BROADWAY — “No two sips of kopi luwak are alike,” says J.C. Ho, owner of Funnel Mill on Broadway. “As the temperature drops, the flavor changes dramatically from a very bold, chocolatey, smoky, chicory flavor to fruity and sweet. There is nothing like it.”
He is leaning forward in his seat, clenching his fist as he says it, staring off into the distance as if he’s tasting it in his head.
This coffee is so rare and so special that you have to make an appointment for Ho to brew it. It costs $90 a cup. Each week, he said, he gets dozens of calls about it and sells about four cups.
It’s probably also important to mention that it’s made from Indonesian animal poop. Civet (or luwak) poop to be exact.
The animals that make Funnel Mill’s kopi luwak live on the south Indonesian island of Sumatra (the locals call them luwaks, Ho said). They look like a mix between a cat and a squirrel. They eat the coffee berries, which ferment in their enzymes and stomach acids, and then deliver their gift to the world. It’s collected and shipped to coffee fanatics for extremely high prices.
Coffee is a $30 billion industry in the U.S. according to a recent article in Forbes. About 83 percent of U.S. adults drink coffee. Kopi luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, and it’s hard to find.
Only kopi luwak from Sumatra is legitimate kopi luwak, Ho said, and Funnel Mill is the only cafe in the country serving authentic kopi luwak, he said.
The Daily Press was not able to confirm that claim.
It is certainly rare. There’s a coffee shop in San Gabriel that sells it for $20 a cup. Ho claims that, because of its scarcity, real kopi luwak can’t be sold for such a low price. (A recent article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tackles the issue of authenticating kopi luwak.)
Traci Dutton, of the Culinary Institute of America, explained that kopi luwak, like any luxury item, could be hard to certify.
“I think because it’s such a unique process, it’s hard to regulate,” she said. “It’s animal pooh, so it may be being counterfeited.”
Funnel Mill, which opened in 2005, is much more than just kopi luwak. It serves a collection of some of the rarest teas and coffees in world. Ho and his wife, Teresa Chiang-Ho, are like the Willy Wonkas of coffee and tea. But the product they’re most known for, their Everlasting Gobstopper, is the kopi luwak.
One Yelp reviewer describes it as “classical music in a cup.”
Ken Kokin, who was sitting near a poster of a luwak reading a newspaper while sitting on a coffee cup toilet, has tried kopi luwak a couple times.
“I like it,” he said, laughing. “I thought it was weird. I mean the poster with the animal on it is a little strange.”
Ho survives off of his regulars. Those who purchase the kopi luwak are chief among them. It’s the most mentioned item on Funnel Mill’s Yelp page.
At $90 a cup, it’s the most expensive cup of coffee that Dutton has ever heard of. But is it the best coffee in the world?
“Sometimes things taste better when they’re rare and expensive,” she said. “When you’re tasting something that’s a once in a lifetime experience, your senses might open up a little bit more.”
Dutton has never tried kopi luwak but, she said, there are sound reasons why it might actually taste better than mass produced coffee. The luwaks have likely evolved to select the best fruit, she said.
“They are the experts of flavor of coffee beans in that form,” Dutton said. “They’re good little coffee machines.”
Getting his hand on his most well-known product is not easy, Ho said. He’s paid up to $980 for a pound.
“Everybody in the world wants it,” he said. “The biggest purchaser is still Europe. I’m a small guy. My pockets are not quite as deep as these big players. When they buy, they buy the whole thing up.”
Ho often reaches out to other buyers when the distributor’s supply runs out. He’ll e-mail an Italian coffee shop, asking if he can buy a pound from them.
There’s another reason why his kopi luwak overhead is so expensive (and this is not a bad joke about eco-friendly Santa Monica): Ho only buys turds from free-range luwaks.
Animal rights advocates, including PETA, protest kopi luwak sellers. They’ve documented caged civets, forced to do nothing but eat and poop all day long.
Ho says he’s spent hours trying to explain to animal rights groups that the luwak from which he derives his coffee roam free, eating and pooping as they please. He puts a collection jar out in front of the cash register for donations to charities that fight animal cruelty.
Putting the pot on
In 2001, Ho was working as an I.T. quality controller and his wife was a design director. They knew very little about coffees and teas but they divvied up the tasks and began to learn. Ho took coffee and Chiang-Ho took teas.
They maxed out their credit cards traveling the world looking for the best. They toured farms and took classes. They spoke to locals in nameless tea shops in Taiwan and India.
Nearly five years later, they opened their doors, selling rare brews like Jamaican Blue Mountain #2 and Taiwan Winter Jasmine.
They buy directly from distributors, Ho said, because they’ve seen the labor that goes into the farming.
“Most farmers don’t use machines,” he said. “They pick with their hands on the steep slope on the side of a mountain. Tea farmers are poor.”
They don’t advertise, he said, and they’ve made a name for themselves by educating open-minded customers.
“I feel very comfortable here,” said Kokin, who doesn’t otherwise drink a lot of coffee. “It’s not like when you go to some place where they don’t really know you. One of the things that makes it special is the owners.”
If a customer is willing to listen, Ho said, he will talk endlessly about a coffee.
“We aren’t afraid to slow down a little bit,” he said. “We spend time and challenge the customer with both coffee and tea.”
Some customers have found the cafe too challenging. While it’s generally very well-reviewed, there are those that complain about the “no cell phone” policy. Others complain about the fact that for seasonal drinks Ho refuses to provide cream or sugar, which he says ruins the flavor.
“Remember the ‘Soup Nazi’? Well, here’s the coffee version,” reads one Yelp review.
It doesn’t phase Ho.
“Call me a Nazi. Call me a jerk. Call me whatever you want,” Ho said. “But when it comes down to it I’m saving you money. Why would you want to spend that much money on a cup of coffee and then ruin it?”
His open-minded customers appreciate his sensitivity, he said. Some customers complained that they couldn’t detect the nuttiness that was supposed to be present in a few of their teas. Ho realized it was because they were using aluminum to brew the teas instead of ceramic and he immediately switched over.
He has a German dish washing system that heats out all the residual flavors. He just returned his water filtration system. If water has too many minerals, coffee tastes dry. Too few minerals and it tastes acidic. Santa Monica water, he said, is better than anywhere else but is still not good enough.
“This is how we get repeat customers,” he said of his attention to detail. “It feels really good that the customer is as excited as you about this business.”