Saturday, July 14, 2007

The most expensive coffee (Kopi Luwak)

Indonesia kopi luwak is a rare kind of coffee that apparently goes for $30/cup in some fancy Hong Kong hotels. The secret to its reportedly fine flavor is that the beans are collected, swallowed, and crapped back out by wild civets, small, arboreal mammals that are currently endangered.

“Kopi” the Indonesian word for coffee along with “luwak” is local name of this animal which eats the raw red coffee beans. The civet digests the soft outer part of the coffee cherry, but does not digest the inner beans and excretes them.

Apparently the internal digestion ends up adds a unique flavor to the beans, removing the bitter flavor, and then beans are then picked up by locals and sold. The most expensive coffee beans can cost up to $600 a pound, and up to $50 per cup, if you can get over the fact that you are drinking such a strange brew.

Los Angeles Times tells the story of the $600/pound coffee. The article quotes Canadian food scientist Massimo Marcone, author of a new book that sounds fascinating: In Bad Taste?: The Science and Adventures Behind Food Delicacies. From the Los Angeles Times:
In the animals' stomachs, enzymes in the gastric juices massage the beans, smoothing off the harsh edges that make coffee bitter and produce caffeine jitters. Humans then separate the greenish-brown beans from the rest of the dung, and once a thin outer layer is removed, they are ready for roasting....

Days before the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, Marcone was in Indonesia's Sumatran rain forest, where he collected about 10 pounds of civet droppings laced with coffee beans. He now uses it as "the gold standard" to rate other kopi luwaks in his lab at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Like a forensic scientist reading a bullet's markings, Marcone stares at kopi luwak under an electron microscope, searching for striations that tell him that a civet excreted it. His studies found that kopi luwak drinkers need to be careful to avoid being duped.

"About 42% of all the kopi luwaks that are presently on sale are either adulterated or complete fakes, unfortunately," he said.

Real kopi luwak has a top note of rich, dark chocolate, with secondary notes that are musty and earthy, the scientist said. An Indonesian coffee lover described the scent as the smell of moist earth after a rainfall, with hints of vanilla, that teases the palate for hours after the cup is empty.

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