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Why Kopi Luwak is the World’s Most Expensive Coffee

Humans are funny creatures. We make delicacies out of the oddest things, often charging an arm and a leg for, to some, absolutely ridiculous items. But such is supply and demand, when there are enough people that covet a rare item, the price goes up. Kopi Luwak is just one of these curious market oddities, and since it’s “discovery” by Dutch colonists, its value has skyrocketed to the point it is now considered the world’s most expensive coffee.

The world’s most expensive coffee has a pretty strange origin story

There are a lot of funny and bizarre products out there that humans covet, but few are as interesting and unusual as Kopi Luwak.

Once upon a time, Indonesia was a Dutch colony that exported coffee beans to Europe and elsewhere. In typical colonial fashion, the Dutch treated the locals quite harshly, and among the rules they imposed on their captive laborers was the edict that they were not to use any of the coffee harvested on the coffee plantations for themselves.

The locals, possessing a coffee culture of their own that predated the arrival of the Dutch by hundreds of years, had to be pretty inventive and resourceful to avail themselves of their favorite drink. They took to collecting coffee-bean-filled luwak droppings. Luwaks, also known as coffee civets, love to eat ripe, red, juicy coffee cherries. Though the cherries’ flesh gets fully digested, the beans are left unscathed and are later expelled in droppings. When the locals asked the Dutch if they could use the coffee beans in the civet poop, the Dutch did not object.

One day, the Dutch noticed the locals enjoying coffee, and went over to investigate, believing the locals to have stolen coffee from the plantations. The locals pointed to the luwak droppings they’d collected and said they were allowed to brew coffee with beans recovered from the cat poop. The Dutch were dumbfounded, they were disgusted by the sight of the luwak droppings, but amazed by the aroma of the coffee. They asked to try what the locals were drinking. To their utter amazement, the coffee the locals had made out of civet poop was actually much better than regular coffee, being both smoother and with a better aroma.

visualizes expensive coffee beansWhy is Kopi Luwak the most expensive coffee though?

In short, supply and demand. Coffee is wildly popular worldwide, and over 900 million kilograms are grown and sold each year. Compare that to the meagre 250-500 kilograms of wild Kopi Luwak that is produced each year and you’ll see that the supply of real, wild Kopi Luwak is extremely limited.

Although the emergence of kopi luwak made using caged luwaks has increased supply to some extent, there are very few people who want to buy kopi luwak produced with the use of caged luwaks. Not only is the flavor affected by the stress caged luwaks experienced living in factory farming conditions, but people object to the cruelty of putting these cute animals in cages and force-fed to produce coffee.

As a result, there’s been a surge of interest in sourcing kopi luwak from only wild kopi luwaks.

Why do Kopi Luwak beans produce such good coffee?

The secret is in the luwaks’ digestive juices. Asian palm civets, sometimes referred to as coffee civets or coffee cats, are omnivorous cat-like creatures with a diet that includes insects, small animals and fruits, including one of their favorites—the coffee cherry.

When a civet eats a coffee cherry, the fruit’s flesh is digested, but the bean is not. Once exposed to the civet’s digestive acids, the beans begin to ferment. This fermentation process reduces the acidity of the beans, while also infusing them with other nutrients. The result is smoother coffee with more defined flavors and aromas.

How is wild Kopi Luwak made?

Civets are nocturnal. At night, they’ll visit coffee plantations and gorge themselves on ripe coffee cherries, often leaving big logs of coffee-bean-laden droppings in and around the plantation.

In the morning, coffee farmers will visit their fields and collect the droppings by hand. After the coffee beans are cleaned and dried, the farmers hand-roast the beans in artisanal ovens, or bring them to another coffee roaster in their community. Once the roasting is complete, the beans are ready to be ground and brewed into coffee.

Due to the rarity and labor-intensity of this particular coffee, a fine, wild kopi luwak could easily set you back $500 per pound.

visualizes coffee-bean filled luwak droppings
Freshly collected luwak droppings, full of coffee beans.

How do I find quality Kopi Luwak?

There aren’t many places in the world producing wild kopi luwak coffee, and almost all of them are in Indonesia. However, the Indonesian government does have a certification program that authenticates real kopi luwak. The best way to find out whether your coffee is authentic and not a knock-off of some kind, is to ask for a certificate from the local government or farmer’s collective. The only problem here is that the certificates will be in Indonesian.

Is kopi luwak made from caged civets worse?

It is. Not only do stressed animals create lower-quality beans infused with stress hormones, but the conditions the animals are kept in can be truly appalling. Cages can be soaked in urine and droppings and the civet’s themselves often covered in sores and abrasions due to living in tiny cages. If your coffee is sourced from Vietnam, or anywhere other than Indonesia, there’s a good chance it was made from caged luwaks.

Why is wild kopi luwak so much better?

While in cages, not only are the animals stressed and mistreated, they are also fed both ripe and unripe cherries, often the “reject” fruit producers think they won’t sell. This is bad not only from an ethical and food quality perspective, but it also negates the civet’s natural ability to select the best coffee cherries.

You see, wild luwaks are coffee connoisseurs themselves. When they go to the coffee plantation, they are out to find the highest quality cherries they can find. With their keen sense of smell and generations of evolution geared towards food selection, civets are able to find the absolute best cherries to gorge themselves on. This means the coffee beans that go into a quality, wild kopi luwak, have been selected by creatures with senses far more honed to detect quality than any human’s.

As a result, not only do the beans go through a unique fermentation process, they were selected for quality by the finest coffee connoisseurs the natural world has to offer!

Selection, fermentation and rarity. These are the 3 main reasons wild kopi luwak is the world’s most expensive coffee.