There are two types of people in the world: those who have experienced the spiritual transcendence of Kopi Luwak and those who have not. This afternoon, after years of anticipation, I finally crossed the threshold myself. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to drink nectar brewed from the ass of the civet cat, here’s your chance to find out.
Asian Palm Civet: the magical cat that looks like a rat (photo courtesy Wikipedia).
Yes, dear reader, you read that right. Somewhere in Indonesia, a hungry civet cat ate a bunch of coffee cherries, ushered them through its enzyme-rich digestive tract, and delivered the fermented beans via the unsavory vessel of its poop. Some fine soul picked out the beans, washed them—knock on wood—and dried them for sale.
Now this process might sound like the worst possible thing you could do to a coffee bean, but believe me there is something special about the civet. Civet musk, secreted from the animal’s perineal glands—its anus—is among the most valued fragrance agents used in the world’s finest perfumes. Similarly, the civet’s digestive juices work their magic on the beans, “making shorter peptides and more free amino acids.” I don’t know what that means exactly, but as of this afternoon I know how it tastes.
After the consumption, digestion, defecation, and cleanification, and perhaps through a far more complex series of transactions, several small bags of unroasted Kopi Luwak beans made their way from Indonesia to my barista friend in Seoul, Sang Ho, proprietor of the excellent Cafe the Sól.
As a coffee connoisseur, I have dreamed of tasting Kopi Luwak for years. It was even on my bucket list. But as one of the most scarce and expensive coffees in the world, fetching up to $600/pound1, it’s just not something you run across every day. My attempts last year to try a cup at an upscale cafe in Kuala Lumpur were thwarted when the beans were out of stock. I certainly never expected to find Luwak in Seoul. So when Sang Ho gleefully showed me the beans a couple of weeks ago, my eyes grew large like saucers.
Then the waiting began. There is nothing like having a major life milestone in your sights and counting the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until fulfillment. I felt like this in the last weeks before my company was acquired after years of hard work and months of due diligence and negotiations. I felt like this after I’d filed my PhD dissertation, not knowing whether it would actually make it through the UC Berkeley bureaucracy without a hitch. I felt like this on my wedding day. I felt like this losing my virginity. The deal’s not closed until the check clears, as they say.
There is something very polarizing about the process of anticipation. The climax is either superb or superbly disappointing.
Eighteen days, two hours, and twenty-eight minutes after my first glimpse, it was my time. Seoul was cool, gray, and rainy this afternoon, weather fittingly reminiscent of Seattle where I discovered and developed my love of coffee.
My brain was in overdrive as I watched Sang Ho grind the beans into a metal cup. A whiff of the fresh grounds made my head spin. The scent was rich, dark, and earthy. I’d even go as far as to say I smelled a hint of musk. In my heightened sensory state, a well-disguised cup of Sanka might have elicited the same response. My arm hairs stood on end.
Sang Ho took his time preparing the individual drip cup. As he worked, he tried to set my expectations. Kopi Luwak, he explained, is all about scarcity. If my expectations for taste were too high, I would surely be disappointed. I fidgeted. He checked the water temperature with a thermometer. Just hurry up and pour the cup.
As we waited for the water to drip through the filter, we both took another good sniff. Powerful, heady stuff. I shivered. A minute later, a full cup of Kopi Luwak was sitting in front of me. I summoned willpower of Herculean proportions to take a picture before my first sip.
It is simply not possible to taste objectively when you are as worked up as I was at that moment. Half-excited to reach the Everest peak of coffee drinking, half-nervous that it would fall short of expectations, I gingerly raised the porcelain cup to my lips. The first sip was … as awkward as you might expect. “Hmm.” It was strong, dark, a touch sour, smooth and round in my mouth. Are those notes of prune? Walnut? I’ve never been good at explaining flavors. It was different, but I didn’t know how much of that difference was due to the thing being observed, and how much was the observer. I took another sip. “Hmm.” So much pressure!
I chatted with Sang Ho as I slowly sipped and tried to make sense of this coffee enigma in my mouth. When I’d finished half the cup, no closer to the truth, I asked for a hot water refill. The water cut the strength, but without altering the basic flavor. I carefully worked my way through another half cup, waiting between sips. No epiphanies. Simply frustrating. I could taste the flavor more clearly, but was still grappling to have something to take away from the experience.
Over the next few minutes, as my drink cooled, so did my anxiety about the experience. The tension in my shoulders loosened, my head became clear, and suddenly I enjoyed one of the most delicious mouthfuls of coffee in my ten years of coffee appreciation. And again. A wave of bliss washed over me. Apricot? Chocolate? Smoothness. Fireworks going off in my brain. Perhaps the caffeine was kicking in. It was heavenly. Small sips, delicately savoring the precious resource. Euphoria. Gently, slowly, until every last drop in the cup was all used up.
Six hours later, I can still taste the sweet tang of Kopi Luwak on my tongue. Like a symphony concert that leaves your ears ringing, my mouth is still ringing from this afternoon’s cup. My brain is still ringing.
If you’re a skeptic, you’re probably screaming “placebo effect!” Would a normal cup of coffee have elicited the same response given my state of mind? Perhaps. But does it even matter? It’s a rare and wonderful thing to experience the rush I had this afternoon, and I can honestly say my mind is blown. Heartfelt thanks to the civets, poo-pickers, bean-washers, middle-men, and most of all Sang Ho for making it happen. At long last!