Bali’s Best Coffee Is Made with Wild Cat Poo

The Indonesian palm civet eats only the ripest coffee berries and excretes the “stone.” Coffee produced with these partially digested berries tastes less bitter, due to the enzymes in the animal’s stomach.

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28 June 2016, 10:00am

Coffee is a big part of life in Bali. Wherever you go, there are signs advertising coffee tours and kopi luwak, a locally produced coffee made with partially digested coffee cherries. I used to think it was all a bit of a gimmick, but after staying in Bali for awhile, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to explore one of these coffee plantations.

Crucial to Balinese coffee plantations is the luwak. Also known as a palm civet, the nocturnal, cat-like animal eats only the best, ripest coffee berries. It can't digest the actual coffee beans (the "stone" of the coffee berry), so poos them out, leaving the finest edit of beans.

Indonesian coffee berries waiting to be picked. All photos by the author.

By doing this, the civet replaces the process of having to pick coffee beans directly from the tree, skin, and ferment them. Coffee produced with these partially digested cherries is also supposed to taste less bitter, thanks to the enzymes in the civet's stomach.

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For this reason "civet coffee" sells for up to $50 a cup around the world. But thanks to a sudden rise in demand for the product a few years ago, unscrupulous farmers began trapping wild civets and caging them, force-feeding them berries in order to secure a constant supply of beans.

Civet poo, containing prime coffee beans.

Happily, Eddie Sudana isn't one of them. Owner of Satu Satu cafe in Canggu, his coffee is sourced from his parent's six-acre plantation in Plaga. The small village is an hour and a half north of Canggu and is where Sudana grew up. It is an ideal location for coffee production, thanks to the climate and volcanic soil.

Sudana and I arrive at the plantation one Sunday morning, and are met by his mother, who disappears and quickly returns with hot cups of their Arabica coffee, and a plate of bananas.

Eddie's mother

Eddie Sudana's mother, who owns a coffee plantation in Canggu.

The Sudanas have had the plantation for 30 years, and pride themselves on producing cage-free, wild kopi luwak.

"It's cheating," Sudana says, when I ask what he thinks of caged kopi luwak. "I tell my parents, 'Don't do it from the cage.'"

His parents and their staff gather the luwak poo early in the morning and wash it, before leaving it out on large trays in the sun to dry for up to two weeks. (Happily, it doesn't have a bad smell). Once dried, Sudana sends his beans to be roasted in nearby Denpasar.

Luwak coffee beans drying in the sun.

Harvest season for luwak coffee is from June to September and the average yield is 13 tonnes. The family sell their beans to three local cafes (including Sudana's), as well as to a coffee supplier in Dubai via their website.

To show me the difference between ethical luwak coffee and those that used caged animals, Sudana also takes me to two other plantations. The first is small and dirty, with civets kept in tiny cages in a dark corridor. I peer into one and just about make out a small, sleeping animal. The second is a huge improvement on the first—there are larger, open-air cages, which have little boxes for the animals to sleep in—but it's still a sad state of affairs. The civets kept apart from each other and only fed coffee berries.

A caged civet.

While civets in the wild supplement their coffee habit with other foods such as jackfruit and mango, caged animals forced to eat only coffee and produce inferior beans as a result.

There's no real certification scheme for kopi luwak, so you'll never know if your beans came from a plantation like the Sudanas', or a cruel battery farm. These days, unfortunately, it's most likely to be the latter.

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Later that week, I visit Satu Satu to try Sudana's luwak coffee. Cafe culture is huge in Bali, thanks to nearby Australia's influence. Western-style cafes selling flat whites sit side-by-side with warungs (small, local restaurants) serving entire meals for a quarter of the price of one cup of coffee. At Sudana's cafe, a cup of kopi luwak goes for around £2.

Luwak French press coffee at Satu Satu cafe, Bali.

Despite being traditionally served without milk, Satu Satu offers a luwak flat white on his menu‚ perfect for the bule (tourists). I opt for the black version to get a real taste of this unusual coffee. It has an intense tangy taste, unlike the delicious Arabica we had back at the plantation. I give my cup to my friend to finish and begin to wonder if drinking kopi luwak could actually be a status—rather than flavour—thing.

Then again, if it's good enough for the civet, it's good enough for me.