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Kopi Luwak, anyone?

Luwak reclining
This Luwak (aka Asian Palm Civet) may well be asking: “Who you calling fat and lazy?”

I understand that Luwak Coffee is a big deal i.e. desireably expensive.

What a marketing coup, to bring a beverage made from undigested coffee seeds discarded from the back end of an Asian Palm Civet, or Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, to the wide world!

( Tony Wild takes credit for said marketing coup – “Civet coffee: why it’s time to cut the crap” – Guardian online )

Of course, I would never allow such ‘evil brew’ to pass my lips. After all, I am a Virgo and ‘high sensitive’ to boot. Who called me precious? Take it back right now!

This said, perched in a Luwak cafe with one of my hosts from the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism, I was part of a FamTrip group on a comprehensive and exclusive tour of Java.

I understood that sampling the coffee would be the gracious thing to do. My MOT companion suggested as much, and my ‘greater self’ had to agree. Therefore, I accepted her gracious offer to share the cup of coffee she ordered.

We had been dropped off at the cafe in horse-drawn buggys, traveling on a tourist parade through the tamed jungle of the Yogyakarta countryside. Our drivers wore traditional batik sarongs and blangkon hats, and together, we provided an entertaining spectacle for leaping, laughing children at the roadside.

Take a horse and buggy tour through the Yogyakarta countryside
On a horse and buggy tour through the Yogyakarta countryside

With muted enthusiasm, I waited for our Luwak brew at a table in a room ‘from another time’. As lazy luwaks lounged outside – “Noctunal not fat“, they said – inside, a lazy fan oomphed a slight breeze about the room. Light filtering through reed blinds gave a glimpse of bright heat and tropical green beyond. An open cupboard held bags of different – ahem – vintages of coffee, with coffee paraphernalia on the walls.

Kopi Luwak arrived and bracing myself, I tasted it to find that it was actually quite nice. It helped that I had already heard a young woman promise that the poo-encrusted beans were washed a minimum of three times before the soft skins were rubbed off. My Virgo sensibilities were somewhat soothed.

Luwak cafeSettling in for the Kopibreak, it came to me to wonder ‘who dreamt up Civet Cat Coffee’ in the first place?

This is what I was told: In the day, Dutch plantation owners brought coffee plants to Indonesia. ‘From where’ was my next question? Mexico? Africa? No one knew. Later, a Google and Wikipedia search turned up a surprising answer. Yemen, so they say!

A key point in this story is that the Dutch settlers told the Indonesian people (something like this): “Plant the coffee, tend it and harvest it. But don’t dare try it!”

Curious! Well, that’s exactly what the Indonesian coffee farmers were – curious. Psychology 101. Having had their interest piqued, they were then denied access to the forbidden fruit of the coffee plants they were tending. Somewhere along the line, the farmers noticed that Luwak droppings in the jungle were comprised of clotted lumps of coffee seeds. (My Indonesian sister-in-law tells me it was an English foreman who made this discovery … but that would ruin my story so I’m ignoring it.)

I imagine this snippet of conversation between Indonesian farmers:

“Yeah, that’s it … we could wash the seeds clean given that they are whole and unblemished by their journey through the Luwak and then we can make our own coffee … but everybody needs keep quiet about it, okay?”

And that is what happened, more or less. Eventually, the Dutch farm managers realised that the farmers were brewing their own coffee. Trying it, the managers found that Luwak-processed coffee was better than the coffee they’d been drinking. Via this route, Kopi Luwak ended up being highly prized.

Warning: An indulgence in revisionist history …

Luwak Coffee Beans
Luwak coffee beans drying in the sun

Hearing this explanation, it occurs to me that this history sound-bite – whatever its factual inaccuracies – sums up the mentality and methodology of colonialism. Indulging in revisionism, the story of Kopi Luwak makes the Dutch colonials out to be selfish bullies.

Oh my goodness, a bit more Googling suggests that now I’ll need to read up on Cultuurstelsel. This was a policy introduced by the government of The Netherlands in the mid-1800’s to tease higher returns from the produce of the Dutch East Indies.

I feel a certain weariness coming on. So much of colonial history makes for uncomfortable reading, with several nations being implicated in misdeeds and inequity. The enduring impulse of some humans to lean on others to have their needs met through exploitative exchanges is disheartening. Just so, Mr Kipling.

Free the Luwak …

Certified Kopi Luwak CoffeePerhaps a revisionist bias might eventually neutralise the tendency towards national, cultural and societal bullying. Yeah … another flight of fancy.

Reading more about Kopi Luwak, I came across articles on campaigns to ‘Free the Luwak’. There are reported instances of Luwaks being kept in battery conditions, with the result that they exhibit human-like signs of distress and even depression.

At the coffee house we visited, staff told us that their Luwak employees were allowed to roam freely at the end of their working day. In fact, there is now a Kopi Luwak certification to say that the coffee is guaranteed to be coming from – or more accurately through – animals who are ‘cage-free’ and ‘free living’. What about a mini-gym too? I’m picturing the Luwak equivalent of a hamster wheel.

While the Luwaks we met lived well, it sounds like there are others who still need the help of well-intentioned humans. This is a situation which certification is intended to address. While I look forward to the day when all God’s creatures shall be free, in the meantime, I’m going to have another cup of – Certified – Kopi.

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