Exactly who first discovered that coffee beans that have been passed through the digestive tracts of a Vietnamese weasel is tastier than the ordinary varieties of coffee is unclear, although the whole concept sounds like a bad Monty Python sketch! The first time I heard about this was on an episode of the James Whale Radio Show on ITV in 1989 but then it was portrayed as wolf poo coffee (never heard of a wolf eating coffee cherries before but hey, in desperate times, who knows?) Well it turns out that the coffee passes through the gut of the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphrodites), a cat/weasel type creature and close relative of the mongoose that simply loves to eat bright red ripe coffee cherries. The animal presumably obtains some nourishment from the flesh of the coffee cherry and then the indigestible pit (the green coffee bean) is passed out in its poopy and collected by the chief weasel herder…
Seriously though the Kopi Lowak coffee is produced across southeast Asia from Indonesia to Vietnam (Sumatra is the largest producer). The coffee bean (commands a price of some $600 per pound) is affected in some way by the digestive enzymes in the gut of the civet – it is thought that proteolytic enzymes effect the excreted beans getting rid of some of the proteins causing bitterness and finally giving the coffee a richer, syrupy, smoother more chocolaty taste with earthy overtones (worth some £50 per cup). Beans, which can be arabica, robusta, liberica or excelsa, are collected clumped together with the faeces of the animal and are then thoroughly washed and dried prior to roasting. Some producers in Vietnam produce their Civet coffee using a process that requires roasting the beans lightly with a particular type of ‘chicken’ fat and also wine and this produces a special flavour (the product is called cà phê Chồn in Vietnam).
Kopi Luwak coffee is very popular in southeast Asia and there are major importations of the beans to Japan. Many tourists who taste the coffee are actually drinking a synthetic version that was first produced in 1996. The Trung Nguyen Coffee Company in Vietnam uses six digestive enzymes and a patented soaking system to produce the simulated Kopi Luwak, which is called Legendee (some say it is a very close match to the genuine article). Other versions of Kopi Luwak use high quality roasted beans and added flavour components.
When all is said and done Kopi Luwak is a much sought after product with a premium price that many think is the best tasting coffee on the market. All I can say is I have not tried it because I tend to shy away from products that come from faeces, although I have been assured that the exhaustive washing and roasting process means that Kopi Luwak coffee is not riddled with E. coli and a health hazard. If you can afford it try it … and let us know what you think.