Coffee & Cocoa & Civets? Oh, my!
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
“Do we have enough time for the waterfall?”
I asked but no one in the car seemed really into it. Not even the driver, who responded with a “Mmm yes–” one of those Asian yesses, not the more definitive yes of the West.
But this was typical of the way we traveled, and now we were driving away from the Pura Besakih temple in Bali. All of our excursions thus far were more or less random, and this one started by picking one of the “top visited” places from whatever brochure the front desk had at the time and cruising the beach to find a reasonably-priced driver to escort us at the last moment. Now we were continuing our adventure … or not. But I suppose true randomness would stop excursions just as easily as it could start them.
The driver did his best to explain what we already knew, that the waterfall was not exactly on the way back to the hotel, but only “more or less so.” Still, to only visit the temple on our whirlwind trip seemed less than epic. It was a pleasant enough day, despite the patchy gray of general rainclouds and high humidity of tropical heat, and driving down the jungle mountain made me determined to not give up on the nature-filled interior of Indonesia just yet. “Do you have any suggestions? What would recommend on the way back? A different waterfall? A rice paddy terrace? Something with … nature.” I made small swooping circles with my hands, if that would help clarify the word “nature” by indicating the palms and trees we were passing by.
“Do you want to go to coffee farm?” the driver asked. It was nearly apologetic. The whole conversation was taking about twelve minutes by this point.
In the back seat, one friend shrugged to say yes, the other voicing “Mmm sure.” Yeah, I said. Actually, I was happy to do so. Coffee is, after all, the ambrosia that fills my veins.
The timing was conveniently good. After a few short minutes, we had pulled into a shoulder of the road facing a wall of trees and bushes. The road continued along the wall of vegetation for some distance, in either direction, and you’d be hard pressed to notice the small wooden building somewhere beyond the berm. We were greeted by Balinese smiles of the women emerging to the road and the driver explained this was the family of his friend and this was their farm. Of course it was.
The path into the farm emerged from somewhere among the berm, and we began a slow descent down lazy, packed-dirt switchbacks. The head lady was proud to point out several of the trees and plants along the way– between her heavy accent, the driver’s also-heavily-accented explanations of her heavy accent, and the water-stained hand-printed signs, we understood we were under a canopy of coffee, cocoa, as well as coconut, figs, cashew, sandalwood, teak, and more.
We were brought to the end of the trail after a mere 50 feet. Although I was expected a vast acre or so of trees carefully lined to be efficiently cultivated, in fact, the “farm” was built into the side of the mountain, which blended in with the rest of the valley wall. There were other farms, of sorts, nearby, as families tilled up and down the valley as best they could. It was all clearly as “mom and pop” as you could get. Suddenly, we realized we were in a tourist trap, but not of the heavily commercialized variety, with a constant stream of tour busses. Here was one driver, with a connection to a family that supplemented their income by raising a variety of herbs, fruits and nuts. It was less a coffee farm per se, but I suppose telling tourists you would be visiting a “coffee garden” does not hold the same excitement.
Obviously, we as tourists were, in general, expected despite the fact we, specifically, arrived unexpectedly. Carefully-wrapped containers were now opened to reveal samples of seeds and berries that were collected and used by the farm as our tour hastily continued. We even were given a chance to pick a cocoa bean from the fruit and eat it directly. Another family member started to roast some raw coffee beans for our benefit to demonstrate the line of production.
And, of course, they proudly displayed their prized sample– dried animal poop that was dotted with coffee beans.
It’s part of the process of making “Kopi Lowak,” or coffee made from beans that pass through the Asian palm civet, a catlike, weasel-like … uhm, civet. As the coffee digests in the animal’s stomach, the claim is that it enhances/ferments the bean to create a richer tasting coffee. The scarcity, and sensationalism, of Kopi Lowak makes it exceedingly expensive but also a popular souvenir. This farm had two cages with one each, as I could see, and our hosts took pains to point out the process was safe and healthy. (It’s a consistently economic and ethical (“econethical?”) dilemma as many accuse Indonesian farms of force-feeding civets under inhumane conditions in order to produce essentially an overpriced novelty.)
Finally, we were taken upstairs of a bamboo and thatched building. The terrace offered a spectacular view of the valley, and you’d forget there were supposed to be family farm-gardens throughout. Having lived and traveled extensively through Asia, we were perhaps more nonplussed about all this “exotic” environment and products, which did not deter the hosts from trying to explain what was assumed to be unfamiliar to us. For example, when samples of coffee and tea were served to us, it was repeated pointedly that there was no sugar or milk in them but we could add them if we wanted. No problem for us. Really. It’s OK.
The same assurances and pointed questions were used when asking if we would sample the Lowak coffee, even though the tasters in this case would not be free, perhaps about a US$1.00. We looked at each other with the same open expressions. Of course. We hope to. Really. Let’s try it.
The coffee was dark and rich, deeply flavored and astringently bitter. There was an undertone of earth and plant. After the sharp bitterness passed after the first sip, the aftertaste mellowed into a vaguely startchy sweetness. At the risk of too much pretension, perhaps, the Kopi was in between the thick richness I found in the Turkish coffee I had in London and the bold deepness of the siphon brew I had in Taipei. Now, was this due to the digestive process of a vaguely weasel-like animal, the pour-over process of over-roasted beans? That would require a lot more testing (and purchase power) than I am able to provide. All of that to say, it was surprisingly good, but maybe not US$100/kilogram kind of good. If you have a chance to taste it, though, go for for it.
With our tasters sampled at a leisurely and appreciative pace, we dutifully exited through the gift shop, making a few purchases, as appropriate. As tempting as it would be to arrive home with a package of Kopi Lowak to display on my shelf, I instead opted for the more sensible and practical package of cocoa powder.
With gracious smiles and gratuitous thank yous, we made our way back to the hired car. The sun never managed to shine directly behind the grey sky, but you could tell it was ready to meet the horizon soon. Most of the way back was ridden in silence, each of us confident that we could check off the cultural and nature-y bullet points on our list and be ready for the remainder of our Bali trip. We continued our drive out of the natural Ubud area and into the sprawl of Kota … a more urban kind of jungle with “wild” life more appropriate for a story at another time.