It’s not everyday that a bag of sh*t falls into your lap.
Let me explain.
A wholesale client of ours recently returned from a trip to Bali. Being a well-intentioned coffee enthusiast, he generously brought us a bag of Kopi Luwak. Aka civet coffee. Aka the cat sh*t coffee.
The allure of this notoriously expensive coffee has nothing to do with the climate or elevation in which it’s grown. Nothing to do with cultivar. Rather, its fame resides in a very specialized form of processing. First, a small, cat-like animal called the civet eats coffee cherries, which ferment while passing through the civet’s digestive system. Once excreted, the indigestible seeds or coffee beans are picked from the feces in all their ooey-gooey glory.
(Note: You should be grossed out. Please, be grossed out.)
In the coffee industry, it’s common knowledge that Kopi Luwak is little more than marketing hype. By most accounts, it tastes like the thing from which it came (remember, that thing is poop). That’s because the coffee is rewarded with high prices based on civet processing and little else. Not cup quality, not growing conditions, not traditional processing or varietal. But because of wildly outlandish prices and movies like The Bucket List, Kopi Luwak carries mystique and novelty that many people find attractive. That’s because Kopi Luwak is more than a coffee, it’s an event. Good, great, or horrible, it’s a story you tell friends.
Ironically, you can say similar things about a coffee that many specialty connoisseurs revere above all else. A coffee that often demands outrageously high prices. A coffee you tell your friends about, and somewhere in the story is how much you paid for this illustrious bean. Of course, we’re talking about Geisha, a rare coffee varietal typically grown at extremely high elevation. While Geisha often yields what coffee professionals consider a superb cup, I think we can agree there’s a certain amount of mystique and novelty about it as well.
The opportunity to pit these two monsters of marketing against one another is rare. And what better arena to showcase the showdown than our weekly public cupping? Let the people speak. Is Geisha really that good? Is Luwak really that bad? How did they compare to a typical cup of specialty grade coffee?
To answer these questions, we assembled a diverse table of coffees: a Kenya Gichuka, the Kopi Luwak, a Costa Rica Honey, a Guatemala Geisha, and Temple’s Panama La Esmeralda Geisha, a coffee produced by the most famous coffee farm in the world.
While it was important to taste these coffees blind, we prefaced the cupping by informing our 20 or so attendees that indeed they’d be tasting a coffee that came from the southside of a civet. Leave now or forever hold your peace type of thing.
Turns out, we had an adventurous crowd. No one bailed. Game on.
The rules were simple: try each coffee, take a few mental notes, and select a few favorites. We also encouraged them to try and pick out the Kopi Luwak. Be it amazing or unpalatable, let’s see if it stands out in someway.
The cupping proceeded with a mix of modest slurps, spit cups, and a little Coltrane to set the mood. I knew where the Kopi Luwak coffee was on the table, so I secretly watched the faces of the attendees when they tried it. Either they all had phenomenal poker faces or it wasn’t horrible enough to involuntarily convulse.
Once the tasting concluded, we pointed to each coffee on the table and asked, by a show of hands, which was their favorite. Aside from a few hands here and there, all the action took place when we reached the juggernauts on the table.
Pointing to the Kopi Luwak, we asked, “Who liked this one best?”
No hands. Zero, zilch, nada.
Pointing to the Esmeralda Geisha, “Who liked this one best?”
It wasn’t even close. Half the people in attendance raised their hand.
Game, set, match: Geisha by a landslide.
We asked the attendees to describe the Luwak. “Musty.” “Weird.” “An encyclopedia of roasting defects.” “Rancid barbeque sauce.” “Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water.” Ok, that last one was Washington Post’s food writer Tim Carmen, but you get the picture. Clearly, in terms of cup quality or drinkability, this particular Kopi Luwak does not carry its weight in gold.
(On a side note, a few of us were mesmerized by the amount of oil that continually beaded to the top of the Luwak after scooping out the grounds. It just kept rising like some unidentifiable sewage.)
The Esmeralda Geisha, however, was described as “full of life.” “Maybe the best coffee I’ve ever had.” “Fruity, floral.” “Like nothing I’ve ever tasted in coffee.” Just my humble opinion, but these types of coffee experiences are worth the pretty penny. They’re memorable in pleasant ways. They escape the savage exoticism of Luwak while retaining genuine, justifiable excitement and wonder.
We held this cupping to dispel myths. To challenge hype. As specialty coffee grows, inevitable is the inclusion of big marketing dollars and six-dollar-burger like campaigns that attempt to cash in on an expanding market. Our attendees walked away with very solidified opinions about at least one such gimmick. They also walked away with that rancid bathtub taste still in their mouths, because holy crap, that stuff stays with you a while.