what exactly is “kopi luak?”

Some months ago, while listening to NPR on a drive through the streets of Los Angeles one day, Set of Drifter Brady heard an unusual report about a special coffee bean delicacy that was gaining popularity among America’s ever-tenacious caffeinated elite.  The story focused on beans from Indonesia that were known stateside as “cat-poop coffee.”

Aside from the steep $7 USD price-tag for a cup of the unusual brew ($45 USD for a bag of whole beans), not much detail was recalled about the bean variety until we boarded the plane from Hong Kong to Jakarta on our way to Indonesia in October of 2011.  There, inside the chic Cathay Pacific Duty Free catalog was a frilly advertisement for “Luwak Coffee,” a so-called Javanese tradition, and also the same specialty product that was now sweeping through coffee houses of the American West Coast.  Pictured alongside the copy was a mischievious-looking creature with beady eyes nibbling on a cadre of red coffee beans.  The nocturnal animal is known as the palm civet, a distant cousin of the mongoose.  Civet are also the “purveyors,” so to speak, of “kopi luak,” or “cat-poop coffee” (though they more closely resemble skunks than anything feline).

So, how does this all work?  Well, this may take a bit of getting used to.  You see “kopi luak” is quite literally the coffee beans that are eaten by the civet, passed through its digestive system - in tact - and then discarded out the other end!  Yikes.

According to local farmers, civets are very picky creatures, and only choose the highest quality beans from coffee plants as they traipse their way through the Javanese highlands each night.  Once the upper-echelon beans have made their way through the system of the civet, they can be “farmed” from the ground in cigar-sized stool pellets.  In order to, uh, ripen fully, the beans are left to sit for months before they are finally sanitized and ultimately roasted like normal coffee.  The entire convoluted process produces what many say is the “best tasting coffee in the world.”  Really?  We’ll be the judge of that, and judges we were on our plantation tour in Kalibaru (see “sights").

While we were not really seeking out “kopi luak” based on the NPR story, or the Duty Free ad, we certainly were not going to turn down an offering, especially if it made to us at the tail-end (no pun intended) of a tour that saw its termination at the personal home of our guide!  There, Heru and Herman showed us a couple of baskets of the coffee bean varieties, including robusta, arabica, and yes kopi luak.  Heru’s wife arrived shortly thereafter with a pot of coffee at the ready.  She served us a few cups accompanied by some delicious pisang goreng.  Since Set of Drifters Doug is such a coffee fiend, he dove right in, only discovering after downing the entire cup that our first tasting was the infamous kopi luak!!

We must admit the flavor of the coffee was smooth, rich and without any of the bitterness you might expect stateside at your local diner.  So what gives?  Scientific meanderings tell us that the physical enzyme processes that take place within the palm civet’s bowel soften the acidity of the beans and bring out special flavors that would not have existed otherwise.  And if the long litany of medical wonders written on a piece of paper handed to us held any truth at all, this stuff is also a wonder drug that can both increase male potency as well as a mother’s ability to produce milk!

By now you must be pondering exactly what we were after our plantation tour experience.  Who came up with this insane idea in the first place?  We asked Herman who immediately picked up the slack with his tale.

A few hundred years ago the head of East Java’s government supposedly forbade the farming of coffee plants for personal consumption.  Because he and his colleagues so enjoyed their “caffeine fix,” they demanded that all beans from the countryside be sent directly to him, leaving none for the average villager.  One day, a local farmer noticed palm civet pellets littering his field.  The coffee beans encrusted inside were just as obvious as roasted peanuts - if you catch our drift...  Since there was no longer any way the farmer could harvest coffee for himself, he decided to clean off, and brew, the soiled beans he found out in the field, beans that the King would surely not desire.

And yet one day, on a tour of the countryside, the King passed by the same village and smelled a rich aroma from the kopi luak wafting through the air.  It was a scent that was certainly stronger and more well-balanced than his own coffee that had now made its way into the larger towns and cities of East Java.  The King asked the local villagers where the smell was coming from and they revealed to him the unusual means by which they were still able to produce coffee.  After asking to try the kopi luak, the King liked what he tasted.  Still, he was ashamed to admit it, and from then on, imported the beans secretly from the countryside.  From then on, kopi luak became a delicacy that only the richest and most prominent East Javanese could obtain.

After Herman had finished the entirely plausible story, he admitted that he may have made it up completely!  And so the mystery remains...

After we purchased a few pounds of beans as presents, our plantation tour guide Heru was kind enough to give us a few extra bags of a kopi luak/ arabica mix that we have yet to find a special occasion for.  If you are inclined, kopi luak can be readily purchased throughout East Java at prices well below what you’ll pay for imported beans back home.

Set of Drifters tip:  You can also find kopi luak at a number of tourist and souvenir shops, marketed in some rather humorous packaging.  But buyer beware!  The cheaper stuff you find at souvenir shops may not be 100% kopi luak, or as a restaurateur in Bali informed us, may be the product of caged palm civets who don’t have the freedom to go out and pick the best beans after all!  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Coffee Corner (Jogyakarta)

By now, you must know that your “Set of Drifters” love their caffeine.  (See above for the lengths to which we will go to obtain the substance!)  Particularly when jet-lagged, there is nothing quite like a good steaming cup of the coffee to get you going.  And of course, when in Java one must drink... well, you get the point!

While waiting for the start of our trip to Borobudur, we happened upon a cute little place just around the corner from New Superman’s losmen.  (It was the mini-“gang” in between gangs I and II.)  We had seen the “Coffee Corner” in passing the night prior but it was closed for the evening.  Since we still had about 15 minutes to kill before our mini-van journey, we stopped inside for a caffeine re-fill.

Delicious indeed were the offerings from Coffee Corner.  While we waited about 10 minutes for their completion, our Vanilla Latte and Cappuccino were served in large glass vessels that proved the proprietor cared much about attention to detail.  (It’s always nice to have a good coffee supplemented with good presentation, particularly in such a far-flung locale.  So often, crappy watered down attempts at a ‘cino are served in a bland paper cup.)

Judging from the size of Coffee Corner, it’s clear that this is a one-off in Yogya.  If you are looking for a nice place to relax, you could do a lot worse.  Just make sure to bring some tissues for the toilet.  (See "essentials" from our Buenos Aires report for more information.)

Coffee Corner - Sosrowijayan Wetan (Gang PTPM), Yogyakarta  55271