Kopi luwak to Indonesia is the equivalent of durian to Malaysia. It’s an enigmatic national treasure that greatly divides its citizens. Declared as the most expensive coffee in the world, kopi luwak is drunk across Indonesia by the wealthiest and choosiest of coffee connoisseurs. But in the last year or two, Malaysia has also seen an emerging trend for this pricey brew. As local coffee addicts began to take interest in specialty coffees, a few cafes here in KL have begun to serve kopi luwak.
Kopi Luwak, also known as “civet coffee”, has a very unusual production process. The coffee beans used to make kopi luwak are sourced from the droppings (yes that’s right, poo) of the Asian palm civet cat, native to Indonesia. The civet cat or luwak consumes coffee berries and the indigested seeds are separated from its droppings, which are then washed, dried and roasted to make coffee beans. This process was first practiced by Indonesian farmers in the 18th century under Dutch colonialism. To value its low-level production, the coffee was priced exuberantly. It still is: in KL, a cup of kopi luwak will set you back a cool RM180.
Why so expensive? Well, production levels are kept low because of the rarity of these wild cats and the labour intensive process of procuring the beans. Then, because most beans are harvested in Indonesia, there are the costs of importing them to Malaysia. Finally, once the beans have arrived, they are treated with extra care. Mei Ying, a coffee siphonist based in KL, insists that using an espresso machine instead of a siphon will compress the flavours. “Siphon kopi luwak gives off a spectrum of flavours like a rainbow but using a coffee machine will make it like a single beam of light.”
I decided to try for myself. As I take my first sip of kopi luwak, I am taken aback by the sweetness which hits me. This sweetness is completely natural, as I haven’t added a single grain of sugar to my brew. This is followed by a lingering aftertaste of citrus and caramel complemented by a well-rounded smoothness. It’s a rainbow of flavours indeed. The level of caffeine in kopi luwak is also significantly lower than of Italian coffee so you won’t find yourself bouncing off the walls after a triple dose.
Understandably, kopi luwak remains a luxury in Malaysia, but its popularity does seem to be increasing. I drop in to Typica Cafe, one of the few places that serve it in KL. Manager Kai Yin tells me she makes regular trips to Sidikalang in Sumatra to procure beans. An average month at Typica sees the sale of just three cups of kopi luwak but Kai Yin tells me the number of curious customers (both local and foreign) is rising. In February this year, members of the National Council for Fatwa Islamic Affairs in Malaysia declared the coffee ‘lawful’ in accordance with cleanliness and purification standards. It is therefore officially halal.
Meanwhile, a few Malaysians are venturing into rearing their own civet cats for native production. Jeff Tan, a supplier in KL, harvests and produces kopi luwak beans from his land in Yong Peng, Johor. I ask him why exactly he decided to venture into such a risky business. “Why have to sell Italian coffee when Malaysia has better coffee?” he answers, patriotically. Jeff produces the beans from his own civet cats, and then ships them off for packaging in other countries, before bringing them back to be distributed in Malaysia.
As with any luxury item, there are some ethical issues with kopi luwak. Because civet cats don’t like to eat the coffee berries all year round, they are sometimes captured, caged and fed coffee berries, in order to keep up production during the “off-season”. In line with the worrying commercialisation of civet cat caging, Andrew T Crum, an artist based in KL, decided to hold a public art exhibition this month, ‘Escape from Luwak Plantation’, to raise awareness of this kind of inhumane caging. “Because of consumerism and the way it is, people have gone in different directions and a lot of animals have been captured and caged,” Andrew tells me. “It’s kind of a counter to what kopi luwak was initially about. When something’s good we tend to f*** it up as humans, you know?”
While cases of civet cats being force-fed in Indonesia is increasingly common, most licensed coffee producers in KL refuse to support this culture. “It is important to let the musang roam naturally in virgin forests and eat natural food”, says Kai Yin from Typica, while Jeff Tan assures me that the cats in Johor are also “free range”. As the popularity of kopi luwak in KL increases, however, these ethical issues will only become more pressing. A coffee drinker will not be able to tell if their kopi luwak is free range, so it’s best to clarify this information with the barista or supplier prior to a purchase.
For now, I am strangely grateful for the kopi luwak’s lack of accessibility. As long as it remains under the radar, the commercialisation of civet cat farms should not reach inhumane levels. It also means that kopi luwak will always be a treat to be savoured on special occassions. Having said that, I might sneak in another cup this weekend.
Typica Cafe, GL-08, Ground floor, Shaw Parade, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah, KL (03 2145 0328).
Jeff Tan also manages Lonbay Coffee, Lot LG-13, LG Floor, Paradigm Mall, Jalan SS7/26A, Kelana Jaya, PJ (03 7887 5258).
“Escape from Luwak Plantation”, Mojo Cafe, D-19-G, Jaya One, Jalan Universiti, PJ. see the Facebook page here.