Exotic Procedures in Far Places: Aged, Monsooned and Luwaked Coffees
This month we review two of the world's more exotic coffee types - monsooned coffees from India and aged coffees from Sumatra - together with the novelty kopi luwak, a coffee famously processed via the digestive tract of a coffee-fruit-eating mammal, and, perhaps understandably given the procedures involved, currently the world's most expensive coffee.
Monsooned and aged coffees are both contemporary recreations of the low-acid, mildly musty coffees said to have been first created by shutting coffees in the damp holds of wooden sailing ships during long voyages to Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They are both created by taking traditional coffee types - dry-processed or "natural" coffees from India and traditionally processed coffees from Indonesia (Sumatra usually) - and subjecting them to further flavor modification through time and controlled exposure to air-borne moisture. Monsooned coffees are exposed to moisture-laden monsoon winds in open-sided warehouses along the southwest coast of India for three to four months, while Indonesian aged coffees are held in enclosed warehouses (usually in Singapore) in humid but otherwise protected conditions for two or more years.
Although the processes differ and the beans end up looking very different - puffy, smooth and pale in the case of monsooning, small, shriveled and dark in the case of aging - the impact on flavor tends to be roughly similar: major reduction of acidity, modest fattening of body and the addition of a musty character that can take on a variety of sensory guises, from spicy to cedary to smoky to chocolaty to grapefruity to - on occasion - just plain old damp closet musty. These are serious coffees, intriguing though unorthodox as single-origins and extremely useful for adding richness, complexity and authority to dark-roasted blends and espresso blends.
Kopi Luwak is by comparison a minor coffee sideshow, although an interesting one. It is included in this month's reviews because, however different the procedures involved in its creation, it shares certain sensory properties with monsooned and aged coffees and comes from the same general region of the world. And it appeals to the same fascination with the exotic and outré as aging and monsooning do.
The Reviewing Challenge
These three coffee types also present similar challenges to a coffee reviewer. I often point out that the closest coffee analogy to fine table wines is found in the very best of the pure and sweetly acidy wet-processed coffees of Latin America and East Africa. By comparison we need to search elsewhere for sensory analogies to the attractions of monsooned, aged and luwaked coffees: to beverages that embody characteristics that, rather than purity, express qualities of carnality, pungency and even decay: damp leaves, earth, leather, herbs, root vegetables, night flowers, candyish yet pungent sensations like butterscotch or gingerbread. The analogy is not perfect, but perhaps the closest analogies in the world of beverages are the more extreme single-malt whiskies and beverages like mescal and tequila.
The almost exclusive focus on Latin American wet-processed coffees by various grading, training and competition systems has encouraged a generation of cuppers many of whom may not have an adequate language to describe coffees whose pleasures are closer to tequilas and Islay whiskies than to merlots and Rieslings.
Out of necessity, however, I have developed such criteria and coffee purists reading this article should know that my criteria are conscious and consistent however odd they might sound in the context of Cup of Excellence competitions in Central America. Essentially, when evaluating such coffees I accept and look for their special sensory appeals: low acidity and the intensity and complexity of notes gotten through unorthodox practices that introduce mild mustiness and occasionally ferment. But I look for these characteristics displayed in an essentially refined and softened context, relatively free of harshness, astringency or hints of the rotten part of the compost pile. For example, I believe that there is something we can call "clean earth" - the softly rich, heady odor of freshly fallen leaves just beginning to turn to humus - as opposed to the sharp mildew notes one finds at the bottom of an abandoned pile of wet rags, a sensation that also is often described as "earthy."
What Kind of Musty?
By these criteria this month's aged and monsooned samples varied wildly in quality. At least two, a monsooned and an aged Sumatra - were virtually undrinkable. The monsooned was dead and rubbery and the Sumatra sickening in its sharp mustiness and rotten ferment. On the other hand, the high-rated Martinez Monsooned Malabar (91) displayed softly musty notes that read persuasively as smoky chocolate and together with hints of orange and dusk flowers were enveloped in a resonant sensory depth. Among the aged coffees, the highest-rated Roasterie 6 Monkeys Aged Sumatra (92) displayed the sweet but pungent orange and grapefruit notes that often develop when the best aged Sumatras are brought to a darker roast style, as here. The musty earth notes were backgrounded and clay-like, supporting the rich citrus.
Many of the other aged and monsooned samples for me teetered on the edge between positively musty and sharply musty. One of the best of these edgy musty coffees is reviewed here, the Aged Sumatra from Peet's Coffee (87). Judging from its regular appearance on Peet's store menus, a contingent of loyal customers buy this coffee regularly. Presumably they enjoy its powerfully musty character, perhaps valuing intensity over balance. On the other hand, I can't imagine anyone, no matter how swaggeringly attached to strong sensation, genuinely enjoying the most extreme musty samples among the monsooned and aged coffees we sourced. True, in coffee as in other more celebrated sensory pursuits there may be those who prefer flat-out pain to any pleasure whatsoever, but I can't quite get there myself.
What Determines the Difference?
What processes are responsible for creating distinctions between better and poorer samples of monsooned and aged coffees? Clearly mistakes can be made in the monsooning or aging processes that could intensify the musty notes and imbalance the coffees. Monsooned coffees need to be regularly taken out of the bags, spread, raked, and rebagged, for example. Aged coffees remain in the bags throughout the aging process, but the bags need to be periodically rotated and restacked to maintain uniform moisture levels throughout the lot.
However, a more important factor in determining excellence in the final product may be the quality of the coffee that goes into the monsooning and aging warehouses to start with. Recall that monsooning, for example, begins with dry-processed coffees, coffees dried inside the fruit. Most Indian dry-processed coffees are produced from fruit rejected by the wet-processing mills, whereas the best monsooned coffees are produced from what Indians call "whole-crop cherry" - sound, ripe fruit selected from the heart of the harvest. This, I suspect, is the reason the Martinez monsooned coffee is so relatively refined. This dry-processed coffee went into the monsooning warehouses clean and sound to start with, and monsooning simply complicated and deepened the original character of the coffee.
And Now About that Kopi Luwak?
Well, does it taste like it? No. Does it smell like it? No, at least not after roasting. Is the coffee safe to drink and handle? The final product certainly should be safe after having been exposed to 400F+ temperatures for ten or more minutes in a roasting machine. And at least one study (Kopi luwak coffee safe, U of G study finds) reassures us that tested samples of dried unroasted kopi luwak beans had lower bacterial count than samples of conventional green beans.
Furthermore, I think that we need to acknowledge that a fruit-eating animal is in fact a quite plausible picker and processor of coffee. I assume that luwaks - omnivores a little bigger than house cats but resembling American raccoons - prefer to eat ripe fruit. Most fruit-eating animals do, including humans and the squirrels that keep poaching my backyard persimmons. In fact, luwaks may have even more pressing and personal reasons to pick only ripe fruit than human pickers do, whose motivations are equally as urgent but less direct. Secondly, recall that a natural process resembling digestion - loosening of the coffee fruit flesh by bacteria and enzymes - is a key step in traditional wet processing of coffee. Given all of that, it would seem that, however bizarre the luwak procedure may sound, there is a certain coffee-oriented logic to it.
Lush Floral and Orange
And it is a procedure that does seem to net a cup profile dramatically to subtly different from the profiles for other, non-luwaked Sumatra coffees. The samples sourced from roaster and Internet retailer Luwak Coffee were particularly unusual and distinctive. Roasted to levels commonly termed medium, both samples from Luwak Coffee displayed a soft acidity and almost startlingly lush floral and orange notes, together with earth hints that suggested actual contact with decaying leaves rather than the variants on mustiness we call earthy. Unfortunately, another note that I ended calling raw nut contributed what to me was an unpleasantly vegetal sweetness to the profile. I considered boosting the ratings for these samples above 90 to honor their darkly tropical, orange-blossom opulence, but I resisted, given the distraction of the raw nut note. This note may have been exaggerated by lack of full roast development at the centers of the beans. There was an unusually large difference between Agtron machine readings of roast color of whole and ground beans for these samples, suggesting that luwaked coffees are tough and may resist roasting heat.
Darker Roasted and Different
The luwaked arabica samples from dealer, roaster and Internet retailer Animalcoffee showed some overlap with the Luwak Coffee samples in sensory character, but ultimately were different and more conventionally Sumatran in their profile: musty/earthy and rather heavy in presence, with the musty/earthy notes turning toward an attractive cocoaish dark chocolate. They also displayed orange-like notes, and occasionally a very slight shadow of what I am calling raw nut character. The distinction between the Luwak Coffee and Animalcoffee samples may well be owing to differences in degree or darkness of roast, given the Animalcoffee samples were much darker roasted than those from Luwak Coffee. Of course, and more intriguingly, there also could be differences in the variety and terroir of the coffee trees the two teams of luwaks feed on.
The Authenticity Issue
Were the kopi luwak samples we reviewed authentic? Not having shadowed the luwaks, I can't say. Certainly the people operating Luwak Coffee and Animalcoffee appear genuinely engaged in and informed about what they are doing and reassuring in the rigor of their business practices. Elsewhere, however, scams and fakes are said to abound. Troy Davis of Animalcoffee particularly impressed me with his openness and his knowledge of the kopi luwak processes.
Finally, there is the possibility that people may have begun farming luwaks (they are often kept as pets), shutting them in pens and feeding them coffee fruit rather than roaming about gathering the scats of wild luwaks in coffee groves. Troy Davis of Animalcoffee persuasively doubts this possibility:
I had two luwaks that I kept at my house as pets for a few years and I was unable to get them to eat coffee cherries in any great quantity. Of an entire bucket I offered them they would sniff through the cherries and only eat one or two, leaving the rest. I ended up feeding them bananas, chicken, eggs, everything but coffee cherries! I read all sorts of things on the Internet about their being farmed but I don't actually believe it is possible unless you were to do it "foie gras" style and force feed them, [but] even then I would be doubtful. Luwaks are slightly bigger than cats and quite strong, not at all docile like geese. I expect they would injure themselves and die within a short period of time if you were to try to keep them as foie-gras geese are kept.
By the way, I don't think Troy's testimony should be taken as casting doubt on the potential appetite of wild luwaks for coffee fruit, since to my understanding versatile omnivores like luwaks tend to opportunistically occupy whatever local environmental niches are available. In other words, if you are a luwak born among coffee trees eating coffee cherries you keep eating them, even though your plump domesticated cousins in town may be holding out for bananas and chicken.
But, as the cliché goes, only the luwaks know for sure. Big spenders will not be entirely disappointed by the exotic character of these luwaked coffees, and for those of more modest means the higher-rated aged and monsooned selections should offer similarly exotic sensory excitement, if fewer opportunities for jokes.
Luwaked Robustas, Espresso and the Next Wave of Animal-Processed Coffees
I need to conclude this already overly long article with two final sets of observations.
Since Sumatra produces more coffee of the robusta species than of the arabica, both of the kopi luwak sellers reviewed here offer all-robusta as well as all-arabica versions of their luwaked beans, each set of beans presumably gathered from the production of luwaks resident in groves of trees of one species or the other.
Cupped as the equivalent of drip or French-press coffee, these luwaked robusta samples were absolutely undrinkable. This is not the luwaks' fault, as robustas from Sumatra are hardly the world's best. However, given that robustas show best as espresso, I took the least offensive of the samples, an Animalcoffee sample roasted very dark, and prepared and evaluated it as espresso. It was round and sweet and rather attractive as a straight shot (reviewed here with an espresso rating of 84), less so in milk. But if you are experimenting with one of these coffees I suggest you start with one of the medium-roasted Luwak Coffee arabica offerings brewed as French press or drip.
Finally, it appears that additional animal-processed coffees are about to join kopi luwak on the pricy end of the novelty coffee shelf. A farm in Brazil has introduced jaco-bird coffee, gathered from droppings of the jaco, a large, shy, charmingly clumsy Brazilian bird that inhabits, among other places, coffee farms. At present this coffee is only available as green on some home roasting sites. And in Taiwan, we have monkey-spit coffee, from a species of monkeys (Formosan rock monkeys) who chew on coffee fruit and spit out the seeds. Stay tuned and get out your pocket books.