Eating Gross Things: kopi luwak from The Green Beanery
By Jon Sufrin
The incredible civet (Image: Tony Hara/Flickr)
I hold in my hand an antique goblet of Baccarat crystal. I am swirling the receptacle in a counter-clockwise motion to aerate the excrement-nectar inside. Refracted light dances across the pale walls of the room I am in. The liquid is amber, as deep as a tiger’s iris. It is kopi luwak, the most coveted coffee known to man.
I drink it. I feel a sting of the ego as I realize that I am not “getting it.” Then, a firecracker in the cerebrum. Space and time fragment. I can visualize the infinite chain of consequences that my subsequent actions will incur upon the world. The walls, the floor and the ceiling dissolve.
I am in space.
There is a Pollock-splatter of stars. A nebula casts its emerald web across the void, synapse-breaking in its beauty. My spirit animal, a strange mongoose-like creature, floats nearby. She is awkwardly holding a sprig of bright red berries in her paw.
“I am going to give you a choice,” the spirit animal says. “You can eat one of these berries, and you will return to Earth unchanged. You will remain blissfully unaware of the universal truth.”
She reaches behind and produces a pungent, dark, dessicated clump.
“Or, you can eat this,” she says, “and you will learn the answers to everything.”
“Everything?” I ask.
“Everything,” she says. “You will perceive the essential oneness of the universe. But you will never again be the same. You will be an anomaly to the human system for the remainder of your days.”
I pause to let this all sink in.
“I think that I’m going to pass,” I say.
I am going to break the narrative at this point to communicate that my first taste of kopi luwak did not actually happen like that, although it should have. It is the most expensive coffee I have ever consumed, by a huge margin, so I feel that something profound should have occurred.
Kopi luwak is gross, which is why I’m writing about it. It is gross not only because it is so expensive, but also because it hails from the anus of a civet, which is a small mammal from the tropics. According to legend, the civet has a knack for finding and eating only the best coffee berries. It roams the wilderness, eating them. After consumption, the berries chillax in the civet’s bowels, whereupon an apparently desirable fermentation process occurs. The civet poos out the berry’s seeds — coffee beans — which are harvested, cleaned and then sold at retch-inducing prices to the one per cent.
The reality of the civet situation is probably much more cruel, but I’m not going to delve into that right now. After all, humans do terrible things to animals all the time, and we seem to think it’s OK as long as the end result tastes good. So I am mostly going to talk about whether kopi luwak is in fact good or not.
The coffee is produced primarily in Indonesia. There are two places that I know of in Toronto that sell it: Pusateri’s and The Green Beanery. Neither of these places are known for selling good coffee. Pusateri’s sells kopi luwak roasted for about $480 a pound, which sounds about right for Pusateri’s.
The Green Beanery sells its kopi luwak unroasted for around $126 a pound. A better deal, with the added bonus of giving me the option of choosing my own roaster. I grabbed a pound of the stuff, which came with a CD-ROM and a sketchy certificate of authenticity. The certificate appeared to be signed “kopi luwak,” which makes zero sense.
Now, if I was going to drink poo coffee, I was going to get the best guy available to roast it and brew it. So I took it to Sam James, local coffee guru. Initially, he was not keen on tasting the coffee with me.
“If it’s been in some creature’s asshole,” he said, “I want no part of it.”
I bugged him about it, and he relented. He took my kopi luwak and gave it kind of a generic medium roast, and we sat down together to do a “cupping.”
Cupping is how James tastes all of the coffee beans he considers buying. It’s also how he maintains quality control of his own coffee. It is not a fun way to drink coffee, but the method lets you know exactly what you’re dealing with.
The process goes something like this: hot water is poured overtop of ground, unfiltered coffee at a ratio of 17:1. The grinds float to the top of the cup and form a sort of crust. Then, precisely three minutes later, the crust is broken with a spoon, and aroma spews forth. This is observed. Then, the floating grinds and oils are spooned off completely. Nine minutes after the pour, the remaining steeped coffee is slurped and spat out one spoonful at a time to taste it.
We did this with the kopi luwak. We got aromas of earth, and flavours of wood. Tons of wood, like what you’d get from chewing on a pencil. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but coffee can be complex, and this pretty much had just one flavour. The lack of acidity was conspicuous (possibly a sign of stale coffee). According to James, the coffee bore all the hallmarks of a standard, unremarkable, predictable-in-every-way Indonesian coffee.
“It’s not terrible, like you’d think cat-shit coffee would be,” he says. “But it’s a little boring.”
As espresso, the kopi luwak was better. There was wood, but it was also sweet, with a little more acid to it. The crema was as thick as the head of a properly poured Guinness; this is because it was so newly roasted. It wasn’t too bitter, but it wasn’t very exciting either. Still, I liked it, but a guy like James could probably roast and grind anyone’s turds and have them taste pretty good.
“It goes to prove that people with money will buy anything if it’s expensive.” James says.
Conclusion: kopi luwak is better than Starbucks, but please, buy other coffee. Unless you really love tasting wood and really hate saving money.
Jon Sufrin is the editor of PostCity.com. For his column, Eating Gross Things, he eats things that are widely considered to be gross and writes about it. He has no scientific method to determine what “gross” means. The article is just meant to be fun, so relax. For more of his thoughts on stuff, gross and not, follow him on Twitter. If you would like to suggest a gross food item for him to try, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.