- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

Revulsion, obsession, childish glee: An odd culture is brewing around the world's rarest, most expensive coffee.
Called Kopi Luwak, it goes for $300 a pound and relies upon the paradoxurus hermaphroditus for its, uh, cachet. The rare coffee is heralded in this month's Esquire magazine, in the annals of the National Zoo, several universities, countless trade journals, several newspapers and a half-dozen "urban legends" Web sites.
But back to the paradoxurus hermaphroditus, which is actually a 4-pound, fairly agreeable, palm-tree-dwelling civet cat that lives on the islands of Sumatra and Java.
Along with palm sap and melons, this selective little creature eats choice, fresh coffee berries. The berries travel relatively unsullied through the cat's digestive system, are excreted and plucked from its dung by plantation workers and roasted.
It sounds like fiction, but it's not.
"This is no myth. It is real. There is such a thing as Kopi Luwak, and people have been carrying on about it for a decade," said Mike Ferguson of the California-based Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world's largest coffee-trade group.
"It is a very good story, a real story, but hard to take seriously," he said. "The two reliable people I know who have actually tasted it say they were not all that impressed. But one thing is for sure: It is a noteworthy way to process coffee."
Indeed. And it has fixated an imaginative press.
Depending on the account, only 80 to 500 pounds of Kopi Luwak beans are processed a year. They smell like a stable and yield a syrupy brew. The civet cat itself is said to be drunk much of the time on fermented palm juice, at least according to an Australian report that noted, "Coffee drinkers going bananas over a brew made from monkey dung."
Those in authority are not skittish.
"The secret of this delicious blend of coffee is usually explained only after the guest has drained his mug," the Indonesia Tourist Board notes in a matter-of-fact press release.
"We just make sure our customers know that the beans have been treated, so to speak, by a furry little forest creature," said Steve Williams of Raven's Brew (www.ravensbrew.com), a coffee company in Ketchikan, Alaska, that offers a quarter-pound of Kopi Luwak with matching T-shirt for $75.
The T-shirt is emblazoned with the motto, "Good to the last dropping," plus an attractive illustration of the civet in question.
"Yes, yes, yes, we sell Kopi Luwak. We get lots of calls," said a spokeswoman for J. Martinez Coffee in Atlanta, which sells the exotic stuff for $300 a pound.
Customers overcome their initial distaste for the whole idea because of the coffee's snob appeal. Though the beans have rather intimate associations with a raccoon-like mammal, they are still the rarest of the rare. And they cost way more than Starbucks.
According to one press report, Starbucks executives once sampled the brew after a rare cache of 50 pounds was imported by a Los Angeles coffee company.
Kopi Luwak coffee has "a rich, heavy flavor with hints of caramel or chocolate," according to reviewer Terri Paajanen, who also called it "earthy, musty and exotic." Why, it even tops Tanzanian Peaberry coffee, according to coffee critic Chris Rubin, who described his cup of as "rich and strong … with a long, clean aftertaste."
But it is persnickety, too.
"Kopi Luwak by itself is demanding. It needs special attention in brewing," Dutch coffee-house owner Barend Boot told the Tea & Coffee Journal. His shop offers the prized variety at $15 a cup.
And while Delaware's Dover Post last year quipped that "U.S. coffee drinkers are at the mercy of a small cartel of Indonesian monkeys," it's serious business for the folks at Raven's Brew up in Alaska, which also sells wolf- and Kodiak bear-themed coffees.
"We sell at least a pound a week, sometimes more," said Mr. Williams. "And believe me, sometimes we even try to talk people out of it. But they're still buying."


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