the beans. Won't even consider the rest. To me, those leftover beans look exactly the same as the rest of the bunch. But they're trash to the luwak.”
Despite being nature's own furry coffee selector, the luwak are actually quite hated in rural Indonesia. They’ll pretty much eat and destroy anything sellable that grows on farm land, which doesn’t score many cool points with most agriculturalists. The output of coffee beans is so limited that most farmers cannot make a living harvesting it. Annually only 200kgs to a 450kgs hit the global market, driving up the price to insane heights. And that number is dropping. The system, however, dictates that luwak farmers sell their beans to agents who in turn sell it to wholesale buyers around the world. As with other commodities in Indonesia, most famously: rice, the price is capped by the government. It’s the foreign agents that add the steep markup, with margins easily higher than most hard drugs you’ll find in clubs in Ibiza. So even though genuine luwak coffee will go for EU50 a cup in Europe, the farmers are not seeing much of that cash. It doesn’t help too that their farms are small operations, scattered all over the country. The lack of any sort of cooperation doesn’t put them in the driver’s seat when it comes to price negotiations.
The farmer that I visit isn’t in the business to make a fortune. He says he is content if he can feed his family and share his knowledge of the power of luwak with the world. He claims that the coffee residue has great healing powers and tells me to use it to treat open wounds.
The coffee that he sells at his farm costs USD19 per 50g, which is a deal that would make many self respecting baristas want to cut their thighs with a dull knife. This is the real deal, freshly roasted in front of our eyes at the plantation. But apparently Louis Vuiton has a smaller copycat problem than luwak.
Italian food scientist Massimo Marcone took some luwak coffee he bought all over the world to his lab for closer inspection. His discovered that no less than 42 percent of all luwak is either adulterated or completely fake. He Pepsi tested the real deal, only to find out that in blind tastings other coffees consistently got rated higher than luwak, adding, in an interview with the LA Times: “but they don't come with quite the exotic cachet of civet brew. From the farm gate to the plate, the story is missing for most of our foods. Part of eating is not only the nutrition one gets, but also the communing with others at the table. Kopi luwak has the advantage of its story.”
True that, so let’s add another one. Local Indonesian folk tales have it that the slaves of the Dutch coffee plantation owners were not allowed to keep anything that they harvested, except the beans that they found in the civet droppings. That party ended after the oppressor found out how tasty the coffee was that the slaves were brewing. Note that up until this day most luwak coffee is sold to Dutch wholesalers who export it to the rest of the world.
There has always been a select market for the brew, even though prices per cup are higher than a glass of Lafite Rothschild from the late 18th century, but the output of the plantations is notoriously low and the admirers will always be few. Luwak enjoyed a popular stint recently when Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman put drinking a cup of luwak on their bucket list in the film by the same name. Even though the scene didn't work from a cinematic point of view (a couple of old guys drinking a cuppa: what Hollywood executive could've predicted that'd be boring...?) the movie did spike an interest in luwak. But the real connoisseurs didn’t need Jack to uncover this little secret. The British royal family is rumoured to be one of the biggest buyers of luwak.
Our tour takes us down a steep mud path towards a river with a bamboo bridge straight out of a Mac Gyver episode. The old plantation owner skips over the thing like a 14-year-old, but of course it collapses when I try the same thing. The open wound to test out the healing powers of luwak coffee just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A mystical place, indeed.
In the middle of the plantation stands a tree, the stem wrapped in blue white blankets with a little altar at the front. Mr Par explains that this is a considered to be a holy tree in Hindu culture and that daily sacrifices need to be made in order to keep the gods happy. At that he takes one of my Lucky Strikes, lights it, and places the burning cigarette on the altar, next to a piece of gum, and two full mugs of coffee. “Look,” he says, pointing at his arms as he moves closer to the tree, the place emanating mystique. “Marinding,” which means goose bumps in Indonesian. As if on command all the hairs on his arms rise. As do mine.
After a few moments of silence I ask him who lives in the small hut down the road. “My daughters. Daughters are useless. They leave you when they get married. They live here, we don't need them in the house.” Right. So much for the goose bumps.
There's an estimated fifty luwaks living in and around this plantation. During the day they sleep in their holes or on treetops. At night they come out and feast on all the plantation has to offer. The little buggers have quite an acquired taste. They eat pineapples, bananas, mangoes and of course coffee beans. Contrary to popular belief, these beans only stay in the cat's stomach for some 20 minutes, taking off only the fruity outer layer of the bean, leaving the rest intact. The enzymes in the stomach then work on the bean, reducing its caffeine levels which make for a smoother taste. The civet droppings are not that hard to find. The animal is lazy and moves slow, so 20 minutes after eating the bean, it will still be in a radius of some 30m of the coffee plant. It’s a lazy, good life for those luwaks on Mr Par’s property.
But all is not always well in Luwak Land. In 2003 the luwak earned a bad rep after some Hong Kong-based cats were suspected to be the source of the SARS disease that killed nearly a thousand people in China. Besides being somewhat of a walking petri-dish, the animal is generally hated by most farmers, who will kill them on sight when given the chance. Not only do Luwaks eat everything that makes a farmer money, including chickens, they also ruin most other plants in the process. A grown up cat can weigh up to a 30kg and has sharp claws. This brings down the cute-factor significantly. The fact that their poop is worth hard rupiahs doesn’t change that. The benefits do not weigh up to the damage. And like any other jungle animal the luwak is struggling for survival. Its natural habitat is shrinking at a rate of 40 soccer fields per minute. Anyone with the ambition of putting luwak coffee on their bucket list, should consider dying fast, because this party will be over soon.
The quality of coffee digested by luwaks in captivity is supposed to be much less, and attempts to simulate the digestive process in a laboratory environment has so far been fruitless. It’s places like this that keep the myth alive.
The tour ends with the ritual drinking of luwak coffee. Despite being one of the great coffee nations on earth, Indonesians are in the habit of dunking hot water over the ground beans, which should obviously be a punishable offense. This being luwak, it's still pretty good though. When I offer a sip to my driver, Dewa hesitantly accepts before carefully tasting the coffee. This is the first time he drinks this, he exclaims. Only to add, “But I did eat a luwak once. Tastes like pig.” The only sound is that of the plantation owner nearly choking on the piece of jack fruit he is eating. “We won't be doing it again,” Dewa continues quietly while smelling the coffee aroma, eyes closed, in ecstasy. “They're just too damn hard to catch.”
Photographs by Christine Gilbert. First published in Esquire Malaysia February 2012, The State of The Vision issue.