Solo, Indonesia—I’ve been traveling to this country since the 1980s, have made a number of friends along the way, but—at the risk of sounding impersonal—it’s the amazing creatures I remember the most.
This trip would be no exception, as I was introduced to a mongoose-like animal called the luwak, “producer” of the world’s most expensive coffee, selling for an astonishing $50 a cup and $1,000 a kilo, depending on where you live and whether or not you can even find it.
You may have heard about this coffee on the Oprah show, seen Jack Nicholson sip it in The Bucket List movie or read about it in one of the foodie magazines. Some members of the British royal family reportedly start the day with a cup or two.
To get to the source of this mysterious brew, I went to a mountain top in Central Java and met with Ardhi Wiji Utomo, owner of a coffee “ranch” containing 25 luwaks. “They are little live coffee machines,” he chuckled.
Luwak is the Indonesian name for the Asian palm civet, a small cat-like animal with sharp teeth, a long tail and weasel eyes. Luwaks are nocturnal creatures and gorge on only the finest red coffee cherries.
In the digestive process, fermentation takes place. Scientists claim that luwaks have unique enzymes that add special flavor to the beans. The enzymes also remove some of the caffeine and reduce the proteins that make coffee bitter.
So each day the animals’ excretions are collected, and the beans removed, cleaned and dried until they’re ready for the roaster.
Ardhi, one of the major coffee “ranchers” in Indonesia, said his luwaks produce about 50 kilos a month. He sells the bulk to wholesalers (he wouldn’t divulge the price), and the coffee ends up in luxury hotels and gourmet coffee shops throughout the world. You can also buy it online, including on Amazon.
In my home city of Montreal, one coffee dealer was selling luwak coffee for $300 a kilo. That’s less than it would cost straight from the luwak in the Indonesian mountains. Which makes one wonder, how can you be sure it’s the real thing?
Massimo Marcone, a food scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, can answer that. He claims that almost half of the Luwak coffee sold around the world is either “adulterated or a complete fake.”
But Marcone also studied the beans that passed through the luwaks and concluded that the special enzymes in the animals definitely improved the flavor of the coffee.
Back at Ardhi’s coffee ranch, I sampled two cups of the real stuff. One had a little honey mixed in with the ground beans. It was smooth, velvety and tasty. The second cup had nothing added. It seemed a little harsher, like a cross between espresso and Turkish coffee.
Ardhi also had one domesticated luwak that he called Rajah Kofi (The Coffee Prince). I was able to pick it up and pet it as I would a puppy. The average luwak lives 10 years; Ardhi said he would domesticate another one to replace the Prince when the time comes.
Six luwaks were kept in cages on the property for viewing by tourists, and the rest were in a confined, fenced area with plenty of coffee trees to graze on. Ardhi said he rotated the caged animals into the open, confined area monthly.
In addition to those in Java, there are luwak ranches in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua, about 20 in all of Indonesia. The Philippines and Vietnam also produce their own versions of the brew, but the crème de la crème is produced in Java and Sumatra.
But the luwak population is dwindling, and less and less of the pure coffee is being produced each year. As production falls, prices rise because of the rarity, and the markup begins to match that of a drug dealer.
Discovery of luwak coffee dates back to the 1800s, when Indonesia was under Dutch rule. Coffee became scarce as much of it was sent back to The Netherlands, and Indonesians were not allowed to pick the beans for their own use.
However, the natives observed the luwaks eating only the very best beans, so they collected the droppings, extracted and cleaned the beans just as they do today and found a way to have their coffee without breaking any Dutch rules.
And so the luwak now joins my list of strange Indonesian animals, a list that includes the Sumatra rhino, the tiny sun bear, the even tinier tarsier monkey (about the size of your ring finger), pigs with beards, snakes that fly from tree to tree, full-grown deer the size of dogs and the one and only Komodo dragon.
With over 17,000 islands splashed across the South Pacific, there most certainly are many more freaky creatures waiting in the wings.
But getting to this exotic part of the world isn’t easy. You can figure on 36 hours of travel time each way. I flew Cathay Pacific from Toronto to Jakarta, which enabled me to spend a few days in Hong Kong on the return.
It was another one-hour flight to the medium-size city of Solo, where we began our Central Java tour, using Solo as a base, staying at a boutique hotel, De Solo, at about $40 a night, including breakfast.
I took day tours to Jojga, also known as Yogyagarta, renowned for its batik making and Javanese fine arts; Semerang, the capital city of Central Java and site of Borobudur, a huge Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century; and finally, a four-hour ride into the mountains to visit the luwaks.
Solo, population about 500,000, is less touristy than either of the other cities. In fact, there is no tourist area. Most of the visitors are Hollanders searching for their roots.
Consequently, old customs are preserved in Solo. You will not see many factories, but in each neighborhood, called a Kampung, products are being made by hand—bird cages in one section, paper products on another street, batik making on another, and so forth.
The artisans, mostly women, work on consignment for the city shops. They’ve been working at home like this for hundreds of years, taking care of their families at the same time.
The ride through the countryside to the luwak ranch was another tour in itself—past tobacco farms, cotton fields, people on foot and motorbikes toting huge loads of products on their heads. At times the motorbikes were completely covered, making it appear the products were moving by themselves.
Around one bend, I saw seven ducks, all in a row, single file, obediently following a woman along the side of the road, as though she were Mama Duck.
One village, Temanggung, featured black chickens with black piercing eyes and totally black flesh. Everyone said they tasted the same as ordinary chickens, but I never found out the reason for the coloration.
Must be another story there somewhere.
For Central Java and Solo, try www.indonesia-tourism.com/
For Cathay Pacific, cathaypacific.com
For De Solo Hotel, desolohotel.com
For Ardhi’s Luwak Ranch, you’d have to go there. He has no website, just a phone 62-293-491260.