It was a cold Sunday morning at the roastery of Zeke’s Coffee, despite the heat from the state-of-the-art hot-air roaster where decaf beans were starting to pop. Twenty or thirty people milled about, talking to each other and the Zeke’s crew, about the coffee roasting process in general, and, in particular, about the $10 coffee samples everybody was drinking. Plenty of people stood under an enclosure added on to the opened garage, near gas heaters, sipping their small paper cups of the brew and reading the informational pamphlets. I took a sip – smooth and balanced with a silky texture and nutty aftertaste, the Kopi Luwak coffee went down easy. Too easy. My tiny cup was gone within minutes. But the lingering aftertaste of roasted hazelnuts stayed with me through brunch at Clementine down the street. And it stayed in memory all day.
Kopi Luwak coffee is an unlikely contender for the most expensive coffee in the world. The Dutch colonial overlords of Java and Sumatra banned their indigenous workforce from making coffee from the beans that they were forced to harvest, so, resorting to desperate measures in their subversive desire to taste their masters’ obsession, the natives did what oppressed people have done for millennia – they took shit and elevated it to a work of culinary beauty. Literally. Because Kopi Luwak coffee is culled from the undigested beans that remain in the clustered droppings of the islands’ civets, and then cleaned and roasted meticulously.
When the Dutch discovered that their work force had transmogrified the fecal waste into a palatable drink, when they tasted the brew and realized that it wasn’t half bad, that it wasn’t bad at all, that it was, in fact, quite good, and being the imperialist capitalists that they were, they seized the opportunity to catapult Kopi Luwak coffee into one of the rarest and most expensive forms that the roasted bean takes. Even today, annual production of Kopi Luwak coffee is in the range of 400 to 700 pounds, yielding a price that varies between $100 and $600 per pound.
Yes, you read that last paragraph correctly – roasted civet poop coffee beans cost between $100 and $600 per pound, with Animalcoffee selling it at $90 per pound raw and unprocessed. Now, don’t knock it before you try it – you’ll find that it in fact tastes nothing like poop, and there is no hint remaining that the beans had been excreted by a fruit-eating jungle mammal. The digestion process helps to balance out the flavor, as the proteins that cause bitterness in the coffee are broken down by secretions in the animal’s stomach. A strict cleaning and roasting process yields a perfectly sanitary and tasty bean.
Some of the greatest food items have come from odd biological processes. Cheese exists because the rennet in cow and other mammalian stomachs causes the casein to coagulate. We would neither be drinking beer nor eating decent bread without the help of carbohydrate-eating yeast. The excellent complexity of kimchi is only attainable through a fermentation process that, if off-balance, would simply lead to rotten vegetables instead of a healthy and marvelous wonder – some traditional kimchi recipes even include fish or shellfish. So is it any wonder that one of the world’s rarest and most expensive coffees can only be produced after a jungle mammal eats the raw beans and then defecates the remains?