A Text by Christian Lacroix, on the Coffee Trail.
Everything you need to know about the civet, without getting your hands dirty!
First official meeting of this trip to Indonesia. Solotco Jaya Abadi has been producing coffee for over thirty years in the Toraja region of South Sulawesi. I met Yenni Tanri at the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) Exposition in Atlanta in 2016. Yenni, the operations manager for coffee production, had described their plantation to me as being the one I absolutely had to visit before I died. The opportunity presented itself this year, not to die (!), but to plan this visit within my 2017-2018 Discovery Project. I needed to pass through Makassar to take a flight to Toraja, which enabled me to meet Yenni at their office in Makassar. As custom dictates, when a coffee roaster is passing through, our first activity is cupping and we began with a tasting of the legendary coffee Kopi Luwak.
The story is simple enough: the civet likes to eat the fruit of the coffee plant (known as coffee cherries or coffee berries) when still on the plant. As the green coffee bean is hard enough to break teeth, the civet’s stomach only digests the fleshy pulp. The beans are left on the ground, mixed with its feces. This discovery took place during the 1830s, when the Dutch forbad workers from consuming the coffee, which was reserved for export. The curious locals noticed the beans mixed with the civet’s feces and decided to collect them and roast them. They observed that the taste of the coffee was no longer the same and this was sufficient to build the reputation of Kopi Luwak coffee.
The University of Guelph has certified that secretions of the digestive tract are found in the coffee beans excreted by the civet. The enzyme in these secretions breaks down the proteins into free amino acids. As the aromas in coffee are directly related to the quantity and type of this protein, they multiply thus creating new aromas. Roasting completes the development of these proteins due to the Maillard reaction. The start of germination, which happens in the animal’s stomach, contributes to reducing the bitterness.
A few statistics
The civet consumes seven hundred grams of coffee berries weekly. It excretes five hundred grams of coffee beans, which is then reduced to two hundred and fifty grams after cleaning and sifting.
The civet comes from the region of Java and has now been introduced into most coffee growing areas in order to benefit from this phenomenon.
Solotco Jaya Abadi’s plantation owns five hundred civets which are kept in an enclosure.
Analysis of coffee before grinding and brewing: the coffee has been roasted to a medium brown colour. Reference number Agtron 55. The colour of the beans is not homogenous.
Brewing: SCAA method. The beans are coarsely ground and water is poured directly onto the ground coffee. No brewing method is used.
Nose: flat and closed, dried grass, herbal.
Taste: low acidity, absence of bitterness.
The aromas are difficult to perceive; I’m puzzled and tell myself that the water temperature was probably too high. I must be patient.
5 minutes later
Aromas: subtle perception of an agreeable complexity with faint aromas of sugar and fruit. A tiny spicy note of cloves. Emergence of a refreshing trigeminal sensation (menthol effect), procuring a delicate silky length on the palate.
The first activity of the following day at the plantation is the cupping of four different types of coffee produced by the farm. Lady Luck smiles upon me: there’s a Kopi Luwak coffee to taste! What a remarkable coincidence just before meeting the beast. My observations concerning the Kopi Luwak are similar to those of the previous day’s tasting. There is, however, a coffee with great finesse and floral aromas that impress me due to their characteristics that are not at all in line with our expectations of a Sulawasi coffee.
Let’s philosophize a little! As is my wont, I question myself on the ethical aspects of this practice. It should be understood that it is not natural to make an animal eat 2.8 kg of coffee berries so that it produces a consumable commodity. As this habit of eating the fruit of the coffee plant only exists in civets living in the Java region, it is our right to question ourselves on the matter. Should we judge the desire of coffee producers to always make more money?
In my opinion, at the rate that coffee producers are increasing production of this type of coffee – the farm visited is already planning to double the space reserved for this cultivation – the growing supply will drive down prices thus diminishing the intrinsic value of the product and its reputation. Instead of creating a rarity by leaving things to progress naturally, as with certain exclusive wines, abundance will transform the consumers’ interest into a passing fad.
My two tasting experiences leave me puzzled concerning the improvement of organoleptic values through this process. There’s no doubt that the quality of the coffee has greatly improved since the discovery of this phenomenon, but today, coffee producers do not need the civet to produce a coffee of this quality. Personally, my curiosity is satisfied and I have decided to take a stand againts buyin this type of coffee.